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SOUTHBRIDGE - On-the-job marijuana use was one of six reasons the town gave for firing an out-of-state vendor 13 months into a three-year contract to manage the state-owned, town-run pool on Randolph Street, the Telegram & Gazette has learned.
Employees of the vendor, USA Pools of Roswell, Ga., allegedly overcharged attendees of the Andrew J. Petro Memorial Swimming Pool and pocketed the extra money, according to the July 10 termination letter written by town counsel Robert G. Caprera, which the newspaper obtained from the town in response to a public records request.
USA Pools employees also allegedly used illegal drugs on the property; worked with minors without having received proper background checks; failed to maintain appropriate levels of pool maintenance chemicals on the work site; and failed to maintain proper levels of pool chemicals in the water.
Matt Satterly, USA Pools' president, did not return a phone message Thursday.
The company manages public pools throughout the country and finds employees who are local to those communities.
Independent of the termination letter, the newspaper also learned that USA Pools had employed as its pool manager Mario Z. Steele, a 27-year-old Worcester man who in 2013 was convicted in a Worcester court of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute.
Mr. Steele was sentenced last year to serve 30 days in the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction in West Boylston, and probation, according to the case file.
The police and town, forced to react after learning of the pool's safety issues, closed the facility earlier than usual on July 7 and reopened it July 15 with new employees.
According to Recreation Director Ron Plouffe, 12 lifeguards were hired, along with four people to man the gate and clean, and two managers. He said the new operation has had "no hitches."
Acting Town Manager Kevin Paicos on July 21 wrote a commendation letter on Mr. Plouffe's behalf for his work averting a disaster for the community.
His actions became "a wonderful example of how a community can respond to a crisis," the manager wrote.
On July 7, police went to the pool to investigate an anonymous complaint that workers smoked marijuana in the chlorine room, an allegation that proved to have merit, a police report said.
In addition, the tipster told police that only two of the employees were certified lifeguards; yet the certified workers never sat in the lifeguard chairs.
The informant went on to tell investigators that employees were "clocking in" when they weren't working, and money collected from customers was placed in a box that was labeled for food, but was used for other purposes, the police report said.
Upon investigators' arrival at the pool, a worker apparently used her walkie-talkie to alert whoever was in the pump room that police had arrived, police said.
A detective said he heard a loud shuffling inside the room, and a back door opened.
After he knocked several times and waited three to five minutes for someone to open the door to the small room, the detective said, the pool manager and another worker were inside the room, which smelled of chlorine and freshly burned marijuana.
Police Lt. Shane D. Woodson said in an interview police had not witnessed anyone overcharging patrons.
But he said he saw a board on which the fee for a pool day pass was listed as $5.
The town's official fee for a day pass is $4.
Lt. Woodson said he asked management about the price discrepancy and was told the employees were using the $1 difference to purchase soda and snacks to sell to pool patrons.
But those items weren't present when police arrived, and the company was not authorized to sell the products anyway, Lt. Woodson said.
Mr. Plouffe, in response to a question about the decision to seek an out-of-state vendor to run the pool, said the state, when it was completing its $3.2 million renovation of the pool last year, had asked if the town was interested in "taking over the pool" for three years.
The state offered to "subsidize" the operation, Mr. Plouffe recalled.
"At the time, the staff that we had in place decided that we really weren't in the pool business, and didn't have the expertise. So we did some researching and found USA Pools," which he referred to as "a big ticket down South."
Mr. Plouffe went on to say that last summer went "very well" using USA Pools.
But most of last year's staff didn't return, he said.
Elsewhere, the company has raised concerns.
According to the acting town manager, an official from Capitan, N.M., called Southbridge's recreation director to say that Capitan also had a bad experience with USA Pools.
According to Mr. Paicos, the New Mexico official called after reading about Southbridge's troubles with USA Pools.
In 2012, officials in Wooster, Ohio, met with USA Pools representatives, putting them on notice about their concerns and contractual shortfalls in the operation of the city's three pools, a story in the Daily Record said.
Meanwhile, Lt. Woodson said, the Southbridge police investigation has been concluded.
The termination letter by Mr. Caprera, the lawyer, stated that the town would seek from USA Pools "all of the money which it is due under the law for your company's breach of this contract."
The extent of monetary damages was unknown at the time of the lawyer's writing, the letter said.
Mr. Caprera said in an interview the town is trying to make the best of a bad situation.
"When you have an asset like that in the town, in the middle of the summer, and you hit this problem, it's like the last thing that anyone would want to have happen," he said. As of Tuesday, USA Pools had not responded to the lawyer's letter, Mr. Caprera said.
Contact Brian Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter at @BleeTG