Harrison County

Harrison Co. utility authority director left the job. Did he retire, or was he forced out?

The Harrison County Utility Authority, based in Gulfport, oversees wastewater treatement and other services for the county and its five cities.
The Harrison County Utility Authority, based in Gulfport, oversees wastewater treatement and other services for the county and its five cities. anewton@sunherald.com

The utility authority director for Harrison County has left his job after being accused of unethical conduct, but Donald Scharr denies any wrongdoing and said he is simply retiring.

His last day on the job was Friday. Scharr oversaw wastewater treatment and water systems for Harrison County and its five cities, plus garbage collection in all those localities except Gulfport.

An engineer is accusing Scharr of deceiving the Harrison County Utility Authority board in 2013 regarding the qualifications of companies competing for a multi-million dollar contract to operate and maintain the authority’s wastewater treatment plants and pump stations. The board is headed by two county supervisors and representatives from the county’s five member cities.

The engineer’s firm, Utility Partners, secured the contract because it submitted the lowest price of $3.8 million a year. But the contract is up for renewal and Utility Partners feared it might be at a disadvantage because of what firm members discovered about how the 2013 contract was handled.

Of the seven firms that submitted proposals in 2013, Utility Partners came in third on technical score. Two utility authority employees had given Utility Partners the lowest technical score it received, the company learned.

Utility Partners wanted to improve its technical score for the 2020 proposal. When a company representative contacted authority staff members they said that they did not score the 2013 contract proposals. They also signed statements saying they had not scored the proposals.

Complaint filed

Bobby Knesal, a Gulfport engineer who is senior vice president at Utility Partners, included the statements and other records in a complaint he filed against Scharr, also an engineer, with the Mississippi Board of Licensure for Professional Engineers & Surveyors.

Knesal said in his complaint that Scharr violated the rules of professional conduct requiring that engineers be truthful in all reports and statements. Knesal told the Sun Herald he did not want to comment on his complaint, which he did not share with the media company.

Scharr denies any wrongdoing. He sent a package to the state licensing board’s investigator to refute Knesal’s allegations, which Scharr said are “totally false.”

Scharr said in a letter to the investigator: “I have been a registered, professional engineer in Mississippi for 38 years with no prior accusations or complaints on my record. I fully recognize and adhere to my professional ethical responsibilities and fulfill my obligations to the public in the daily performance of my work.”

His package to the investigator included emails to show the two authority staff members had assisted the review committee with its work. Scharr said scoring sheets could not be located because of the time that has elapsed.

The two authority staffers told the authority board in a closed session in July that they had not scored the 2013 proposals. Scharr announced his retirement after the closed meeting, according to a letter Knesal included in his complaint to the engineering licensure board.

Utility Partners wanted Scharr to recuse himself from reviewing the 2020 contract proposals from four competing firms.

Scharr responds

In July, the board called Scharr into an executive session and also talked to the two authority employees during the lengthy closed meeting, Knesal’s letter to the engineering board said.

After the utility authority came out of executive session, Scharr, 63, announced he would retire in December. He told the Sun Herald on Friday that it was his last day at work because he had vacation time to take.

“I’ve got lots of things I’m ready to do,” he said. “I’ve got granddaughters. I’ve been working for 42 years. You’ve got to pick a time and I’ve picked it.”

Scharr has filed a response with the engineering licensing board to Knesal’s complaint, including emails showing that the two authority employees worked on the 2013 review of contract proposals.

He pointed out that Utility Partners was one of the two top overall firms he recommended the board consider after the committee’s review, and that Utility Partners was ultimately awarded the contract.

Utility Partners will by the end of 2019 have received at estimated $20.4 million from the contract and from contract extensions, which Scharr says he also recommended.

“I respectfully request that your investigative committee review the information I have provided and dismiss these false and unsubstantiated all complaints against my reputation as a professional engineer,” Scharr said in his letter to the licensure board’s investigator.

Anita Lee is a Mississippi native who specializes in investigative, court and government reporting. She has covered South Mississippi’s biggest stories in her decades at the Sun Herald, including the Dixie Mafia, public corruption and Hurricane Katrina, a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort. Nothing upsets her more than government secrecy and seeing people suffer.
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