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Stand Up and Step Aside

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May 8, 2012 by Steve Winkler

It’s time for West Fork’s Water and Wastewater Utility Commission Chair Virgil Blackmon to step down.  Under his leadership the commission has moved from being cited and fined for violation of the Freedom of Information laws to actually being unable to state with any certainty how many members are even on the Commission.   West Fork citizens deserve engaged and informed leadership.

The commission started in the early seventies with three commissioners serving eight year terms. They were minimally involved in oversight of the water and wastewater functions of the city. At one point, they went almost two years without a meeting. Mr. Bartholomew was in charge of West Fork, serving as utility superintendent, business manager, inspector, planning department (there was a two year period without a Planning Commission) and had the last word on personnel matters, contracts, and day-to-day operations. The mayor and council were mostly decoration to give the whole charade the appearance of legitimacy.
After a few years of mismanagement beginning in 2006 the water department went broke. They ate through a quarter million dollars in operating funds, depleted the bond reserve and in a Friday after hours raid on the general fund were able to make payroll that week.  By then the long-time commissioners had run for cover and former mayor Blackmon was recycled to head the beleaguered department.  A 14 percent rate increase was passed.
The voters/residents/water customers wanted more accountability. A plan was presented, part of which called for a five member commission. Blackmon and everybody said they were good with that.  Soon a fourth member was installed.  But the fifth member never materialized even after several citizens offered to serve.
Why the commission under Blackmon’s leadership is reluctant to honor their own plan to have five members is anybody’s guess.  At the last meeting he suggested a three member commission with two “alternates.”  Alternates?
Now things are getting more complicated. It has come to light that even though the commission added a fourth member, they never revised their bylaws to allow that change.  Legally, they have three members.
Here’s where it starts looking a little goofy. The three member commission says they will move to five. They find a forth and have meetings with four members. They tell the council and city attorney that that is okay because the law says they can have three to five members. They do this with a straight face.
Now they realize, in the eyes of the law, they have three positions until they change the bylaws. So which of the four men who are listed as a member and has been coming to meetings is not on the commission?  We asked Bartholomew. He said it was up to the commission to decide.
Draw straws? Last in, first out?  Rock, paper, scissors?
This is a leadership problem. Virgil Blackmon has fallen short in demonstrating his willingness to be a good public servant by failing to conduct the people’s business in public, by not standing up for the principle of accountability and by simply not following the law.
The council can’t add a member but it does have the authority to remove a commission member.

Steve Winkler

Steve Winkler is the publisher and editor of the Observer. Email him at steve@wcobserver.com

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