December 15, 2012 by wcobserver
West Fork Council Meeting Recap: December 2012
By Steve Winkler
Council Considers Initiative
West Fork city officials finally confronted the 500 pound gorilla in the room; the Water and Sewer Initiative. That initiative which called for dissolving the current autonomous water and sewer commission and establishing a water department that would operate under direct oversight by the elected city government was approved by a two thirds majority of the voters in the November 6 General Election. Uncertainty ensued because an attachment containing specific details of a new ordinance was not included with the petition to place the initiative on the ballot. The council would need to draft and approve an appropriate ordinance in order to comply with the voters’ wishes.
City attorney Tom Kieklak addressed several of the council members’ concerns about the legal aspects of the process. He first clarified that the water system belongs to the city. “A flawed process [absence of an ordinance with the petition] doesn’t mean you can’t do something.” He advised that if the council ignored the majority of the voters in the election, he “fully expects proponents will consider legal action, perhaps a mandamus suit, and it is possible for a judge to say ‘do whatever it takes to make it happen’.” Misty Caudle commented, “We know what they [voters] want.” Julie Shafer agreed to that observation; even though she personally has reservations, she said she thinks the council ought to comply with the voters’ wishes.
Included in the Council packets was a sample ordinance that Mayor said appeared in her box. City attorney noted that his copy had a reference to Tonitown. Some council members appeared perplexed and questioned why they were expected to vote on an ordinance that didn’t originate with the city attorney. After it was determined that no vote was expected at that meeting, council members, representatives of the water commission, city attorney, utility superintendent and audience members discussed the issue.
Water Commission Chair Virgil Blackmon, said the voters weren’t given all the information they needed. Charlie Rossetti suggested there was not much “solid information “saying, “this whole thing could go south…none of this seems right,” and asked if there would be any financial liability for the city. Both alderman-elect Bill Sergeant and Butch Bartholomew raised questions about the ownership of water commission assets including property now occupied by Riverside Park.
In addition to invoiced communication between the city attorney and city officials regarding the initiative, the council was informed that the Water Commission had consulted a separate attorney, also.
Former City Clerk-Treasurer Paula Caudle cautioned the council; “Don’t get in a rush,” pointing out that there were many old ordinances related to the issue. Virgil Blackmon noted that the intent of a separate water commission was to prevent political influence and favors from corrupting the system. Bartholomew noted that the commission is “run like a private enterprise with no tax money involved.” Alderperson Joan Wright pointed out that it was tax money that was transferred to Water. [She was referring to an unauthorized transfer of $10,000 in May, 2011 to cover water payroll expenses. The transfer was later defined as a loan and along with $15,000 in additional funds that has been paid back to the city’s general fund].
The sample ordinance called for a Water Director “with no less than a civil engineering degree.” Anita Lowry questioned if the city could afford this.
Misty Caudle moved to draw up an ordinance to dissolve the commission and put water under city control. Joan Wright seconded. After much discussion, the ordinance failed. Most members preferred having a workshop to discuss the issues that can help them move forward before taking a course of action and on what language might be used in a new water and sewer ordinance. It was finally established that a workshop would be held January 24 to include council, mayor, commissioners, outside agencies, engineering firms, and a citizen from each of the four wards. Misty Caudle reiterated that the meeting would be open to the public.
Mayor’s Letter Discussed
Included in the council members’ packet was a copy of a letter addressed to Aldermen and Residents in which Mayor Hime clarified her position on the Water and Sewer Initiative and encouraged “the City Council to bring the Water and Sewer into the state’s Constitutional requirement to balance the budget.” She explained that her reasons were “based on audits for six years prior to the budget shortfall and borrowing of funds from the City.” She wrote that her concern as a public official “is that no alarms were raised in those six years and I am of the opinion that no government body, let alone a private company, should ignore the loss of tax-payer dollars.”
Mayor Hime also questioned Mr. Bartholomew’s answer to the council’s question about the availability of the Water/Sewer budget at the November 2010 meeting. At that time Mr. Bartholomew answered that the budget was with the Department of Agriculture. Hime’s letter stated, “According to my FOIA of financials from the Department of Agriculture for 2007 thru 2011, no financials had been sent for 2009 or 2010, and none were sent until March of 2011. In my opinion, no government body should avoid accountability to the tax-payer.”
Superintendent Bartholomew countered that “things in the letter were not correct” and said he would have the auditor at the next meeting. He offered that documents may have been lost, “they had personnel changes.” Charlie Rossetti requested documentation and objected to “seeing this kind of misinterpretation.”
Outgoing Police Chief and alderman-elect Mike Nelson apologized for not submitting his report but told the council that 14 charges have been filled against 3 separate burglars. He reported receipt of a $4,200 grant from the Department of Justice that was used for equipment. Chief Nelson requested and was allowed to keep his badge.
Utilities Superintendent Bartholomew who also did not have a report in the packet reported that the Water/Sewer Commission did not meet in November for lack of a quorum. He said the pre-application deadline for funding the sewer line to Fayetteville project is Friday. The project cost estimate is $5.2 million.
Mayor Hime asked Mr. Bartholomew about the cost of cleaning up the retention ponds at the sewer treatment plant. He said their estimate was $260,000 which will be rolled into the total cost of the sewer line project.
Moe Greenoe spoke during the Public Forum portion of the meeting noting that the “majority rules” and expressing hope that all parties will work together.
Outgoing council member Joan Wright shared some of her personal feelings of the joys and frustrations of serving on the City Council.
All council members except Rodney Drymon were present. The meeting adjourned at 8:35.
[Michele Winkler contributed to this article]