January 26, 2013 by Steve Winkler
Water/Wastewater Work Session Seeks Answers
WEST FORK, JANUARY 26, 2013 – Dozens of concerned and curious citizens filled the conference room in city hall last Thursday night. The event, scheduled by the City Council at their December meeting, was billed as a work session to gather information and hear from various stakeholders regarding a ballot initiative passed by the voters in November. That initiative called for dissolving the existing private water and sewer commission and making that function a part of city government.
Proponents of the initiative, whether by design or oversight, did not attach an ordinance to the petition that allowed the initiative to be placed on the ballot. A two thirds majority of voters approved the measure. Absent an ordinance detailing the establishing of a water committee controlled by elected officials the council found itself faced with a choice.
Without an ordinance attached the initiative is considered by some to not be legally binding, although no court has ruled on the matter. From a legal perspective, the council may be able to just disregard it and move on. The political view, however, is that a significant majority of voters expressed their desire to make the change. The vote, described by one newspaper, as a “glorified opinion survey,” is nonetheless an indication of popular desire and creates an unavoidable political reality.
Who can speak?
The meeting began with an unexpected announcement by Mayor Frances Hime that she would hand the task of chairing the meeting over to Alderman Charlie Rossetti who had proposed having the workshop. Rossetti commented “a heads up would have been nice.”
Rossetti began by informing the audience that, “This is not a public forum. We have had a forum by the election.” “We have in essence the representatives in the aldermen. “ Rookie council member Shane Donahue commented, “I totally agree.” Rosetti’s decision to not allow comment by four unelected ward representatives contradicted a motion made and passed by the City Council in December 2012.
The original public announcement for the meeting said that the council would hear from council members, the water commission, lawyers, accountants, engineers and a volunteer representative from each ward. Rossetti said he considered the elected council members to be the ward representatives, therefore, comments from others would not be allowed. Former council member Joan Wright said from the floor that she had volunteered as the Ward 4 representative but was going to be denied an opportunity at that time to speak.
Later in the meeting, Wright, who is has publicly expressed support for dissolving the water commission was allowed to speak at the podium. Rossetti commented to her, “No crying.” She expressed dismay that she would not be able to participate in the meeting as had been decided at the December council meeting. Mr. Rossetti responded: “It wasn’t in my head that all people those [attorneys, engineers, commissioners…] would be here. This was to be organizational. It was a mistake on my part. No one as a volunteer can participate….it adds one more layer….It’s not going to add anything to the process. Neighbors need to go to their council members.” He went on to say, “If there had been better communication we wouldn’t be here doing this. This could have been resolved. There was such a lack of transparency, a lack of leadership.”
Wright said that she had, while serving as an alderwoman for Ward 4, been asked by constituents to attend noon meetings of the water commission. She went. Now she was being told she has no place at this meeting.
What is the Meeting’s Mission?
The purpose of the work session, Rossetti explained, was to “figure out the impact” and gather information on how the proposed change world affect city finances, bonds and the progress of the sewer line to Fayetteville.
Utility Superintendent Michael “Butch” Bartholomew
updated the council on the sewer line for the Fayetteville project. A resolution formalizing the city’s intent is needed for the loan application. He said an agreement was in place with McClelland Engineers, the city’s “engineer of record.” Council member Sarah Setzer asked who is doing the survey work and if bids had been taken on the project. City Attorney Tom Kieklak explained that bids on engineering services and attorneys are not permitted but bids can be taken on the construction phase of the project.
Former Police Chief and now Ward 4 Alderman Mike Nelson commented, “I am for what the people want us to do….is there an attorney who can tell us if we can or cannot do it?”
The city attorney outlined the legal options for any action the council might take. They are not bound to make the change but are not prohibited either. Kieklak said, “The city can make it happen…it would get done,” adding, “it’s not illegal to do it.” He pointed out that “it is the city that borrows money whether as commission or a department.”
Alderwoman Julie Shafer asked about the cost of making the change. Kieklak responded that there would be legal expenses, bond attorney expenses and some engineering paperwork. He estimated the change could take three months.
The city attorney also educated the workshop on how cities borrow money. Small loans of less than five years can be obtained from any lender. For large projects, an obligation bond is obtained from a company that specializes in finding large investors, private or government, who make multimillion dollar loans to a city. The money to repay the loan comes from an “income stream” such as the operation itself or from tax revenue generated from a tax such as a sales tax. That revenue is funneled to a bank trust which directs the funds to bond repayment before it reaches the city’s general fund. While the Water Commission may be authorized to spend the money, it is the City Council that would pass a Bond Ordinance and it is the city that is responsible to repay it.
During the two hour meeting several topics were repeatedly addressed. What will be different if the Council handles the water and sewer business? A city, i.e. publicly controlled water committee would not have an independent budget as the water commission currently does. The taxpayers would have more control over a committee. The revenue from water bills would go to the city, not the private commission. “A commission is more independent, “like a small government,.” Kieklak said.
Regarding the water commission employees, specifically “whether any of those jobs could be changed or be in danger,” Kieklak said that “nothing could get changed without council action” and indicated that their jobs are secure.
When asked about how a committee or commission in control would affect the water/sewer operation, Bartholomew said, there “wouldn’t be any difference.”
Three water commissioners addressed the meeting. Mike Mitchell said he would comply with whatever is decided. Commissioner Joe Toher, a construction professional, pointed out that water commissioners were all volunteers, serving without pay to help their city. Commissioner Frank Adams also pointed to the volunteer aspect and asked “What are the Benefits?” of changing to a city controlled water department to which City Clerk Marsha Hungate exclaimed, “That’s the best question yet!” Sarah Setzer replied that the change could result in better management of the system including reduced water loss.
How’d we get here and where are we going?
Ward three council member Anita Lowry acknowledged that the council had not paid adequate attention to water issues, saying “We could have chosen to be more involved, more active.” When Rossetti asked if any council members had heard complaints about the water commission, Lowry responded that she had heard complaints about “Butch.”
Audience member Carl Underhill was recognized by Rossetti and offered his interpretation of the situation. “The whole thing boils down to a power struggle…it’s not helping the community…it’s like the federal government… why didn’t you just throw it [initiative] out?” Before leaving the room he complained that the meeting time interfered with supper time.
Also speaking from the audience was a former alderman from the nineties, James Wiltse who reflected on problems with the water department twenty years ago. He said that the water commission has been bailed out other times over the years. “It needs to be fixed; we tried to fix it then.” “We pay our people well,” he said, “We pay more than other cities.”
Bill Sergeant who also served on the council some twenty years ago and is now the newly elected representative for Ward 2 said, “The council and water commission erred…things were done that shouldn’t have been done… I want us to have discussions so that they won’t happen again.” He also revealed that the borrowing of money from the city by the water commission has been common in the history of the council… they always pay it back.”
Alderman Rossetti summed up the choices of the council as (1) End this tonight.[ Several voices in the audience reminded him this is not a council meeting and voting is not an option.] (2) Put the issue on the agenda for the February council meeting or (3) Charge the Water Commission to bring more information. It was decided that they would like this placed on the agenda for the February meeting to address the issue.
Long serving Fire Chief Mitch McCorkle opined to the council that the water loss from leaks is caused by movement in the dry ground. “We need some rain,” he said.
The meeting adjourned about 8:30 p.m.