Joint Meeting Comes Up With Water Board Plan

Chair and table placement is turning out to be a key skill in Dade's new emphasis on intergovernmental communication. Sitting in this three-sided configuration at a Jan. 15 joint meeting are members of three governing bodies: from left, Trenton City Commission Parks & Recreation Commissioner Terry Powell, Fire/Utility Commissioner Jerry Henegar, Mayor Alex Case and Streets Commissioner Monda Wooten; the Dade County Commission's Dist. 1 Commissioner Lamar Lowery, Dist. 2's Phillip Hartline, Executive Chairman Ted Rumley, Dist. 3's Robert Goff and Dist. 4's Allan Bradford; and Dade Water Authority Board's H.A. McKaig, Dr. Billy Pullen and Eddie Cantrell.

It looks as if the governing authority of the Dade Water Authority, or so-called water board, will be getting its second overhaul of the 21st century this year after a joint meeting of the water board and Dade County and Trenton City commissions on Tuesday achieved consensus.

The three bodies conferred for a little over an hour at the Jan. 15 meeting, for the most part cordially, as they hashed out a plan that county attorney Robin Rogers will formalize and send on to the Georgia legislature. A special meeting to approve the final document may be called as early as next Tuesday depending upon how quickly the attorney can write it and the board members read it. Attorney Rogers stressed that the process must be completed by Feb. 1 in order to be acted upon by the state lawmakers this term.

Beginning from a bare-bones proposal drafted last year by former District 1 Commissioner Mitchell Smith, the three governing groups agreed to change the water board from its current avatar--four members presided over by a non-voting (except in the case of ties) chairman who is also the chairman of the Dade County Commission--to a five-member board that elects its own chairman, who will have full voting rights.

(Photo: The water board as it was composed at its December meeting. From head of table, foreground, clockwise are Chairman Ted Rumley, water company manager Doug Anderton, members Dr. Billy Pullen and Charles Breedlove, water company employees Elizabeth Zeller and Sherri Walker, attorney Robin Rogers and board members H.A. McKaig and Eddie Cantrell.)

There will be members from each of the four county districts--North Dade, South Dade, Sand Mountain and Lookout Mountain--as well as one representing the city of Trenton. The county commission will appoint county district representatives to the water board, the city commission its own rep. The water board will set its own pay, hold meetings that will remain open to the public, and be composed of members who not only do not work for the water company or sit on either city or county commission but are not married or closely related to anyone who does.

That clause is meant, it was repeated several times, to remove politics from the water board, but it's a tall order in tiny, hyper-intermarried Dade County, and attorney Rogers objected mildly: "I've got a little bit of heartburn about the family members."

In general, he said, the law prefers to disqualify people for having done something to disqualify themselves; and anyway, what about quasi-family members, such as stepbrothers or sisters-in-law?

True to habit, though, the county attorney did not quibble legalities but did as told, noting that the state legislators would rewrite the change anyway and what was important was to express the local intention as well as possible. "Let's let them figure that one out," said Rogers.

Other sticking points--insofar as there were sticking points--included who would set compensation for water board members. When the water board was last reorganized in 2010, the county commission discovered water board members paid themselves $200 a meeting as opposed to the $50 members of comparable Dade boards received. This was addressed at the grand reshuffling back then, and water board members now receive $50 like everybody else.

When, at the Tuesday night meeting, attorney Rogers went over the existing versus proposed structure, and noted that the water board would retain its ability to set its own pay, no one objected until Trenton Streets Commission Monda Wooten queried: "Are you sure?"

"It [members' compensation] should be reasonable," stipulated Trenton Mayor Alex Case.

But as far as some other body setting its compensation, water board member H.A. McKaig pointed out: "It's Water and Sewer Authority money." Why, he asked, should water authority money be managed by the county or city commission? And the others ceded the point.

Water board meetings are, after all, public, said Dade County Executive Ted Rumley, who until the proposed changes become effective also chairs the water board, so: "If y'all want to give yourselves a $500 raise, it'll be in public."

In fact, the water board has discussed virtually all important business behind closed doors in executive session since its behavior became a matter of public interest last year. Under open-meeting laws, executive sessions are to be called only in certain tightly-defined instances; but again, who in Dade County quibbles points of law?

Another change made to the water board on Tuesday is that its members will serve five-year terms, with one up for withdrawal or reappointment every five years. City and county commissioners suggested keeping the term to four years, like their own; but water board members expressed a preference for five-year terms and they met with no resistance.

Likewise with the change of giving the chairman voting rights: Mayor Case read legislation going back to 1958 specifying the board chairman should only vote in case of a tie; but he with the rest of the 2019 panel agreed in this case the chairman should be a participant rather than a spectator.

Mayor Case seemed inclined to bring up at the joint meeting a sore point that had arisen at the city commission's regular January meeting the night before: Missing or damaged fire hydrants in the city, and the water company's failure to replace or repair them. "Who's responsible for them?" asked the mayor.

That was an important point, said water board member Eddie Cantrell, but not one that was germane to the reshaping of the water board.

"Who is the water company?" asked Streets Commissioner Wooten. "Is that not us?" She was specifically questioning another point from the city meeting: a reported 87 fire hydrants sitting unused outside the water company, which Mayor Case said had been purchased with the SPLOST (special purpose local option sales tax) collected by county merchants and administered by city and county. "Is that not our money, too?" she asked.

But county boss Rumley let water company manager Doug Anderton explain his side: The hydrants, which he said were around 60 in number, had been bought from about 2000 to 2005 with water company money, not SPLOST, said Anderton.

As for the explanation that Anderton had earlier supplied The Planet for the missing or damaged city fire hydrants, that now-retired city employee Preston Daniels had taken care of maintaining all the hydrants in Trenton, and that no one had taken over the job when he left, Commissioner Wooten said: "I don't know that I buy that. That was in my department and I never heard the first thing about it."

Mayor Case made it abundantly clear he had not achieved satisfaction in his attempts to fix the hydrant problem through manager Anderson. But by Dade standards, not much time was wasted in argument at the Jan. 15 meeting. "We need to start all over," said District 4 County Commissioner Allan Bradford, and the others all seemed to agree that it was time to wipe the slate clean.

Indeed, the time does seem propitious for new beginnings at the water company: Doug Anderton, the water company's top employee, directly answerable to the water board, is poised to retire this summer after more than 40 years. City Commissioner Henegar asked to see a job description for the position. Assistant water company manager Sherri Walker, a candidate for it, promised to provide one, explaining it had been posted at several industry job search sites.

A related question was duty descriptions for water board members. If he is to appoint a new District 2 water board representative, asked Phillip Hartline, newly-elected county commissioner for that district, what should he tell the prospect the responsibilities would be? Water board members agreed that something needed to be put down in writing on that.

One point that was brought up but not discussed much was: If elected officials, water company employees, and all their relations are not to sit on the water board, who is in fact to do so? "You can't just take somebody off the streets," said District 4 County Commissioner Allan Bradford.

But maybe you can: There was never any suggestion that water board appointees should know anything about, say, water; and Bradford mentioned in another context at the meeting how hard it was to find anyone at all to sit on boards these days.

The water board meets at 8 a.m. the third Friday morning of the month--this month, that means tomorrow--in the county Administrative Building, and it usually does so without undue interference by ratepayers or press. It tends to attract the interest of the public and the pricked ears of the local press only when its splashier doings in due time come to light.

Nine years ago, that meant its quiet decision to partner with a luxury subdivision developer to build a sewer. Sewers are expensive, rural Dade does mostly without them, and the county commission was astonished but not pleased to learn its water company was sole owner of one mostly in Walker County when the developer went belly-up after the housing market crash in 2009. That was the main impetus behind the last flurry of public interest--as well as the last water board reshuffle--though fire hydrant accusations from county firefighters figured in that one as well.

This time the reshaping of the water board is set against the backdrop of the county commission's controversial decision to build a reservoir on Lookout Creek. That was introduced in 2017 as a county commission project, but when the county found little grant money to cover the $500,000 price of the land it had optioned for the project, the water board ponied up $400,000 to "bail the county commission out," as water board member Eddie Cantrell referred to the move. There was speculation that the water board might have been tighter-fisted with ratepayer money had it not been chaired by Ted Rumley, the county commission chairman who spearheaded the reservoir project.

So the 2010 reshuffle imposed county supervision over the water board. This one will lessen that, and give the city a more direct voice. Who can say what the next one will do, or when it will occur?

During the Tuesday night joint meeting, there was much approval expressed by participants of this coming together of the boards, and several mentions of setting similar meet-ups biannually or quarterly. But no formal action was taken to establish such a schedule.

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