The Dade County Water Authority has a new general manager, and its governing board will shortly have new members and a new structure as set by new local legislation.
But at its regular May meeting on Friday morning, it was the same old water board as last month with the same old members and the same old problems—problems that really were getting a little old to all involved, if the tone half an hour into the May 17 meeting was any indication. “We just need to get done with this,” said Chairman Ted Rumley at 8:40 a.m.
Photo: New water company manager Jeff Pendergrass (right) chats with board member Travis McDaniel at the board's May 17 meeting.)\
The meeting had started at its usual ungodly 8 a.m., and the intervening time had been spent mainly in talk of
all of which may be used to feed cattle, as known (impressively) to all non-press* attendees of the water board meeting including the county attorney, who brought up a final crop,
which may not.
The governing board of the Dade Water Authority, its legal advisor and its managing employees were discussing these crops not to show off their (impressive) agricultural knowledge but in connection with their contract with farmer Jack Sells. The water board in association with the Dade County Commission bought a parcel of Sells' land along Lookout Creek in 2018 for $500,000, then leased it back to him for $500 a year pending the eventual building of a reservoir on the land.
The water board and commission received a certain amount of criticism from citizens about giving Sells such a sweet deal, paying him half a million dollars for 60-odd acres, then allowing him to keep on farming it. The officials' justification for that was that farming the land would keep it from becoming overgrown during an expected two-year permitting process. They specified in Sells' lease that he could only use the parcel for growing hay and grazing his cattle. Imagine, then, the hell they caught when the watchful public eye discerned that Sells proposed to grow corn on the land instead.
Hay vs. corn was a hot topic at the May Dade County Commission meeting, and water board member Eddie Cantrell, who has seemed to volunteer himself recently as liaison between not just the water board and the Trenton city government but between the water board and the watchful public eye, brought it up at Friday's water board meeting as well. “The problem most people have is the agreement has not been followed,” he said.
If the contract meant to allow Sells to grow whatever he liked on the acreage, it should have said "agriculture," said Cantrell, not "hay," though: “As far as corn itself, I have no problem with it," he stipulated.
Consensus about the board's benevolent feelings toward forage crops was general. “There’s nothing wrong with soybeans,” said member Travis McDaniel.
“We’re fixin’ to plant millet,” said Chairman Rumley of his own Rising Fawn spread.
County Attorney Rogers seemed at first inclined to dismiss the whole corn v. hay controversy. "In any lease or any agreement you’re going to have minor issues and material issues,” he said, which in legalese translates roughly to: "So what?"
What about snakes?
But as the matter seemed disinclined to die, Rogers allowed: "The larger issue is that you need to decide how strictly you’re going to interpret the contract.” Corn, hay, millet, soy beans and anything else to feed a cow might all be fine, he said, but suppose Sells decided to plant Christmas trees? That would certainly violate the intent of the contract. Or suppose he had poison ivy, or copperheads, on the land? Would he be allowed to spray poison on the plants or kill the snakes? "We need to decide how strict to be so he would have some guidance," he concluded.
After a certain amount more of this, the issue became whether or not to amend the contract with Sells formally to allow him to grow corn. The board voted to amend its agenda to introduce the item in order to be allowed to vote on whether to amend the contract. So for a few minutes chances for the amendment looked rosy, but then attorney Rogers informed the board that since the contract was a joint one with the county commission, the county commission would also have to vote to approve any amendment.
The next regular meeting of the county commission is June 6. Chairman Rumley reminded the board that the window for planting corn was a brief one, and about to snap shut, so that if Sells were to be allowed to plant corn he would have to get the seed in the ground by the weekend.
"So will the chairman have to call a meeting of the commission before Jack can plant corn?" asked Cantrell.
Rogers said that as a practical matter Sells might opt to sow his seed within its season but if he did so without consent of the two other parties to the contract: "Jack would then be planting corn at his peril.”
The water board don't get no respect
It was somewhere around this point (as The Planet still savored the phrase planting corn at his peril) that sentiment began to be expressed against Jack Sells himself. If he wanted to plant corn instead of hay, asked Eddie Cantrell, why hadn't he come to the board and asked? “It’s not our job to amend it," said Cantrell. "It’s up to him to ask us for approval.”
The others were quickly convinced. “I’m amazed he’s not sitting here talking to us," said member H.A. McKaig. "It blows my mind.”
"All this pain and no one has asked us to amend but us," said member Dr. Billy Pullen.
McKaig said Sells' behavoir toward the board showed "a lack of information, a lack of in a way respect.” He said if the contract were in fact amended, it should be so with the instruction: "Next time, ask us."
But after all this drama, the board decided--with a little more input from the county attorney--not to amend the contract after all but to appoint its new chief employee, incoming water company general manager Jeff Pendergrass, to deal with Sells on any requests for contract variances such as corn v. hay as part of his job of managing the day-to-day operations of the Dade Water Authority. How's about the county commission? members asked Rogers. Did it have to do the same? No, he said, Ted Rumley was already empowered to manage the day-to-day operations of Dade County.
So at the end of the meeting Jack Sells' chances for planting corn over the weekend looked pretty good. Manager Pendergrass was empowered to allow him to do so, with the caveat from Eddie Cantrell: “Don’t go search him out. He needs to come to you.”
In other business, H.A. McKaig said that outgoing water company manager Doug Anderton had arrived at a solution for the longstanding West Brow hydrant problem introduced by former Georgia House of Representatives member John Deffenbaugh. Anderton was to discuss it with the attorney and with local residents. No vote was taken.
After 49 years at the helm of the water company, this was Anderton's last water board meeting and he bade some fond farewells. He'll get a chance to bid some more, though: There will be a reception in Anderton's honor on Friday, May 24, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m, in the Administrative Building.
All new board next month
Asked after the meeting when the water board will be reshuffled according to local legislation which was lately signed into law, Chairman Rumley said that matter would be addressed at the next Dade County Commission meeting.
The board is to be changed substantially in that it will add a Trenton representative--the city commission has approved Eddie Cantrell for this spot--replace Cantrell with a new south Dade representative, and elect its own chairman to replace Ted Rumley, who now chairs the board as a function of his executive chairmanship of the county commission.
The all-new water board will convene for its next regular meeting on June 20.
*The press was good on cow food up until "millet." It hadn't known cows ate millet. It hadn't known anything did. The press was a little surprised about "soybeans," too, but got happily back on track at "Christmas trees."