About five-and-a-half years ago somebody took a backhoe off the property owned by the Mobile County Water, Sewer & Fire Protection District, drove it down to Nan Gray Davis Elementary School, used it to dig around on the playground, then parked it behind a shed where it sat rusting until this newspaper did a story about it last year.
Now, perhaps you may not know a lot about backhoes â€” theyâ€™re kind of like bulldozers with a great big claw on the back for digging. Theyâ€™re also pretty expensive. A new one can be upwards of $70,000 or more.
So one would imagine doing something like taking a backhoe and leaving it to rust in a schoolyard might cause some anguish for the people who run this Water, Sewer & Fire Protection District. But one would seemingly be wrong. Nearly six months after our initial reports on this matter, neither the board running this water district, the manager or even local law enforcement have taken any interest in the destruction of a piece of property that was estimated to have been worth at least when it was taken $14,000.
Try that trick where you work.
The water district moved the backhoe off school property across the street to some land they own. Iâ€™m told they eventually auctioned it off.
Other things weâ€™ve discovered about this dysfunctional water board since last August is that their commissioners were routinely flouting state open meetings laws by having dinners paid for on water board credit cards. It went something like this â€” they would have their regular, announced meeting, then afterwards would adjourn to some swank place like Applebeeâ€™s where the public would buy them dinner. Some have told me there was even alcohol involved, although I canâ€™t believe anyone would be that bold. Right?
Why is this a problem? State open meetings laws say it is illegal for them to gather a quorum and then discuss business. The water boardâ€™s General Manager Joe Sumersgill admitted to a Lagniappe reporter that the board indeed discussed current business during some of these dinners.
But even though we reported that last August, thereâ€™s been no investigation by law enforcement.
In this issue, weâ€™re reporting that these same board members, Margaret Wilcox, Preston Smith, Jim White, Jimmy Odom and George Callahan, along with some key water district employees, have been getting their water at home for next to nothing. It seems theyâ€™ve had a practice for almost 30 years of giving themselves a sweetheart deal in which they only pay $20 a month for water no matter how much they use. Get out the slip-and-slide!
Why do I think they all have amazingly lush lawns in the middle of the hottest part of the summer?
We consulted the Alabama Ethics Commission about the legality of the water board members being able to give themselves discount water and were told it is not legal. The Ethics Commission said the practice should stop immediately, but then added that itâ€™s not really fair to make them pay back the difference in what they should have paid because itâ€™s been a long-standing practice and they probably didnâ€™t know better.
How strange it seems that no one in 30-plus years â€” not even one of their attorneys â€” bothered to even make a single call to discover if this discount water scheme is OK. I suppose the Water Board Five just feel theyâ€™re owed special treatment.
To add insult to injury, these commissioners are actually paid to attend meetings and get their fat dinners. The chairman makes $1,200 a month and the others $900 a month. Not bad for a meeting here and there. Heck, itâ€™s even enough to pay a real water bill.
So far the only person in authority who has taken any interest in this slop bucket is new District 3 County Commissioner Jerry Carl, who replaced Wilcox and Odom. Itâ€™s a good start.
Unfortunately he canâ€™t give Callahan, White and Smith the boot until their terms end, but he ought to kick them out as soon as possible. The voters who elected Carl should be proud to see him step in and try to roto rooter this civic hairball out. Former Commissioner Mike Dean was too busy wallowing in it to pay attention.
As soon as he got shown the door by voters, Dean ran straight to this crooked board to see if he could get on their gravy train too as a lobbyist. Fortunately stories we ran about his attempts put the kibosh on Mike loading up there.
I know most of us almost expect this type of behavior out of our elected and appointed "servants,â€ť and certainly state and local law enforcement appear pretty complacent when it comes to such shenanigans. Open meetings and open records laws are a joke in this state. Everyone knows law enforcement officials arenâ€™t going to do squat about violations.
Apparently destruction and misuse of public property and public funds also isnâ€™t anything that draws the attention of those charged with enforcing the law. Take note city, county and board employees â€” if you need some equipment to use around the house have at it. Drive it into the river when youâ€™re through. Get some free water while youâ€™re at it. No one gives a damn.
I cut my teeth reporting in Mississippi and it might shock people here to know this type of thing wouldnâ€™t have flown over there. If these kinds of stories hit the local newspaper, someone would have investigated it. But Good Olâ€™ Boy rules the day in Alabama.
By now itâ€™s pretty clear the Mobile County Water, Sewer & Fire Protection District is in need of at least a major audit, and the people running it need to be out on their keisters. Unfortunately itâ€™s up to the commissioners to call for an audit. Perhaps with new blood on the board that will happen.
The scariest thing about all of this is there are more than 40 other quasi-governmental appointed boards appointed by our County Commission. While I would certainly hope this type of behavior isnâ€™t rampant among all of them, if there has been this lack of supervision from county officials, I shudder to think what else might be going on. Maybe weâ€™re getting off cheap with just one ruined backhoe.