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Board members stripped of discount water privilege

By Katie Nichols and Rob Holbert

MARCH 6, 2013



The Feb. 21 meeting marked the end for two board members for the Mobile County Water, Sewer & Fire Protection Authority, and it also meant the end of the nearly free water the board members and some employees and volunteer firefighters have enjoyed for decades.

MCWSFPA attorney Jay Ross notified the board during executive session that carrying on a nearly 30-year perk would actually violate the ethics law.

"For what I’m told the (MCWSFPA) has allowed board members, employees on the county waterline and volunteer firefighters to get discounted water. It’s the base amount for the system, which I believe is somewhere under $21,” Ross said. "For at least 20 years, but it also might be closer to 30 years, this certain group of people paid base amount.”

Ross said this came to his attention and he consulted the Alabama Ethics Commission. He was told the MCWSFPA board was definitely not allowed to have discounted water, but the discounted water for the employees and firefighters was more of a gray area.

"The decision was made that it would just stop altogether,” Ross said. "There were only maybe seven employees who received the discounted water, but they, along with the firefighters and board member, will no longer receive discounted water.”

Ross emphasized the perk was put into place long before any current board member was appointed by a District 3 County Commissioner.

Hugh Evans, legal counsel for the Alabama Ethics Commission, said water board members getting discounted or free water is a violation of the law and should stop immediately. However, he added that since the practice has been going on so long, board members are probably clear from any legal action.

"I can’t say they violated the ethics law,” Evans explained. "For someone to violate the ethics law, they have to have intent. If a policy has been in place for years and years, it’s hard to say they violated the law.”

Evans said it would be his personal opinion that forcing those who received the benefit to repay what they would have owed otherwise would be "unfair” since they were not aware it is illegal. But he added the practice should be curtailed.

"They should see it stops immediately,” Evans said.

Ross said the practice was stopped before it became an official issue.

"It would have been a possible legal issue, but now that it has stopped, it isn’t any more,” he said.

That wasn’t the only change to the MCWSFPA.

Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl replaced board president Margaret Wilcox and member Jimmy Odom, who had finished their terms. They were replaced by Lois Rockhold and Steven (Audie) Tillman. The new members officially took their positions March 1.

Wilcox has served on the board for a number of years after her husband, who was on the board, died. Odom said he had been on the board for a little more than a year.

Carl explained the change in board members.

"After talking to Ms. Wilcox and Mr. Odom, they understood I wanted to take a little different direction in the management style of MCWS Board,” he said.

When Carl took office November 2012, he became the sole person responsible for appointing the five-member board. Previously that task was then-Commissioner Mike Dean’s, who was defeated by Carl in April 2012.

Other MCWSFPA practices have recently been called into question.

In August 2012, an investigation into the board and water authority’s spending after sources familiar with board operations complained about unusual expenditures showed what appears to be a possible routine violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act, as well as several other questionable expenses.

The authority provided Lagniappe with three years worth of receipts for credit cards held by the Authority’s General Manager Joe Summersgill, Office Manager Sylvia Hutto and then board members — Margaret Wilcox, Preston Smith, Jim White, Jimmy Odom and George Callahan.

Summersgill’s credit card charges show expenditures for around $250 to $300 nearly every two weeks at restaurants. There was also a charge in October 2010 of nearly $900 to Ruth’s Chris in Huntsville while the board members were there for a conference. There is even a $5 charge for dinner at Burger King.

When Summersgill was questioned about the expenses, the possible Open Meetings Act violation came to the forefront. He said the board members and employees went out to eat and sometimes discussed business.

He said there was no new business discussed, but sometimes they would ask for clarifications.
Under the Alabama Open Meetings Act, which is referred to some times as the Sunshine Laws, boards may talk about old business if it is not expected to come before the body at a later date. However, Summersgill said the SCADA system project, which is used for managing and monitoring water, was discussed after the July 19 meeting. The project was discussed again during the official Aug. 16 meeting, which could represent a violation of the act.

The board and Dean also raised another possible ethical violation.

Lagniappe was provided with the audiotape of the July 19 MCWSFPA meeting that showed Dean offered to go to work as a lobbyist for the authority after he left office.

The Alabama Ethics Commission has said a situation in which a sitting county commissioner approached a water, sewer and fire protection board for a job could indeed present a violation of ethics principles. Dean was not given a job with the board after his attempt was reported in Lagniappe.

Lagniappe has also reported on a MCWSFPA backhoe being driven off its main office property and used at nearby Nan Gray Davis Elementary to work on the playground, then left behind a shed for five years. After the report came out, water board officials had the rusted backhoe moved over to a nearby piece of water board property.

While Carl was running for office, he vowed during a debate to help "clean up” boards such as the MCWSFPA.

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What should be Mayor-elect Stimpson's top priority?

Examining the budget.
Evaluating city employees.
Addressing public safety issues.
Improving infrastructure.
Free fish plates.

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