ROGERSVILLE — An ordinance that would have abolished the Rogersville Water Commission and put the Board of Mayor and Aldermen in charge of the city’s water department failed by a single vote Tuesday evening.
The proposal, which was defeated by a vote of 2-3 with one abstention, was presented to the BMA on the heels of a massive Water Commission controversy that occurred in July involving $69,000 in missing cash.
Had the vote been 3-3, it’s likely that Mayor Jim Sells would have cast the tiebreaker in favor of abolishing the commission.
Last month, the Water Commission suspended Superintendent Shawn Hatchett (with pay) pending the outcome of a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probe into the missing funds.
The cash was supposed to be deposited in the bank by Hatchett, who reportedly told city officials he had forgotten to make the deposit for a couple of days, during which time the cash was supposedly stolen from his vehicle.
TBI spokesperson Leslie Earhart told the Times-News Monday that the investigation is ongoing, and when it is completed the results will be presented to Attorney General Dan Armstrong “for his review and consideration.”
City Attorney Bill Phillips read the proposed ordinance to the BMA Tuesday. It would have abolished the Water Commission and invested the BMA with powers and duties to operate the water department.
Two of the three “no” votes were cast by Aldermen Mark DeWitte and Craig Kirkpatrick, both of whom serve on the Water Commission.
“I think it would be very bad for the town of Rogersville to do this,” Kirkpatrick told the board. “This Water Commission that is in place now has been instrumental in getting the state off our back for the first time in 13 years and done great work getting CDBG grants to help us fund stuff that has saved millions of dollars for the city of Rogersville. I just think it would be a disgrace.”
Although Water Commission members are appointed by the mayor, the Water Commission acts independently of the BMA. It has the authority to hire and fire employees in the water department, operates on a separate budget, and it has the duty to present the BMA with a sufficient rate to make the waterworks profitable.
Phillips said that gives the Water Commission autonomy in everything except rate increases, which must be approved by the BMA.
Sell said that when anything bad happens involving the Water Commission, he is the person who receives the letters and the heat, even though he has no authority over the panel.
“I’ve been here quite awhile, and most of all the bad things that come down through the water board comes to me,” Sells said. “But I’ve never known about it (in advance) because I’ve never been included, so I don’t know what’s going on. But when the feds come down, I get the letter. I think it would be a lot better if it were to come down to all of us right here (on the BMA).”
Sells said he didn’t want to diminish the accomplishments of the current commission.
“I just think, when it comes down to all of us (on the BMA), it will be all of our problem.”
Kirkpatrick replied, “I think over the last several years you’ve been informed.”
“On certain things, yes,” Sells responded.
The Water Commission met at city hall an hour prior to the BMA meeting. During its, meeting the commission agreed to uphold Hatchett’s ongoing suspension with pay and to name Commissioner Bill Pearson as interim superintendent. Pearson’s compensation will be discussed at a later meeting.
During the subsequent BMA meeting, Pearson said the Water Commission and the BMA need to work together, and he recommended leaving the Water Commission as is.
Water Commission Chairman Ed Pace also spoke against abolishing the panel.
Pace said in his 15 years on the Water Commission he’s seen it in good times and bad, but up to the point when the $69,000 was reported missing, the water system was operating better than ever before.
“I admit that it’s a bad problem facing it right now, but I think if you allow the Water Commission to perform, it will work this problem out and you’ll be happy with what they do,” Pace said.
Joining DeWitte and Kirkpatrick in voting no was Alderman Sonda Price. Vice Mayor Brian Hartness and Alderman Bill Henderson voted yes, and Alderman Eloise Edwards, who also sits on the Water Commission, abstained.