The Bayou la Batre Utilities Board is asking a judge to intervene in a dispute with Mayor Brett Dungan over the terms of board members.
At the conclusion of an executive session April 29, the board unanimously voted to allow its attorneys to file a motion for declaratory judgment, temporarily suspending the recent city council appointment of a new board member to replace Louis Hard, who was nominated by former Mayor Stan Wright and appointed by the City Council to the board in 2012.
The board had called a special meeting to discuss Mayor Brett Dungan’s recent nomination of Jeffrey Ladnier, along with an ongoing disagreement with the city over accountability for garbage collection fees.
According to board attorney Jay Ross, the term limits dispute is rooted in “inaccurate” information the board included in a 2013 bond issue suggesting Hard’s term ended on April 30. Dungan requested information about board terms after taking office last year and appointed Ladnier according information the board itself provided.
Since, the board admitted it submitted erroneous information and has accused Dungan of playing politics with appointments.
“When this came to light a few months ago, it was clear there had not been very concise recording of board member terms and so confusion has arisen,” Ross said. “The mayor wanted to follow the terms of office in a 2013 bond document, but there is no doubt that information is inaccurate. So I arbitrarily picked city council minutes from 1996, when the bond issue for the utilities board was issued and came up with terms that exist right now.”
At the time Hard was appointed, there were three vacant spots on the board. Ross’ opinion is that Hard filled a six-year vacant term, not the staggered four-year term or the two-year term that was also vacant. Those terms leave Hard on the board until 2016, but would remove another current member, Debra Marchand.
Board president Sylvia Raley called the error on the 2013 bond issue a “clerical mistake” and said Ross’ suggestion would rectify years of inaccuracy she initially identified in 2010.
“Over all these years no one ever kept up with the laws and it was never questioned,” Raley said. “Back in 2010, there was a new law about staffing and that’s when I noticed [the statutory requirements.] We paid lawyers to try to figure it out and went back to the original bonds, but we’re told that still isn’t correct. I’m hopeful it eventually can be ascertained through the records review.”
The board’s legal action will compel the city to trace its appointments from the board’s charter in the 1950s and determine an appropriate line of succession. Dungan’s assistant Wanda Overstreet said that process is already underway, but its too early to try to paint a more complete picture.
Raley called Dungan’s nomination of Ladnier over Hard “self-serving.”
“The reason the legislature [did staggered terms] was to stop politics from being involved and allow a new council to change out an entire board on a whim,” Raley said, suggesting Dungan was retaliating against Hard because the board did not appoint him to the same $24,000-per-year job as superintendent held by his predecessor.
The term held by Raley, who ran against Dungan in the mayoral race, is not under dispute. Hard, a Wright appointee, was among the four board members who did not second a motion by board member and City Councilman George Ramirez to hire Dungan shortly after he won the election.
State law says the mayor may serve as superintendent of the utilities board — at the board’s discretion — to supervise the system, serve as a purchasing agent, keep a check on meter readings and collections and be responsible for the repair and operation of inventory. Raley said Wright and previous mayors performed those duties, but since Wright’s conviction and removal from office on corruption charges, they have been distributed among other employees.
“Toward the end (of Wright’s appointment) we were already talking about ‘who needs a superintendent,’” Raley said. “We’d already started looking at cutbacks.”
But the utilities board also just filled a new position for treatment plant operator, which pays as much as $49,473 annually. As mayor, Dungan earns just $800 per month as a part-time employee.
After a city council meeting in February, Dungan didn’t deny the dispute was about the superintendent position and argued he was entitled to perform those duties, not for the board but for the customers they serve. Calling the utilities board the “single biggest handicap (the) town has toward creating economic stability,” Dungan complained about the board’s transparency, customer service and general business practices.
“They are going to create a new $50,000 position to do that and they won’t pay me $24,000 to do it when I just saved $300,000 for the fucking city?” Dungan asked during a heated conversation on February 13 that was recorded by both a reporter and a third party.
Including other comments about Ross he said he later regretted, Dungan later explained that the conversation addressed his “frustration and concern the utilities board may have acted illegally and inappropriately with counsel present.”
Dungan maintains an earlier complaint that the board routinely “extorted” business owners over impact fees by imposing astronomical charges but settling for something less. He also said he receives numerous complaints from citizens about meter inaccuracies and suspects the board is not completely accountable for monthly garbage collection fees.
Ross said the rates are “set out and yours for the asking,” but the mayor may not understand how they’ve changed since the board constructed an “enormous,” underutilized $26 million sewage treatment plant using federal grant money.
“Rates are not legal decisions, those are business decisions the board makes,” Ross said. “Several years ago, they found themselves very undercapitalized for improvements they were taking on and started adjusting rates for longevity. The board has since reviewed some rates to make some changes to try to address the issues that have come up, but whether that will be to the satisfaction of the mayor I don’t know.”
When it comes to water and sewer service, the utilities board operates separately from the city but with curbside garbage service, the board collects billing on behalf of the city. Raley said the board has performed that duty as a courtesy for the city since 2007, but Dungan questions whether everyone who receives the curbside service is paying for it.
At the special board meeting April 29, some employees and board members seemed to interpret that question as a personal attack and some members of the board suggested they stop billing for the city. Raley said that suggestion would be tabled while they analyze its impacts, but Dungan said his concerns remain.
“A decision was made by a previous administration to have utility board collect garbage fees and once I got here, I encountered a general disarray in bookkeeping and record keeping and no database of who had our garbage cans,” Dungan said. “So we collected all the cans and set them back up for each resident. I was not there but was told a city councilperson (Annette Johnson) made request to reconcile our accounts with the garbage cans because I suspect some people are not paying because cans have been moved. That has nothing to do with the utilities board because they have no mechanism in place to be accountable for the city’s money. But the employees have not been trained adequately to do the best job.”
Dungan went on to say he was concerned both the utilities board and the city’s housing board “don’t understand what their job and role is” and “don’t understand they are responsible instead of responding to director or a manager paid by the authority.”
“It appears they are putting their own against the welfare of our citizens,” Dungan said.
Raley said it was the other way around.
“We’re doing all we can to the best of our ability for the utilities board and the citizens,” she said. “This is not a retaliatory thing, I do what I feel is best for the utilities. We have public meetings notices in four places in city and ask anybody to come and have nothing to hide. We’re audited every year. I’ve tried to have meetings with the mayor but in a way he seems very unstable to me.”
Meanwhile, Dungan now claims he has saved a total of $600,000 for the city since taking office, figures he said are reflected in monthly profit and loss statements distributed to the city council and available to anyone.
“I stand by my concerns, but you can see from the dynamics there is problem that needs to be fixed,” he said.
Edited to correct the total amount of money Mayor Brett Dungan claims to have saved Bayou la Batre.