Amid an ongoing legal dispute over term limits for the Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre, two members – City Councilors George Ramirez and Kimberlyn Barbour – have resigned from the five-member board.
The pair resigned at two separate meetings in September and both cited personal reasons for their departure from the board, which pays its members a monthly salary of $400.
Utilities Board Chairman Sylvia Raley told Lagniappe both Ramirez and Barbour didn’t give the board a specific reason for their resignations.
“They thanked us for the time they had served, and they just said they had to resign,” Raley said. “They didn’t get into it during the meetings.”
During its Sept. 26 meeting, the City Council and Mayor Brett Dungan wasted no time finding replacements for Barbour and Ramirez, whose resignations took effect Oct. 1. City Council members Annette Johnson and Ida Mae Coleman – who nominated each other – were eventually voted to fill the vacancies on the board.
Ramirez was alone in opposition to each nomination. Coleman and Johnson both abstained during their respective nominations, which both passed 3-1.
Dungan, who has unsuccessfully sought the same paid position as superintendent of the board held by previous mayor Stan Wright, cited recent turmoil between the two entities as his reason for wanting other city councilors to fill the positions vacated by Ramirez and Barbour.
“My concern is that we have five people on the utilities board that have not been responsive to the constituents of our town, and I feel like it’s important that we have elected officials that fill those two spots,” Dungan said. “If the constituents don’t like what’s happening on the utilities board, they cannot vote for those people. So I feel like it’s important we have council people fill these positions.”
Dungan’s statements were made just before Ramirez nominated Terry Downing to fill his own position – a nomination that was opposed by every council member except Ramirez and Barbour.
According to a series of Water and Sewer Revenue Refunding Bonds issued by the utilities board in 2013, both Ramirez and Barbour were scheduled to rotate off the board at the end of September. However, a dispute over the terms outlined in those bonds was the basis for a lawsuit the utilities board filed against the city in April.
The original lawsuit, which is still pending in circuit court, attempted to block the city’s appointment of Jeffery Ladnier and any other appointee until the court could establish a set of terms both the city and the utilities board could agree on.
“Does anybody have any idea what that term is?” Dungan asked during the meeting. “Because we have some very expensive people in Mobile that can’t seem to figure that out, and Judge (Charles) Graddick is one of them.”
According the terms the city recognizes, board member Debra Marchand’s term would be the next to expire in September 2016. However, Raley said that wouldn’t be clear until a judge makes a decision in the pending lawsuit.
Since the board filed the lawsuit in April, there’s been continuous friction between the two entities. In May the utilities board voted to end a long-standing agreement to collect garbage fees on the behalf of the city. Since then, the city has accused the board of misusing grant funds and improperly maintaining its fire hydrants, which are used by the Bayou la Batre Fire Department.
During the Sept. 26 meeting, Dungan released to the media correspondence between city attorney Bill Wasden and the utilities board’s attorney, Kevin Boucher.
Those letters discuss 5 million gallons of water the utilities board has been unable to account for, which has cost it around $26,000.
In his letter, Boucher also discusses fire department’s recent flushing of “random” fire hydrants throughout the city. Raley said the utilities board has no other excuse for missing water.
“Please cease and desist from flushing any fire hydrants within the city immediately,” the letter reads. “Moving forward, your fire department is authorized to only use the metered hydrant that the utilities board placed for your training purposes, or you may flush a fire hydrant in conjunction with and at the direction of a properly certified staff member of the utilities board.”
Scott Hughes, a spokesperson for the Alabama Department of Environmental Management, confirmed ADEM has been in communication with the utilities board but said it wouldn’t get involved unless it continued to see regular water losses – with a threshold equal to 15 percent of the system’s total monthly production.
In his letter, Boucher told Fire Chief John Wiggins the board “reserves the right to protect its ADEM permits through any legal remedy.”
When responding to Boucher’s letter, Wasden said he too had corresponded with ADEM and specifically with Dennis Harrison, chief of the department’s drinking water branch. Harrison and Hughes both confirmed that ADEM does not consider the actives of the fire department inappropriate.
“The fire department submits regular reports to the utilities board account for its water usage in its various actives including flushing hydrants, and the measured water usage from Aug. 15 through Sept. 15 – the most recent period available – totaled only 47,500 gallons,” Wasden’s letter reads.
He also said the flushing wasn’t random, but was performed on a street-by-street schedule at the discretion of Chief Wiggins, who he claims is permitted to authorize such testing in Section 507-5-2 of Alabama’s Fire Code.
Still, Raley said the way the tests are being performed have caused damage to the board’s infrastructure.
“We’ve had several complaints of bad or discolored water, and we’ve had several busted lines and mains,” she said.
“There’s a way of doing it. You don’t just turn it on full blast. That causes pressure, which can cause holes in the water lines.”
Raley said she also believes the sections of the fire code cited by Wasden only apply to city-owned water systems.