The Prichard Water Works and Sewer Board recently changed its bylaws and elected new officers, but attorneys representing one of the members say those measures are null because the meetings were held illegally.
Before the regularly scheduled board meeting in October, Chairman Brandon Inge decided to not call the meeting to order because several members had a disagreement about seating arrangements. In response, three of five members, including Russell Heidelburg, called a special meeting for Oct. 23. According to James Laura, an attorney for Inge, the Oct. 23 meeting was called illegally and shouldn’t have taken place.
The board’s bylaws declare that only the board chairman may call a special meeting, Laura said. Specifically, “special meetings of the board may be called by the chairman, or in his absence from the city or incapacity by the vice chairman …”
In this case, Vice Chairman Jeremiah Hollins was one of three members, along with Heidelburg and Beverly Bunch, to call the meeting. According to the minutes, he acted as chairman Oct. 23.
Laura argues since Inge was at no time absent, he had sole authority to call the meeting. Laura also alleged the other board members were notified the October meeting had been called illegally but chose to hold it anyway.
Board attorney Jay Ross sees it differently, noting the chairman “may” call a special meeting without specifying he is the only board member with the authority to do so. He did admit the language was ambiguous and could lead to debate.
Heidelburg defended the call for the special meeting because the board’s liability insurance was set to expire two days later. The October meeting was followed by a meeting on Nov. 9 where Heidelburg said board members voted to amend the bylaws. In addition to making clear that a simple majority of members could call a special meeting, he said they also changed the way officers would be selected and did away with having an election once per year.
“We made it so we have officers serve at the pleasure of the board,” Heidelburg said. “If three members get together and decide they want a new chairman, they can. The rationale is to pass things by majority vote.”
At another meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 8, the board elected new officers, naming Heidelburg chairman by a 3-2 vote, with Inge and Ayanna Payton dissenting.
Attorneys for Inge said these actions were also illegal, having been the result of a previous illegal meeting. Attorney Carol Little called it “fruit from the poisonous tree.”
“Anything that flows from it is also illegal,” she said.
Prichard Councilwoman Severia Campbell-Morris said she and the citizens she represents are upset by the actions of the board because under Inge, residents were seeing a reduction in water bills.
“Under the leadership of Nathaniel Inge, the board was working hard to lower rates,” she said. “That’s why we’re so upset about the other board members coming in and changing the bylaws.”
Under Inge, Campbell-Morris said, rates were beginning to stabilize and some residents were seeing bills decrease from $300 to $125.
Little said the meeting included comments from residents who said they didn’t want a leadership change.
Heidelburg argued the rate reduction had less to do with actions of the board and more to do with repairs to leaks and other problems. He said the board doesn’t have a rate problem, it has a public relations problem.
“When somebody has a leak, they never think they have a leak,” Heidelburg said. “They think we’re charging them more money. Anything is the fault of the board.”
According to the most recent rate schedule, from March of this year, Prichard charges $21.05 plus tax for 2,000 gallons of usage. The rates go up from there to $47.38 for 3,500 gallons and all the way to $1,447 for 74,200 gallons of usage.
Heidelburg used his bill as an example. For his home, which also includes his wife and his daughter, Heidelburg said he pays $45 per month on average and $15 of that is paid to the city in fees.
“That’s where my bill has been forever,” he said.
Laura said they plan to take further legal action but he did not comment on what that may be. Little said the ultimate goal of legal action is not to necessarily make Inge chairman again, but to improve the system.
“The residents of Prichard have excessively high water bills,” Little said. “Let’s not lose sight of who’s hurt by this.”