Athens Review, Athens, Texas

January 13, 2014

City votes to dissolve AMWA

Authority gathers signatures to force an election on issue

Rich Flowers
The Athens Review

Athens — The battle between the city of Athens and the Athens Municipal Water Authority continued on two fronts Monday, with the future of the 57-year-old entity still in doubt.

At the regularly-scheduled Athens City Council meeting, the members voted unanimously to pass a second reading of the ordinance to dissolve the Authority. The action came about two hours after a hearing in 173rd District Court on AMWA’s request for a restraining order to prevent the council action was appealed to a higher court.

AMWA filed a civil suit on Dec. 10 in 173rd District Court, alleging that the city wrongfully submitted invoices to AMWA for certain services relating to a contract between AMWA and the city to provide water to the citizens of Athens.

The city responded to the suit on Dec. 23 when the city council passed a first reading of the ordinance to dissolve AMWA.

  As Mayor Jerry Don Vaught called for a vote at Monday’s council meeting, AMWA Attorney Martin Bennett interrupted, and said the vote was in violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Bennett claimed the agenda’s wording, that the council would “consider” a final reading of the ordinance” did not state that the council would take action on the issue. Vaught again called for a motion, which was offered by Carol Barton and seconded by Monte Montgomery.

“Mr. Mayor, I’d like to say that this lawsuit brought by the Athens Municipal Water Authority is unacceptable to the City of Athens,” Montgomery said.

According to the Texas Local Government Code, after the Monday council vote, AMWA has 30 days to present a petition, signed and verified by a number of qualified voters of the municipality equal to at least 10 percent of the total votes cast at the most recent election for municipal officers.

That was in 2011, when a total of 1,237 cast ballots in the race between Randy Daniel defeated Joe Whatley in 2011, meaning AMWA needed about 124 signatures. Attorney Martin Bennett, representing AMWA said Monday the Authority had already gathered 374 signatures.

The Texas Local Government Code states that immediately after the presentation of the petition, the governing body shall reconsider the ordinance. If the governing body does not repeal the ordinance, the governing body shall submit it to a popular vote at the next municipal election, or at a special election ordered for that purpose.

The ordinance does not take effect unless a majority of the votes received in the election favor the ordinance.

On Monday afternoon, attorneys for the parties argued in 173rd District Court as AMWA sought a temporary restraining order to stop the city from acting to abolish the Authority in the regularly scheduled city council meeting. The hearing started at 1:30 p.m., just hours before the 5:30 p.m. council meeting was set to convene.

After the parties debated for more than an hour, the judge recessed to deliberate on whether the court had jurisdiction to hear the case.

When Judge Joe Clayton returned, he ruled against the city’s claim that the court did not have jurisdiction. After hearing the decision, the city filed an accelerated appeal to the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler.

Because the question of jurisdiction was a threshold issue for the case, the appeal immediately stopped the proceedings until the appeal is decided.