Athens Review, Athens, Texas

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May 10, 2014

Don’t throw out the city’s needs with dispute over water

Athens — Today is election day. In communities all around Texas, voters will exercise their right at the polls choosing community leaders, school officials and whether to authorize bonds for building projects.

Fair elections are one of the main things that separate us from totalitarian states, where the government calls the shots, and will until you get a bigger army.  Winston Churchill said “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” He was British, but I guess his statement still counts.

Local elections involve more than just who is going to sit on the school board, or make up the city council for the next couple of years. They involve things like  whether a new school is going up in your neighborhood, or whether a new tax will be showing up on your monthly statement. They’re the kind of issues that can stir passions on either side and strain friendships. You may not like what President Obama is doing, but you’re probably not going to run into him at Brookshire’s either.

The decision whether to abolish the Athens Municipal Water Authority is a hotly-contested election that reached the boiling point long ago. In my years of covering the news in some form or fashion, I haven’t seen many elections that reached so deep into the community as this one.

City Administrator Pam Burton, Mayor Jerry Don Vaught and the members of the current city council were not pleased when the Authority decided to go to court arguing the city wrongfully submitted invoices to AMWA for certain services relating to the two entities.

Since the Authority came into being in 1957, many community and business leaders have served on the board that made decisions that kept city water supply plentiful for all of those decades. Many of their friends, family and descendants are still in key positions around the city, and are vehemently opposed to the current city council and administration trying to dismantle the body.

As the two parties continued to debate the issues, two members of the AMWA board resigned, and filed against incumbent council members. A third council member has also drawn an opponent. The election to abolish AMWA and the council races drew a total of 767 early votes. Compare that to 2011, when only 509 turned out when Athens had a mayoral election and a city council seat on the ballot. At the time, Burton called the early turnout “on the high side.”

In the final days of the campaign, the kettle boiled over, and the battle over the issues spilled into the realm of personalities. On Wednesday, Burton announced her resignation, effective Dec. 31, a move, Burton said she hoped would return the focus of the election to a compelling question, “Who should be in charge of the city’s water?”

It’s a paramount question. In the future, as more and more Texans are in need of water, Athens needs to be sure of its supply. AMWA has made strides in that direction, acquiring a well farm that Executive Director Wylie Pirkle said should keep the taps running long after most of us are gone. City officials shrugged that off by saying, thank you very much, but we can take over the AMWA’s operations and fend for ourselves.

Ultimately, the vote in this election comes down to who you think you can trust. AMWA says that’s not the city, with its ever-increasing tax rate. The city cites its recent audit by Smith Lambright and Associates that gives it a clean bill of health. How  you ask that question determines how you’ll vote.

But there’s another question that’s not on the ballot. Will the hard feelings and strife concerning the AMWA issue be put aside when the votes are counted tonight? There will be many other important issues facing the city as the years go by, that will require its leaders to be functioning in one accord.

Thomas Huxley said, “It’s not important who is right, but what is right.”

I hope, after the results are announced for today’s elections, those involved will remember that they were fighting for the good of Athens. When future issues arise, we hope these valuable members of the community will be able to work together for their friends, neighbors and the people they serve.

Rich Flowers is news editor of the Athens Daily Review.

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