Elections have come and gone for years without the Athens Municipal Water Authority getting much attention. But this year, the fate of the entity is in the balance.
On May 10, whether or not the 57-year-old authority has a future, is in the hands of the voters. The proposition to appear on the City of Athens election ballot calls for a yes or no vote on an ordinance, “abolishing and dissolving the Athens Municipal Water Authority, eliminating the associated ad-valorem tax assessed and collected by the authority, and vesting the City of Athens with all assets and operations of the Authority.”
Citizens will also elect city-council members, and select members for the Authority Board, which would be disbanded if the entity is dissolved.
Early voting begins April 28, and runs through May 6, and will be conducted at the Henderson County Elections Office on Larkin Street.
The series of steps that led to the election began in September 2013, when the Authority notified the city that it wanted to change the 20-year fixed-term agreement drafted in 2011. In December, AMWA filed suit in the 173rd District Court in Henderson County, 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.
“This is an action that the AMWA regrets is necessary,” the suit states, “but is one that we believe is required under our duties of the AMWA district.”
The city council responded in a December meeting by voting to abolish AMWA.
“The city council is deeply-concerned about AMWA’s broader motives, and that the citizens of Athens must waste taxpayer dollars on litigating this issue, instead of discussing an amicable and expedient resolution on behalf of all citizens and taxpayers of Athens,” Athens Mayor Jerry Don Vaught said.
City Council Member Carol Barton said she remembers when the original AMWA board was formed, and believes they would be appalled at the actions of the recent members.
City Administrator Pam Burton said AMWA never questioned an expenditure until October 2013, and continually voted to pay all invoices submitted for payment.
Two weeks later, on Jan. 13, the council voted on a second reading of the ordinance to abolish AMWA. As Mayor Jerry Don Vaught called for a vote, AMWA Attorney Martin Bennett 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 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.
AMWA countered the council vote by gathering signatures on a petition to call an election on the abolishment question. The Texas Local Government Code gave the Authority 30 days to get signatures equal to 10 percent of the total votes cast in the most recent election for municipal officers. The AMWA petition gathered 374.
The TLGC states that after the petition is presented, the governing body shall reconsider the ordinance. If the governing body doesn’t repeal the ordinance, it must be submitted to a popular vote.
The city council declined to reverse its position on the ordinance, and set the May 10 election to resolve the issue.
Meanwhile the legal action between the parties continues. On Jan. 13, hours before the city council voted to abolish AMWA, the parties appeared in 173rd District Court to argue the Water Authority’s request for a restraining order to stop the city from taking action. Visiting Judge Joe Clayton ruled against the city’s claim that the court did not have jurisdiction in the case. After hearing the decision, the city filed an accelerated appeal to the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler.
On April 7, AMWA attorneys stated in a brief that the city has mismanagement issues. According to the document, since 2008, the City has budget deficits totaling $2,688,323. Over that period, according to the brief, the city has raised advalorem taxes from $.4437 in 2007 to $.6451 in 2013.
The brief states that placing AMWA’s property, assets, water rights and cash in the hands of the City would only threaten the viability of the City’s water supply, operations and future growth, and is not in the best interest of Athenians.
“If AMWA is abolished, and its assets assumed by the City, given the financial history of the city, AMWA’s significant, positive cash reserves ($4 million) would more than likely be placed into the general fund of the city, and squandered,” the brief said.
City officials have discounted that claim on numerous occasions. In a debate on March 31 between the city and AMWA, Councilman Aubrey Jones stated:
“There have been rumors going around that the city needs that money to make up for financial gaps in its own budget, and to make up for other things. The city will take those assets, and use them for the purpose of maintaining the water supply. The city is mandated to do that. As I said earlier, that is one of the main functions of the city, to maintain a stable and reliable water supply for its citizens.”
On election day, three city council members will face challenges, two of those from candidates who resigned from the Water Authority Board to make the race.
Place 2 City Council member Carol Barton is challenged by former AMWA board member Thomas Joe Whatley, who lost a mayor’s race to incumbent Randy Daniel in 2011.
Place 3, incumbent Aubrey Jones is opposed by Charles Elliott, who also recently left the Authority board. In Place 4, incumbent Elaine Jenkins is opposed by Tres Winn.
The AMWA Board of Directors election has drawn four candidates for the board of which two will be elected. Billy Carter, Mike Peek, Ed Gatlin and Greg Hisey are on the ballot.