Left with an empty Board of Directors to guide the Basin Water and Sewer District, the Jefferson County Commission stepped in April 21 to encourage folks to serve, as well as answer questions about how the District will move forward.
The Commission became involved when the four members of the Basin Water and Sewer Board resigned after being served recall petitions. Rather than participate in a recall election, MJ Williams, Joy Lewis, Mike Jellison and David Englund instead chose to step down — leaving the board devoid of leadership until May 5.
On May 5, Dede Rhodes will take her place on the Board, but four positions remain open.
The year-long controversy that led to the resignations stem from the prior Board seeking to make improvements to the community’s water system infrastructure. Those improvements included preparations to obtain a loan from the state, installing water meters and adjusting water rates to pay back the loan. Opponents objected to the water meters, were concerned about the small community’s ability to pay back the loan and believed that there were other solutions to stemming leaks and cutting costs.
At the April 21 meeting, the Commission offered residents an application for appointment form to fill out. To be qualified, an applicant must be 18 years of age or older, a registered voter, a United States citizen and a resident of the district, or an owner of property in the district who is a Montana resident.
The form also includes a question asking why the applicant wants to be appointed to the board.
Commissioner Cory Kirsch, who serves the Basin community, took the lead at the meeting and explained that since the District appears to be split, the Commission will look for applicants that are in the middle when it comes to the controversy that led to the demise of the former Board.
“Let us know your intentions,” said Kirsch.
The Commission will take applications until April 28 at 5 p.m. and will appoint the four new members on May 4. There are two unexpired one-year terms and two unexpired three-year term positions available. A full term is four years.
Kirsch said the Commission may want to conduct some interviews. Those who filled out an application at the meeting on April 21 were advised to put them in a sealed box in the back of the Community Hall.
“All we’re poised to do is get the Board back together,” said Kirsch.
Board Chairman Leonard Wortman said that Montana State University will provide training for the new board.
After going over the application process, Kirsch asked if the audience of about 25 people had any questions or comments.
Bill Norris said he wanted an open and responsible board.
“I think that’s what we’re all looking for,” he said.
Nancy Smallwood said the community had tried to explain to the prior board that it didn’t want water meters.
“No one listened,” she said.
Celeste Sotola wants a new board that can turn the page, “and we can all start over.”
Jellison advised the new board to not dismiss all the work the previous board had done.
Williams said that everything the prior board had done was public record, and dating back to 2015, numerous state and regional agencies had given the same opinion on what direction to go.
“It’s not hocus pocus, it’s all there,” she said.
Clerk Serina Eckman, who also stepped away from her job in the wake of the board resignations, said there was no wrongdoing with the finances that she could see. Eckman was relatively new to her job, taking over from the previous clerk, Nissa Manley, who had resigned last year due to the ongoing controversy.
The work of the District is “much more complicated and detailed,” than it seems, such as meeting regulations imposed by the Department of Environmental Quality, said Eckman.
Nancy Smallwood said she appreciated the work of the former board and that it had been a disagreement on how to proceed and nothing personal.
Bryher Herak said there can be disagreements, but when petitions went out stating the former board had violated their oaths of office and insinuated that there were problems with the finances, “that’s calling people criminals,” she said.
“Let’s disagree on issues and not make innuendos,” said Herak.
The original petitions for two members, Williams and Lewis, had described an alleged situation in 2017 that involved the District finances. The petitions were later revised so that all four matched and referred only to a vote in January to adjust water rates.
All the petitions accuse the former members of violating their oaths of office, incompetence and official misconduct.