PUC recommends no investigation by AG into water dfistrict

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WEST PARIS — The Public Utilities Commission has preliminarily recommended that the Attorney General’s office not investigate allegations against former West Paris Water District Trustees and that the Commission terminate its own investigation and take no further action.

It has further recommended that the Attorney General’s office not investigate the practises of the current Water District Trustees.

The Recommended Decision, dated July 25 and written by the PUC Commission staff is a draft order only. Interested persons have until August 7 to respond.

A Final Recommendation by the three-member PUC Commission will likely be scheduled for a week or so later, according to PUC Administrative Director Harry Lanphear.

The eight-month investigation by the Public Utilities Commission was initiated in December of 2017 by a complaint to the Attorney’s General office from a “credible source” who raised a series of issues concerning the District’s Trustees and the way the District was being managed and operated. The Attorney General’s office referred the inquiry to the PUC Commission’s Consumer Assistance and Safety Division (CASD) because of the “number and seriousness” of the allegations.

According to information contained in the Recommended Decision, the PUC has the right to determine whether the informal proceeding should be terminated with no further action taken or whether the Commission request a formal investigation by the Attorney General’s office to further consider the acts and practices of the District in an adjudicatory proceeding.

In the Recommended Decision, the PUC stated that because of the many allegations included in the Dec. 20, 2017 Inquiry from the Office of the Attorney General  focus on the acts and practices of the District’s former Trustees and are not applicable to the current Trustees, the Commission said its focused its investigation on actions of the District’s current Trustees.
In the Recommended Decision, the Commission said it did not attempt to thoroughly investigate the actions of the District’s former Trustees, in large part because of the “sharp delineation between the acts and practices of the District’s former Trustees and the acts and practices of the District’s current Trustees.”
Because of that the Commission made no specific findings or recommendations in the Recommended Decision regarding District’s former Trustees.”

Officials notified

The local Water District was initially notified of the investigation earlier this year and given 10 questions to answer. The questions included allegations by the unknown complainant that the Trustees had given themselves pay raises in apparent violation of the District Charter, that Trustees were submitting time cards as employees, they billed for days they were on vacation and provided no documentation for travel reimbursement, among other questions.

While the PUC accepted many of the responses, some of them kicked off further questions and resulted in the opening of the Summary Investigation, according to PUC documents.

The Trustees of the West Paris Water District were then questioned for more than an hour by the PUC on subjects ranging from aging meters, irregular billing of its 232 customers, the Pioneer Street project to replace a 1950s transit pipe that Water District trustees say repeatedly fails, internal handling of correspondence, Trustees working and being paid as employees and other matters.

Although the answers satisfied some of the questions, on March 23, the PUC opened up a summary investigation into allegations against the West Paris Water District because the information received to date had either opened up new questions or needed further review.

Many of the allegations focused on the former Trustees and were not applicable to the current trustees, according to the Recommended Decision.

The PUC noted that Phil Edmonds served as a Trustee of the District from shortly after the District’s creation in 1963 until March 2018. During  Edmonds’ tenure as District Trustee, his wife, Barbara Edmonds, was the District’s bookkeeper.

The report states that for 50 years the Trustees, primarily Edmunds, operated as employees maintaining the water lines etc. for $15 an hour.

During the approximately 50 years Edmonds served on the District’s Board of Trustees, several other West Paris residents served as District Trustees. In addition to Edmonds, who retired in March 2018, former Trustees since 2008 included Greg Inman, who retired in February 2016; Shane Poland, who resigned in January, 2017 and Wayne Kennedy, who moved out of town in January 2018 and could no longer serve as a nonresident.

Barbara Edmonds served as bookkeeper from 1963 to March of 2017 when the district hired a part-time office manager. Lori Grass, wife of Selectman Michael Grass, was hired in March 2017 and resigned in May 2018.

In January 2018 the district also hired  Randy Gaul to do some of the work the Trustees had been doing. He is now training to be a district operator. The Recommended Decision states that two of the three current Trustees will continue to work minimally until the district determines whether it can afford to bring in more help.

The District’s Trustees at the time of Recommended Decision are Ralph Brown, chairman and Trustees since February, 2016, Mark Herrick and Clay Abbott, both elected at annual town meeting in 2018.

In the information received during deliberations, current Water District Trustee Mark Herrick said in his opinion the problems were in part due to a “there’s never been a problem, don’t see a problem now,” attitude of at least one 50-year Trustee.

Herrick told the PUC that clashing ideas of how the district should be operated and maintained escalated.

“It was some degree of personality clash, and there were two different frames of mind. And they just weren’t seeing eye to eye, and I think that’s pretty much the cause of the questions that have been brought forward,” he told the PUC.

In turn the PUC noted that the relatively new board have enacted a series of  “significant” changes that collectively constitute “a pervasive shift, and fundamental transition, from the way the District used to be run under former Trustees and the way it is now being run under its current Trustees.”

One of the changes is the hiring of employees to take over work the Trustees previously performed and were paid for and adopting bylaws that better define the Water District’s Trustees duties.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net

 

Allegations and responses

(The following lists the allegations and the full text or a synopsis of the PUC findings. Information in italics indicates discussion by the PUC to reached its recommendation.)

ALLEGATION 1: “The West Paris Water District board of trustees consisted until recently of three members, a husband and wife and one other person.”

Findings: This allegation appears to refer to Phil Edmonds, who served as a Trustee of the District from shortly after the District’s creation in 1963 until March 2018. During Mr. Edmonds’ tenure as District Trustee, his wife, Barbara Edmonds, was the District’s bookkeeper. Ms. Edmunds never served as a District Trustee. During the approximately 50 years Mr. Edmonds served on the District’s Board of Trustees, several other West Paris residents served as District Trustees.

ALLEGATION 2: “The wife has now retired, but the husband is still on the board.”

Findings: As noted above, this allegation appears to refer to Phil and Barbara Edmonds. Ms. Edmonds served as the District’s bookkeeper from the time her husband became a Trustee in the 1960s until March 2017, when the District hired a part-time office manager. Mr. Edmonds resigned from his position as District Trustee in March 2018.

ALLEGATION 3: “Recently, new office staff was brought in for the water district including a new billing clerk, who is closely related to a town selectperson.”

Findings: At the time this allegation was made, the District had an office manager whose name is Lori Grass. Ms. Grass was hired in March 2017 and is married to one of the West Paris Selectmen. Letter from Ralph Brown to Commission dated March 29, 2018 at 1. In January 2018, the District also hired Randy Gaul to do some of the work that had formerly been done by the District’s Trustees. Id. at 2. Mr. Gaul is now training to be the District’s operator.

Herrick told Commissioners the Trustees are temporary pending our reorganization and determining whether or not we can afford to and find someone to fill a full-time position.

ALLEGATION 4: “The billing clerk noticed many oddities, such as the trustees giving themselves raises in apparent violation of the district’s charter; the trustees are entitled to an annual stipend of $500, but the actual stipend is significantly more.”

Findings: The District’s current Trustees have received differing levels of compensation for their services as Trustees and as District Officers. Contrary to the District’s Charter, for a period of approximately two years, Mr. Brown received an annual stipend of $400 for being a District Officer. Beginning in April 2018, each Trustee will receive $100 annually for his service as a Trustee and, except if the Board of Trustees votes to compensate the Treasurer as permitted by the District’s Charter, will receive no compensation for his service as a District Officer.

The Commission stated there is no evidence in the record that the current Trustees have given themselves raises in violation of the District’s Charter. On May 17, 2018, the District adopted bylaws that, among other things, specifically address Trustee compensation.

ALLEGATION 5: “As well, the trustees themselves are said to have submitted time sheets and been paid as employees, but refused to disclose what they were doing for work.”

Finding: Mr. Brown and Mr. Abbott are employees of the District. Mr. Brown and Mr. Abbott submit timesheets on a quarterly basis. These timesheets describe the work done by Mr. Brown and Mr. Abbott.

PUC said they believe the allegation either referred to former Trustees or failure to keep accurate records or a misunderstanding led to the belief that the Trustess were being paid for more than operational work.

ALLEGATION 6: “Oftentimes, the so-called work days were days they were on vacation out of the area.”

Finding: The Commission Staff found no evidence to support this allegation.

The allegation appeared to be about an incident involving a former Trustee.

ALLEGATION 7: “Reportedly, the trustees also have been reimbursed for fuel for their personal vehicles, but with no documentation of their travels.”

Finding: The Trustees have adopted a policy that allows Trustees/employees to receive reimbursement for fuel used while reading meters or working on projects, such as a main break, in inclement weather. The District is currently reviewing how other water utilities handle this issue.

The Trustees have recently adopted a fuel-reimbursement policy. Brown stated, “When we have a situation that we know we’re going to take many hours, we fill up our vehicle at our own expense, do our work, and then we’re reimbursed with that fuel … . To pay somebody for four miles when their engine was running for 12 hours isn’t fair compensation.” Brown said his research showed it was more efficient to keep the motor running, when for example, one is taking meter readings every four to seven minutes. Brown is looking at how other Districts deal with the issue. The employees use their private cars.

ALLEGATION 8: “Some customers get water bills, while others apparently do not.”

Findings: The Commission Staff found no evidence to support this allegation.

Brown said each of the 232 customers are billed quarterly.

ALLEGATION 9: “Meetings of the board are held at the homes of the trustees with no notice to the public of the meetings.”

Finding: The record indicates that the District’s past Boards (1) met irregularly, (2) met without consistent notice to the public about the timing and agenda of the meetings and (3) kept incomplete minutes regarding Board meetings. However, the current Trustees have established a process for meetings and notice that is consistent with the requirements of the Maine Freedom of Access Access Act.

The District’s Charter does not address the frequency of Board meetings, notice of those meeting, and minutes from those meetings. Herrick said meetings were irregular in the past. The Commission stated in its decision that when Mr. Edmunds was a Trustee, the Board held its meetings at the home of Mr. and Ms. Edmunds. In March 2017, the District began leasing office space at 253 Bethel Road in West Paris. Herrick said the Trustees voted to meet on the first Tuesday of every month and appropriate notices will be made. Minutes are now being taken and retained.

ldixon@sunmediagroup.net