By Jeff Clark/Monroe Journal and Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
ABERDEEN – This Monroe County community alongside the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway is much like any other small Southern town, yet Aberdeen is a city of contradictions.
It is a place of antebellum homes, middle-class neighborhoods and low-income housing – sometimes within the same block.
It’s a community marked by rich and poor, black and white, a city with a thriving downtown of upscale clothing stores, cafes and antique stores and, less than a mile on the same street, empty fast-food restaurants and the shell of what once was a Walmart.
And, for the past two years, it’s a town shocked and disrupted by problems associated with its city-owned power company’s operation. State and federal investigations reportedly have those problems in their sights.
At the heart of the problems are questions about whether some city officials have been running the Aberdeen Electric Department like their own little club, deciding who must pay and who doesn’t have to pay their bills. The billing system’s accuracy also is at issue after numerous customers have challenged what they claim are exorbitant totals.
At least three federal lawsuits seek damages for problems customers claim were caused by the department.
Aberdeen officials have been relatively quiet about the myriad allegations, especially when questioned on the issue at city board meetings. Some residents have stated they are tired of the board’s not responding to their questions about how their meters are being read and the rates they paying for electricity.
In a contradictory way, the scandal has been a uniting force felt by almost everyone as the talk of the town from the salons and barber shops on Meridian Street, to the checkout lines at the markets and banks.
But many of Aberdeen’s residents insist they won’t let their town perish under the potentially polarizing problems.
The longtime residents
Terri Wheeler, 37, has called Aberdeen home all of her life. It’s where she and her husband decided to rear a family.
Wheeler says she hopes the city’s current problems will not permanently tarnish the town’s image.
“Aberdeen has a very distinctive charm and personality,” she said. “There is a very giving spirit about the people of Aberdeen. It’s a beautiful town full of beautiful people.
“I just don’t want the negative publicity to overshadow the wonderful things about Aberdeen.”
For Martha Thomas, 66, the problems surrounding the electric department are part of a small town’s growing process. She also said she feels as if the city’s government keeps its residents uninformed.
“This is a terrible time for Aberdeen,” Thomas said. “I think it is totally wrong the way the electric department matters are being handled. I also think one of the major problems is that the mayor and the board keep us in the dark. We do not have transparency in our government.”
Still, she loves her town.
“There is a lot of potential (here),” she said. “Although this is painful, it is the beginning of a better Aberdeen.”
One of Aberdeen’s downtown business owners, Flora Outlaw, also is a lifelong resident. Outlaw, 58, has owned Flora’s Collections for 16 years and sees brighter days ahead for the city.
“I think a lot of this has been blown out of proportion,” Outlaw said. “There are a lot of good things that go on in Aberdeen that no one is talking about. I think things are going to get better.”
Two vocal opponents of the electric department dilemma and the city’s government are Ricky Bowen, First United Pentecostal Church minister, and Jeff Doty, an Aberdeen business owner.
Bowen, who was the center of a recent city trial in which he was charged with obstructing justice and receiving stolen property, has been acting as a self-appointed community watchdog since his nephew, Brandon Scott, was charged with embezzling from the electric department in 2009. Bowen said he is the fourth generation of his family to call Aberdeen home.
“I have been here my entire life,” said Bowen, 49. “The city leadership in Aberdeen is not concerned with the growth of this town nor the welfare of the city – it’s all about personal agendas and vendettas.
“A city without leadership becomes a ghost town. I do not want to see the town I love die.”
Doty also is no stranger to the electric department controversy. An outspoken presence at the Aberdeen Board of Aldermen meetings, Doty, 48, said he is tired of waiting for action from the city’s government.
“I have lived here for 20 years and I have never seen Aberdeen like this,” he said. “I don’t understand why the electric department hasn’t been run like a business. I also don’t understand why there haven’t been more arrests – how long is an ongoing investigation? The Watergate investigation didn’t take this long.”
Doty said he’s been accused of hating the town, but that’s not so.
“I own three businesses in Aberdeen – one of which we only bought six months ago,” he responded. “Believe me, I do not hate Aberdeen. I just want to see better things for this community.”
Jan and Mary-Ellen Krummrich are part of Aberdeen’s growing retirement community. The couple fell in love with the town’s Victorian architecture and decided to purchase a home here 13 years ago. After moving from Texas two years ago, they now are permanent residents.
“Moving to Aberdeen was one of the best decisions we have ever made,” Mary-Ellen said. “We have some great friends here. The quality of life in Aberdeen is very good.”
The Krummriches are very active in their community and both are members of several civic and historic organizations. According to Jan, Aberdeen is a very giving community.
“There are a lot of great assets in this town,” he said. “The community has a very vital spirit and a ‘can do’ attitude. The people of Aberdeen are very giving of themselves and their time.”
He predicts change is imminent: “I believe the ship has turned and we are in the process of ridding the town of corruption.”
Mary-Ellen concurred, saying Aberdeen’s situation is not unique.
“It is very healthy for us to clean up the corruption and the electric department,” she said. “Small-town corruption is very common across the country. This is a healthy thing – it’s Aberdeen moving forward.”
The native son
When Billy Brasfield, 46, left Aberdeen after graduating from Aberdeen High School, he said he never planned to return.
One of Aberdeen’s best-known natives, Brasfield has made a name for himself as a highly sought-after celebrity makeup artist on both coasts. Although he mostly splits his time between Los Angeles and New York, Brasfield still has family in Aberdeen, as well as several properties.
“I wish everyone that has never left Aberdeen could move away so they could see how great they have it there,” he said. “I have never been anywhere that has the beauty of Aberdeen. When I speak about Aberdeen to people who aren’t from the South, they call it ‘Mayberry.’ Nowadays, it’s more like Mayberry with a lot of problems.”
Brasfield said city government isn’t the only culprit in the current situation.
“Complacency and laziness have contributed to this problem,” Brasfield said. “And there is also the factor of people in the town not being proactive – it’s the pettiness of a small town. We are all guilty of that.”
He also says the utility service billing inconsistencies have cost him money, too. He’s filed a lawsuit because of them.
“I’ve had bills for $800, $750 and I don’t even live there,” he said about his utility account. “This is 100 percent invalid – it is criminal. This has deeply hurt the core of Aberdeen.”
But like the rest of those with deep ties to the community, Brasfield said he is not giving up on Aberdeen.
“It is worth saving,” he insists. “At first glance, everything seems perfect there. Then, you start peeling back the layers and things start to show. Regardless of its problems, (Aberdeen’s) charm is still there.”
Recently, the city board voted to hire a Jackson company to read residential power meters and to hire former Okolona Electric Department manager Jerry Ledbetter to manage the city’s electric department.
Ricky Bowen and Jeff Doty agree, saying better days will come from better leadership.
Added Bowen, “This town is worth saving and we as citizens are going to save it.”
Aberdeen at a glance
County: Monroe (county seat)
– Population: 6,089
– Median income: $27,895
– Racial makeup: Black (60.2%)
White Non-Hispanic (38.7%)
Mayor Jim Ballard
Vice Mayor (Ward 2 Alderman) Cloyd Garth
Ward 1 Alderman Alonzo Sykes
Ward 3 Alderman David Ewing
Ward 4 Alderman Randy Nichols
Ward 5 Alderman John Allen
Chief of Police Henry Randle
The Aberdeen Electric Department Crisis
– A chronology of what has happened.
Aberdeen Mayor Jim Ballard states that the Aberdeen Electric Department is in arrears almost $300,000. Electric department manager Adrian Garth and Ward 2 Alderman Cloyd Garth dispute this number. It is later verified by City Auditor Dale Pierce. Pierce said the $300,000 figure is accurate to within $14,000. However, he said the figure does not represent people with past due bills that have not been shut off.
Aberdeen resident Mary Wilson provides the Monroe Journal with her power bill totaling more than $4,000.
Ballard forms a task force to look into the electric department. The task force presents its findings to the board. No criminal investigation is launched.
Pierce tells board members the electric department is not enforcing its shut-off policy.
The city’s shut-off policy is revised and the board approves a promissory note for customers behind on their bills. The note requires a one-third payment plus current payment for three months.
Ballard and Garth continue arguments over procedures at electric department.
Electric department experiences a series of break-ins and thefts, according to Garth.
Bular Daniel addresses board regarding her power being shut off “without proper notice.”
Daniel and her husband, Essie, file a class action suit against the city of Aberdeen and Garth.
Viki Mason, Billy Brasfield and Cecil Jones file suit against the city of Aberdeen, Adrian Garth, Cloyd Garth, Ward 1 Alderman Alonzo Sykes and former Ward 3 Alderman Willie A. Cook claiming the electric department uses race and favoritism in who does and does not get their power shut off.
City hires Alliance Collections to start collecting old electric department debts.
Electric department worker Brandon Scott is arrested and charged with embezzling from electric department.
Some Aberdeen citizens, led by First Pentecostal Church Minister Ricky Bowen, form protest group to show support for Scott, who is Bowen’s nephew and one of his church members.
Board votes to transfer Scott to street department at same rate of pay while the situation is investigated.
Scott’s case is brought before the Monroe County Grand Jury for a second time in March.
David Brock, a lineman for the Aberdeen Electric Department, tells the Monroe Journal that Charles Hale, an electric department employee, allegedly receives free power.
A meter, allegedly from Hale’s house, reportedly shows up at a meeting between Ballard, Bowen, Aberdeen business owner Jeff Doty and an investigator with the State Auditor’s Office.
Mayor and board quorum meets in Ballard’s office to discuss Hale’s employment.
Hale is fired by the board of aldermen on a 3-2 vote for allegedly stealing services.
Aberdeen Police Department launches official investigation into electric department.
Martha Davidson Nevitt, Norma Buckingham Walker and Sandra Chism are arrested and charged with felonious theft of utilities.
Aberdeen Electric Department Manager Adrian Garth is arrested and charged with two counts of felonious extortion. Some Aberdeen residents accuse Garth of trading sexual favors for free electricity.
Minister Bowen is charged with obstruction of justice and receiving private property, both misdemeanors, allegedly for having Hale’s meter. Bowen denies ever possessing of the meter except when it was given to a state investigator in November.
Ballard becomes interim electric department chief.
Ricky Garth, brother of Aberdeen Vice Mayor and Ward 2 Alderman Cloyd Garth, is accused of stealing electricity. Garth was arrested almost two weeks after a Jan. 22 warrant was issued for his arrest.
After an almost eight-hour trial, Bowen enters an agreement with the city of Aberdeen to have his charges dismissed, if he agrees not to sue the city.
Northern District Public Service Brandon Presley says his office has received several complaints regarding the electric department.
Ballard is arrested on bribery charges after an incident at the electric department. A motion to withdraw the charges is made less than a week later, although the county prosecutor has yet to be notified.
The board votes to hire a new manager for the electric department.