The story so far: We published a story about the financial mismanagement and several laws broken by the North Lee Water Association with the help of information provided to us by a whistleblower. Then the whistleblower, Sonny Noble, was fired the same day we published as reported in the follow up story North Lee whistleblower fired. Now we follow up with an update to the saga.
TUPLEO – Whistleblower and former North Lee County Water Association employee Sonny Noble has started an effort to fire North Lee County Water Association board of directors members he holds responsible for firing him.
Noble, 31, also plans to soon return personal belongings he removed from the rural water association’s main office in Saltillo three days ago.
He has started a petition drive for the nonprofit cooperative’s 4,260 members to remove five board of directors from leadership roles and return him to work.
The former outside maintenance supervisor said he was fired Friday for providing a public document showing widespread financial mismanagement, broken state and federal laws and regulations, and noncompliance related to a $1.2 million federal loan.
However, NLCWA manager Jim Banker used missing time from work as justification to remove the employee from work, Noble said. Board members Donnie Leslie and Gordon Gibbons witnessed Banker fire the employee of nearly six years.
Noble was fired the same day the Daily Journal published information about NLCWA’s 2013 audit.
North Lee board president Terry Anderson said Friday the water association policies prevent discussion of personnel issues. He did not return a call requesting comment late Sunday.
To call a special meeting to consider returning Noble back to work and removing board members, five percent of North Lee members, about 230, would need to sign a petition. A number of association members have voiced disagreement with Noble’s firing. One member, an attorney, has voiced interest in representing the fired employee related to possible legal matters.
Noble said he feels confident in securing enough petition signatures.
“I’ve got a lot of free time to make this happen,” he said Sunday.
At a special meeting to remove board members, each board member facing removal will have a chance to justify why he should remain in the position. The association members calling for removal would also have a chance to speak. Association members who attend the meeting would vote.
If the vote supports removal of a board member, an election for new members will be held at the same meeting.
Removal of board members could impact the water association’s plans to proceed with an $8.9 million USDA Rural Development loan for six new water wells and tanks, some in Tupelo’s recently annexed areas. The city of Tupelo opposes the project involving annexed areas and continues negotiations to convince North Lee to cede territory served in annexed parts of the city.
Not the first time
Noble has a history of ruffling feathers of board members of the Lee County nonprofit cooperative. In 2011, he shared corruption and wrongdoing information with the Daily Journal that resulted in each board member resigning and then-manager Dan Durham pleading guilty to falsifying federal water quality reports. He received three years of probation.
After exposing water association corruption in 2011, Noble said he received threats of violence – that he would be “taken out.” Noble kept his job as board members and top management left and has tried to keep watch over shady activities.
Noble said he’s not surprised he was fired the same day public reports surfaced of the association’s financial mismanagement and federal loan compliance issues.
If Banker did fire Noble for missing time from work, it seems to violate the water association’s employee discipline and termination policies.
“In order for progressive discipline to be effective, it is necessary that supervisors remember at all times that it is their purpose to correct the employee and not to punish the employee unless (he) has committed an offense which warrants immediate termination of employment or previous disciplinary action has failed to correct the problem,” the employee handbook states.
Before firing North Lee employees, policy requires a lengthy process if problem actions aren’t immediate termination offenses.
The process involves verbal counseling of the issue, written warning, three-day suspension and then termination.
Nothing in Noble’s personnel file he provided to the Daily Journal showed any documentation of concern related to him not showing up to work. In fact, Banker told Noble he could take time from work to focus on personal issues related to child custody matters, other North Lee employees confirmed to the Daily Journal.
Board members Donnie Leslie and Gordon Gibbons and a North Lee employee witnessed Banker tell Noble he was fired for spending too much time from work. Other board members Noble will petition for removal include Anderson, Tom Tindall and Ray Stanford.
The former employee said North Lee board members not making available to the public audit findings of shoddy financial records and noncompliance of the federal loan, not using proper protocol when firing him and other issues justify their leaving leadership roles. He also wants his job back.
“I just have something inside of me to where I can’t sit and watch wrongdoing and not speak out against it,” Noble said. “I have to fight for what is right.”
Current Board members
Randy “Fud” Hutcheson