North Lee water presses ahead

By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal

North Lee County Water Association customers are likely to see improved service as time goes on, but they may wait a bit longer for decisions about criminal charges associated with a 2011 scandal that brought down the organization’s power structure.
“Nobody has brought anything to us, no case to be presented to a grand jury,” District Attorney Trent Kelly said Wednesday.
Kelly was responding to Daily Journal questions about whether anyone will be prosecuted for admitted crimes associated with previous mismanagement of the water association.
In September 2011, a Daily Journal investigation of the association exposed practices of using some on-duty employees to do private jobs for the then-manager and board president. They both denied it at the time.
Documents also showed long-standing payments to that manager’s grandson, whom others said got paid for doing nothing.
Last week, the 66-year-old former manager, Dan Durham, pleaded guilty to a federal charge that he lied about mandatory water samples. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine as punishment.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson is the only law enforcement official who hint on possible action from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office.
“If anybody is responsible for crimes coming from this investigation,” Johnson said Wednesday, “I can assure you something will be done.”
Attorney General spokeswoman Jan Schaefer would not confirm or deny that the AG’s office is looking at what’s left of the North Lee scandal.
As for other agencies:
• Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley says his office “notified all the appropriate people” about the results of its investigation into questionable practices by NLCWA.
• NLCWA board attorney Bill Beasley of Tupelo says he and others worked with the District Attorney and Attorney General’s offices and made “all records” available to them and the FBI.
• The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oxford is done with its part, which only focused on the federal reporting violation.
In Durham’s plea deal, the government agreed not to charge him with anything else related to the water-sample violations.
Durham’s reports claimed samples were taken, as required, from throughout the 4,400-member association’s system.
In fact, the water was taken from one faucet alongside County Road 503.

IMPROVEMENTS
Since the scandal’s dust has settled, NLCWA’s new board president Ken Clemons prefers to look ahead, not back on the past year, although he can speak at length about all the hard work – by unpaid volunteers, among others – that’s gone into putting the water system on better footing.
“We are trying to serve our community,” he said.
A new board, new bylaws and new leadership are in place after months of long meetings and hard work, Clemons said.
The changes came after a volatile annual meeting Oct. 3, 2011, during which four directors resigned, the then-board president left early and hundreds of customers present demanded change.
They also repeated claims about dirty, oily and foul-smelling water from the antiquated system.
“If anything good has come from this,” Clemons noted, “it’s that we didn’t get any ‘bad water’ reports. It was dirty, but not unsafe.”
This week, a Mississippi Department of Health report bears that out and points to substantial improvements as NLCWA continues physical upgrades to boost water flow and capacity.
Melissa Parker, deputy director of MDH’s Office of Environment Health, termed NLCWA’s latest inspection results showing “definite improvement.”
“All of the North Lee Water Association systems scored a rating of 4.3 out of 5 during an inspections conducted in June of 2012,” she said in an email to the Daily Journal.
That compares with 2.7-3.3 out of 5 for inspections in June 2011.
Clemons admits the system still has 12-18 months of work to go before additional improvements are completed.
He also reports modernization of water meters, management practices and record-keeping, as well as digitization of systemwide mapping, which he says is crucial to its maintenance and expansion for growth.
The system is well under way with changing out all its meters. Also done were an audit of the system and a hydraulic study.
“We found lots of structural problems, but we’ve corrected a lot of them,” Clemons said.
He thanked Presley and the PSC for its work to help the association get back to where it needed to be, especially its certification to do business in all the areas it was working.
But Clemons was reluctant to criticize anyone for the problems of the past.
“Let’s move forward,” he said.
As for the future, Clemons sees the water system’s 14 sub-systems approaching capacity for their ability to serve customers.
NLCWA leaders have hired engineering help for an environmental study and a growth plan to include six new elevated wells.
“When that gets done, we’ll have good flow and we ought to be able to start more effective flushing,” he explained.
The board’s goal, Clemons said, is to make improvements with the next decade in mind.

MORE OPENNESS
As far as further criminal investigations from the water association’s history, Clemons said he hasn’t had any communication with law enforcement.
NLCWA’s attorney, Bill Beasley, said of that part of the story, “Essentially, it’s in the DA’s hands.”
Still, PSC Commissioner Presley hopes for expanded openness in the association’s operation.
North Lee’s board is not required by law to hold open meetings or make its records available to the public, a situation which confounds Presley.
“I still support legislation to require water associations to be under the Mississippi Open Meetings and Open Records law,” like the electric power associations are, Presley said this week. “What’s wrong with that?”
He also praises NLCWA for the obvious improvements in the past year.
While Clemons admits he isn’t interested in setting a precedent for openness for the state’s 1,300-plus fellow rural water associations, he reports that the board has adjusted policy to allow 30 minutes for public comment time at the beginning of board meetings.
Board minutes also are available, especially to members, after a written request.
patsy.brumfield@journalinc.com