Utility customers flood meeting

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – The North Lee County Water Association has an interim board of directors after a raucous meeting Tuesday night that followed a series of reported scandals.
Hundreds of water customers jammed an open shed behind the association’s headquarters on Birmingham Ridge Road to demand answers from the leadership about dirty water, allegations of fraud and dissatisfaction with the board.
By the time the three-hour meeting ended, four board directors had resigned and walked out, the board president had disappeared and customers had selected interim board directors to overhaul the organization.
A formal election for new directors will take place within 30 days. Those elected will serve staggered three-year terms. In the meantime, the Mississippi Rural Water Association will draft new bylaws that are current with the state laws.
Draft bylaws will be sent to all 4,400 association customers for their review before the interim board officially adopts them.
In the meantime, the interim board will meet with attorney Bill Beasley this morning to get briefed on an ongoing investigation into numerous allegations made against the water association.
Directors also will meet with members of the Mississippi Rural Water Association and the state Department of Health. Those representatives also were present at Tuesday’s meeting, along with Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and two of his investigators.
Lee County Sheriff’s Department deputies stood guard in case of any violence. Despite numerous outbursts from angry water customers, though, no one became physical.
Among the meeting’s revelations was that the Department of Health has opened an investigation into allegations that North Lee’s monthly water samples are falsified. The agency’s director of environmental health, Keith Allen, confirmed that action but didn’t know when he’d have answers.
Presley, who refereed the mostly disorganized gathering, said the Attorney General’s Office also opened an investigation into the matter. But a spokeswoman from that agency last week said she could neither confirm or deny involvement.
Several association employees who attended the meeting said publicly that their boss made them paint houses and fix shutters while on the clock at North Lee. They also said at least two board directors – Mitchell Scruggs and Don Winders – were aware of the situation.
“I believe the board has a little knowledge of it,” said employee Sonny Noble. “We’ve been to Scruggs’ race shop. Mitchell has been there when we were there.”
Scruggs left the meeting before he could respond to those allegations.
Noble also said he was sent to fix leaky water lines under Winders’ house – something a private plumber should do; not the water association, he said.
Winders, sitting at a long table with other board directors, leaned over and told the employees that they should be fired for speaking to the media and “starting this whole mess.”
It was Noble and several other employees who first told the Daily Journal their supervisor, Dan Durham, forced them to work odd jobs while on the clock at North Lee. The jobs included maintenance and repair to several properties owned by board President Mitchell Scruggs, as well as those owned by Cooper Realty.
Durham was not at the meeting to respond to those allegations.
In the meantime, customers complained of dirty, smelly and oily water and claimed they got no response from the board when they asked for relief.
“My water system was completely covered in oil,” said customer Mary Ann Lewis, addressing the board at the meeting, “and you all told me to see God, it was an act of God.”
Lewis wasn’t alone. Others came forward with their own allegations and tales of filthy water. Gina Black thrust a jar of brown water into view, saying it came from her faucet and was intolerable to drink.
The board was pelted with rapid-fire questions and accusations from the throng within minutes of starting the meeting. It was in stark contrast to the mild manner in which the gathering began.
Scruggs had opened the session by welcoming various agency representatives, the media and the public. His voice was slow and calm and soft. He then read minutes from the prior board meeting on Sept. 6, including a part stating that all but two members had voted to step down from the board. Scruggs then made a motion to amend those minutes to reinstate the members.
“It was suggested that board members would step down as directors and would instead serve as volunteer members,” Scruggs said, explaining that they wanted to see if “it was possible to do this and operate as managing members.”
But since it wasn’t possible, the board would correct that action from the previous meeting and continue to serve.
Presley said his office determined the board did, indeed, resign and couldn’t reinstate itself. But Beasley, whom the board retained Friday, said he believes the board could continue serving.
Beasley also addressed the crowd by saying he was in no way associated with the board prior to last week and that he intends to conduct an independent investigation of the allegations.
“We intend to look at all the books and records, we’ll come back to the board with what ought to be done with Mr. Durham and with Mr. Scruggs,” he said.
He also added that the board didn’t intend to operate illegally but that it never had an attorney and its bylaws hadn’t been updated since the association was formed in 1966.
“I have reviewed the minutes, the bylaws, and all I can say is, it is completely messed up,” Beasley said. “It was supposed to be staggered terms, seven years. Over time, it got lost in the records. What happened is they had a meeting and no one would come and they’d elect same people over and over. It’s wrong. It needs to be fixed.”
Within moments, water customers in attendance began shouting questions and demanding the entire board resign.
Many directors eventually did.
Winders started the procession by writing his resignation on a yellow legal pad and handing it to Presley. Terry Herring, Hal Swann and Jimmy Bucy then followed suit. All then left the meeting.
At that point, Scruggs left the session, too. But he didn’t resign.
One board member, Lamar Hunter, was not present and is still on the board.
Customers cheered as the men walked out.
Of the remaining members – Wayne Fitzner and Bruce Parker – Parker agreed to resign because his appointment in April violated the bylaws, which call for seven members. Parker had been number eight.
According to the bylaws, Fitzner could reappoint anyone to fill the vacancies. But he agreed to let assembled customers choose. About one dozen people were nominated, and everyone voted for four.
Fitzner appointed them. They are: recently resigned board director Bruce Parker, former Tupelo Airport Director Terry Anderson, and customers Perry Whitaker and Nancy Frideres.
The group voted to protect the employees who spoke out and to strip Durham of his ability to hire and fire.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com