Boards Meet To Polish Policy, Talk Consolidation While Investigation Continues
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
The Chuckey and Cross Anchor utility boards held a joint workshop on Wednesday to update policies in a manner that would create more uniformity between the two districts.
This is the first of several moves the districts may make to combine into one large utility district -- a move that the districts' attorney, Ed Kershaw, said may be a possibility for their future.
Combining, he said, or a complete split into two independent districts, should be possible at the boards' discretion.
The boards are considering this move following recent preliminary audit findings by local Certified Public Accountant Mickey Ellis, who reported finding "questionable practices by the management" of the districts.
Since that time, board members have discussed in meetings uncovering a nearly $8,000 retirement party for a former manager, continuing payments to that employee after retirement, large cell phone allowances and bonuses, and alleged unequal treatment to employees.
Cross Anchor Board President Lloyd Dawson noted that he has been the one at recent meetings to push for the two districts to combine in light of the recent issues, which members say were largely possible through their lack of knowledge of the other board's actions.
"I can't see anything but positive from it, from my point of view," Dawson said. "There may be loan applications or something like that that's not easy to fix, but that's something we'd have to dig into."
Kershaw agreed that there could be some benefits, but also offered a word of caution.
"The biggest question, and you get into politics on that, is, Would your constituents, if you will, or the people who are paying your bills, object to it?" Kershaw said.
"If they all start saying, 'We don't want to combine,' then you might have a problem. But logistically and practically, what you're saying makes sense."
Chuckey Board President John Carter has not endorsed combining the districts, but has instead agreed that the districts must either be combined or completely split.
Currently, the two districts work in very close conjunction out of the same office and utilize many of the same employees.
"At the present time, if you're going to continue to operate in the same manner, I would suggest that you do [meet] together, because you all are discussing the same issues about the same people," Kershaw told the boards.
However, he further recommended that the boards maintain separate minutes and obtain more information from the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) prior to either combining or completely splitting the two districts.
MTAS provides consultation services and policy analysis for municipalities.
In his remarks to the two boards, Kershaw also said that the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury's Office has not informed him if the agency has completed its audit.
But, he added, the Comptroller's Office has confirmed that that agency has discussed the matter with the state Attorney General.
NEPOTISM AND MORE
In October 2013, the districts placed four employees on leave -- later making that leave without pay -- after Ellis found the "questionable practices by the management" during the preliminary stage of his yearly audit.
Employees placed on leave include: former manager Shirley Collins; her husband, Willie; their daughter, Kandie Jennings, who became acting general manager after Shirley Collins retired; and Jennings' husband, Bill.
Since then, the districts have uncovered a number of issues they are attempting to resolve, including the existence of a policy manual from 2012 that does not align with the 2007 policy manual that the board members say is the only one they ever approved.
Among the most significant change in the two manuals was the deletion, in the 2012 manual, of the districts' nepotism policy.
All four employees placed on leave are related to one another.
Carter said in an interview following Wednesday's meeting that board members were aware that these employees were related, but did not take action because both boards believed the family members to be employees of the other district.
The boards spent two hours on Wednesday reviewing the 2007 policy manual and aligning one district's policies with the other's policies in the few places the two were not identical.
Policy revisions recommended during the workshop included:
* aligning the districts' nepotism policy with the Tennessee Association of Utility Districts' recommended policy;
* eliminating the ability of a manager to authorize employees to use district vehicles for personal use other than to drive between work and home;
* adding language that had previously just been written into the 2007 policy manual related to on-call compensation;
* addressing large cell phone allowances when the contract comes open for renewal in May; and,
* addressing insurance premiums, which the districts pay in full for individual employees and all but a $150 monthly premium for employees' families, during open enrollment in May. (Employees reported prior unequal treatment related to their ability to keep family insurance and how much family insurance would cost.)
Carter described this process as just a beginning, saying that there was much work left to do on the policy manual. Dawson agreed, and supported continuing to align the two manuals.
During the Chuckey Utility District's monthly board meeting, held just prior to the joint workshop, Carter presented policies to formally allow for credit card payments, alternate payment methods such as automatic withdrawal from a bank account, and public record access.
"It's not anybody's fault. It's just fallen through the cracks, and we need to straighten that up," Carter said of the fact that the board had not already adopted such policies.
Board member Harry Kyker requested additional time to review these policies. The board agreed to delay their approval until February.
Carter also informed the board that members should have been nominating and voting for officers each January. The board voted to maintain current officer positions, with Carter remaining as board president.
Operations Manager Tyson Lamb also noted a recent inspection by the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Association (TOSHA).
The inspector requested minor changes within both districts, including gas caps on gas tanks and a handrail in an overhead storage area, he said.