To Attend Meeting
For First Time In
At Least 20 Years
BY KRISTEN BUCKLES
For the first time in at least two decades, employees of the Chuckey Utility District were invited to attend the board's meeting on Wednesday at the County Water Office.
District President John Carter, a 20-year county commissioner who has served on the utility board for more than 25 years, said it was not until a month ago that he became aware that employees were not allowed to attend the meetings.
"I've invited employees to come [now] all they want to come," Carter said.
Several employees were in attendance on Wednesday, with the notable absence of four key employees who were recently placed on paid administrative leave after Certified Public Accountant Mickey Ellis' early audit findings indicated "questionable practices by the management."
Ellis' routine, annual audit is ongoing, but he said he has submitted the early findings to the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury for possible further investigation.
The four employees were placed on leave Oct. 3, Carter said in a recent interview.
They are retired manager Shirley Collins and her husband, inspector Willie Collins, as well as their daughter, acting manager Kandie Jennings, and her husband, Bill Jennings.
They will remain on leave until the district hears some final word from the state comptroller, a process that Carter said other utility districts have found to take from a few months to a year-and-a-half.
Attorney Ed Kershaw, who represents the Chuckey and Cross Anchor utility districts, said Wednesday that Ellis sent the information to the state and informed Carter and Cross Anchor Utility District President Lloyd Dawson of concerns that led to the state's being informed.
"Mickey was kind enough to call Mr. Carter and Mr. Dawson to tell them that there are some findings that don't look right preliminarily and that he is going to call the state comptroller, and advise them [Carter and Dawson] of that."
Carter and Dawson then retained Kershaw, who said he contacted Ellis.
"He was kind enough to let me see some of his working papers and some of the evidence that he had to support his allegations.
"He told me the employees that he talked to. I had the chance to sit down with a couple of those employees.
"Basically, I did a cursory review just to see if there was merit to his allegations. My job wasn't to challenge him; he's an independent auditor.
"I then reported back to Mr. Carter and Mr. Dawson and said that it did appear that, while maybe not every allegation was true, that there was merit to several of the allegations."
The discussion that followed led to the decision to put the four people on leave, Kershaw said.
"We expect the [state] comptroller to get involved, to do an investigation, although they haven't said they're going to do that yet," he concluded.
A later, vague inquiry by bookkeeper Stephanie Wallin about how she should handle certain matters going forward prompted Kershaw to say the district should "keep doing business as usual and keep paying as usual."
A deputy stationed at the doorway proved unnecessary for the brief meeting, in which the board took several formal actions, including:
* to confirm hiring Kershaw as their attorney;
* to place the four employees on administrative leave;
* to appoint current employees to temporarily fill the positions of those on administrative leave, including Tyson Lamb as temporary operations manager/certified operator and Beth Fletcher as office manager;
* to authorize Fletcher and Wallin as the only employees with access to bank accounts;
* to require the chairman's signature and either Fletcher or Wallin's on every check; formerly a member of the board did not sign the checks, according to discussion;
* to remove the four employees on administrative leave from all bank accounts;
* to close an open-but-not-recently-used line of credit; and,
* to list Lamb as the authorized individual, rather than Kandie Jennings, on the State Revolving Loan application for water-line replacements.
Chuckey Utility District Commissioner Harry Kyker also called for the distribution supervisor, office manager and district comptroller all to be present at future meetings, when possible.
Rather than just approving a verbal reading of the last month's minutes, Kyker also called for typed copies of minutes to be provided to each commissioner.
The board agreed to begin a review of recent months' minutes, to study the utility districts' joint force account, and to clarify under which employee handbook the district is operating.
Carter said in an interview after the meeting that the joint force account allows the districts to replace water lines using their own, joint employees and equipment, with the districts taking turns replacing the lines.
"We need to evaluate it right now," Carter said. "It's a little more difficult to oversee."
Kyker further called for both utility districts to review their nepotism policy and to approve any new procedures on no less than two readings.
Carter did say after the meeting that other, distant family members of the Collins' and Jennings' remain employed by the utility districts.
"There's some issues that involve both Cross Anchor and Chuckey," Cross Anchor's president agreed. "Any decisions that either board makes in the future, we work with each other when it affects both.
"In the past it's been kind of up in the air on how things have been handled, but we need to get that clear in the future," Dawson continued.
"There's a lot of things that's going to have to change in the way we do business if we stay connected in the future."
A board decision from September to purchase a 2013 Ford F-150 extended-cab truck was put on hold to "give us time to adjust what trucks we have and what we don't have," Carter said.
Carter expressed his embarrassment that the utility districts have encountered these problems and urged the employees to come to him when there are "employee problems."
He emphasized that there will be no changes in pay, terminations or hirings made in the coming days without board discussion and approval.
"We've got quite a ways to go and a lot of work to do to get there, but we will eventually get there," he said.
Dawson agreed, saying that he still trusts the employees.
"This is one of the worst things I've ever had to deal with in my life. It just hurts me to know what's happened has happened," Carter said following the meeting.
He said that he will not "jump ship" and that he will continue serving on the board as these issues are resolved.
Cross Anchor Utility District's board will meet next week to take similar actions as Chuckey.
Both districts serve a combined customer base of slightly more than 8,000, purchasing water from Greeneville Water Commission and selling it at cost, plus their fees.
Carter described the operations as non-profit. Board members receive a $100 per month payment for serving on the boards.