Setting the record straight
Water authority members have been getting paid all along
by Sarah Fay Campbell
The May 6 meeting where the Coweta County Board of Commissioners voted against monthly compensation for members of the Coweta Water and Sewerage Authority may have been the first time that payment for the three-member authority was ever discussed publicly – but authority members have been getting paid for years.
The county’s water and sewer department was spun off as an independent authority in 2007, and the first meeting of the new authority board was in April 2007. Authority Chairman Neal Shepard, the only original member who is still serving, said the compensation began at $350 a month.
In December 2011, the authority voted to adopt the recommendations of a salary and compensation study. The study covered salaries for all authority employees, as well as suggesting $500 a month for authority members. That rate went into effect in 2012.
Though authority members had been compensated the whole time, not many people knew about it.
The county commissioners, for the most part, only found out recently.
On May 6, Commissioner Rodney Brooks brought up the issue and made a motion to compensate the members, up to $500 a month, in accordance with the procedure laid out in the state laws that created the authority.
That motion failed 3 to 2. A few weeks later, the three-member authority voted unanimously to approve a resolution setting the compensation for officers at an amount up to $500 a month.
An observer at either one of those meetings would have supposed that both discussions were about new compensation, and that the authority members were not currently receiving any compensation, other than possibly mileage or other common expenses. There was no mention during either meeting the authority members were already getting paid.
Two news stories and an editorial were published in The Newnan Times-Herald about the issue. All were written without knowledge the authority members had been getting any compensation other than mileage or other specific expenses.
It was only after the publication of the editorial on June 13 that Shepard contacted the newspaper and said authority members had always been paid.
“I think it’s vital that we look at properly compensating them,” Brooks had said during the discussion at the May county commission meeting. “I think we are being hypocritical asking them to serve for nothing.”
Authority attorney Melissa Griffis, who was at the county commission meeting for an unrelated matter, was asked to speak about the amount of time the authority members put into their service. She talked about monthly meetings and other commitments. She also mentioned the long hours that were spent in meetings and mediation, usually in Atlanta, during water supply contract discussions with the city of Griffin. Authority members "were not compensated for those meetings or anything, other than mileage reimbursement, I think,” Griffis told the commissioners.
At the June 4 authority meeting, Griffis and Shepard were asked extensively about the compensation by The Newnan Times-Herald, and Griffis also discussed the issue later that day by telephone. She mentioned the study that was done in 2011, which said $500 would be the proper compensation. She said that, after the May 6 commission meeting, “we went back and looked at the legislation” and saw the item that allowed the authority members to compensate officers.
But no one mentioned that the authority members had been getting paid the whole time. Griffis was asked why that was never brought up.
“[The newspaper] never asked me directly and neither did he,” she said, referring to Commissioner Brooks.
The authority was created by an act of the Georgia General Assembly in 1979. The act was amended in 2001 and in 2007.
The act states that the county commissioners “may provide by resolution for compensation for the services of the members of the authority in such amounts as it may deem appropriate; provided, however, that such members shall be reimbursed for their actual expenses incurred in the performance of their duties.”
Later in the act, it says that the authority shall have the power “to appoint, select and employ officers, agents and employees, including engineering, architectural and construction experts, fiscal agents and attorneys, to fix their respective compensations.”
One authority member serves as chairman, one as vice chair, and one as secretary-treasurer – all officers. And that is why the members are able to vote to compensate themselves, as officers, according to Griffis.
Whether the authority members ever voted, back in 2007, to compensate themselves has yet to be determined. There is no mention of a vote for compensation in the minutes from 2007 or 2008. There are several mentions of approving resolutions that were discussed in closed session. Governing bodies can go into closed or “executive session,” to discuss personnel, litigation, or real estate issues. Compensation for the governing body itself is not considered an issue that can be discussed in executive session.
The minutes from the very first authority meeting, from April 2007, could not be located in the authority’s records, according to Sandy Grubbs, executive administrative assistant for the authority.
According to a story from The Newnan Times-Herald about that first meeting, Shepard asked then General Manager Ellis Cadenhead and then County Administrator Theron Gay, who was in attendance at the meeting, to discuss compensation for authority members and to make a recommendation.
Shepard said he doesn’t remember that, but does remember being told he would be compensated – before he was appointed to the authority.
Shepard remembered Cadenhead coming to visit him and saying he wanted him to serve on the new authority.
Shepard said he told Cadenhead he couldn’t afford to take the time away from his business. “I can’t take on anything like that,” Shepard told him.
“He said, ‘Well, you’ll be compensated,’” Shepard said. “He said it won’t be much.”
Shepard said it was his understanding that Cadenhead had discussed the payment with Gay and at least one commissioner.
The payment then, and now, is a flat fee. Members don’t submit for reimbursement of mileage or meals when they have to go out of town. Their compensation for each month can’t go over $500, no matter how much time or travel they may put in.
During the discussion at the May 6 commission meeting, Commissioner Tim Lassetter said that, when he and Commissioner Paul Poole were interviewing the potential first members of the authority, “There was no discussion of any pay for serving on this board.”
Shepard was asked about that. “There was no need” to mention it at that time, Shepard said. “Ellis had already told me.”
Shepard said he doesn’t recall if the members voted on any kind of resolution to compensate themselves but said “I assure you that whatever we did was done the right way.”
Nothing in the act creating the authority requires an actual resolution. The one that was passed at the June 4 authority meeting “might not have been necessary,” Griffis said. “But it seemed like the better practice, especially with a new member joining and new officers being appointed.”
The June 4 meeting was the first one for new authority member Laurie Bartlett, who was appointed by the commissioners May 6. Bartlett could not be reached for comment.
Authority member Eric Smith began serving in April 2011. He said he became aware that there was compensation, before he was formally appointed, but is not sure exactly when.
Smith was asked if he would have served if there hadn’t been compensation.
“That’s a hard question to answer,” Smith said. “If I had known then what I know now? No.”
Being on the authority takes a lot of time, Smith said. There is a lot of work involved. One thing that makes the work load larger and more difficult is the basic makeup of the authority. There are three members, and it only takes two to have a quorum. That means that two authority members can’t talk to each other, outside of a public meeting.
“That makes it very difficult,” Smith said. Everything has to go through authority CEO Jay Boren.
At the May 6 meeting, the county commissioners also discussed possibly expanding the authority to five members. Smith would welcome that. It would allow authority members to talk to each other, outside of meetings, without running afoul of the Georgia Open Meetings Act.
Smith said that he was “under the impression that the county commissioners were aware of” the payments.
“I don’t know how the conversation started,” he said. “We weren’t asked to participate in that conversation. I wasn’t there at the meeting.”
“I don't think there is an issue here, at all,” he said. “I think maybe there was a misunderstanding.”
“At the end of the day, we have a legal right, as officers, to compensate ourselves,” Smith said. And for $500 a month for each of the three members, “I think it’s a bargain, to be quite honest.
“If all we did was just attend one meeting and go home … I could see why you might could argue that is not appropriate or fair compensation,” he said. But “there is a lot more to is than what most people would see.”
Paying governing board members of public utilities – which usually don’t receive any taxpayer money – is quite common. Several water authorities in surrounding counties pay their members. Members of the Newnan Water Sewerage and Light Commission, the governing body of Newnan Utilities, have their pay set by the Newnan City Council.
The commission members get $100 a month, plus free electricity, water, and sewer service for their homes, said Newnan Utilities General Manager Dennis McEntire. The average compensation, including the free utilities, is $510 a month, he said. The current compensation was set in 1966, McEntire said.