Town of Beverly looks at water board issues

BEVERLY — Tensions were high during a board meeting at Beverly Town Hall regarding the legitimacy of the town’s water and sewer boards.

During the opening of the meeting, Mayor Cindy Karelis read a statement to board members and all town residents in attendance.

“Mayor Karelis, as authority in that capacity, as well as being chairperson of both the water and sanitary boards, requests that the record show that she recommended no action other than discussion be taken on the items listed on the ‘Utility Board’ agenda dated for March 21, 2019,” she read at Thursday evening’s meeting. “At the rest of Town Council and the current board members, the status of the true and correct utility boards will be postponed until the opinion of a second attorney is obtained. Mayor Karelis had hoped to delay a utility meeting of any kind until that opinion is rendered, but at the request of the sitting board members, a notice of meeting was posted.

“In the meantime, any and all action taken by the board seated tonight may be subject to being revoked or reversed,” she continued. “John Stump, bond attorney for Steptoe and Johnson, has assured the mayor that his legal opinion will be available Monday, March 23.”

Nonetheless, despite concerns, the meeting continued on Thursday evening. While no official decisions were made nor were votes taken on any item, discussions were held.

Troy Ware raised a question regarding the legality of the board’s meeting.

“If you aren’t sure about the legality of this water-sewer board, why are you having a meeting,” he asked Karelis.

The mayor responded by saying the meeting was requested by board members.

“But it’s not (certain) what the board’s capacity is right now,” Ware responded.

In an effort to dissolve any confusion, Karelis provided an explanation about the subject matter.

“For our visitors, what the situation is — because it’s not fair to keep you in the dark — it has been determined that our, what we thought was a conjoined utility board and has been operating as such for decades, was never formally joined,” Karelis explained.

She added she believes the language of the ordinance is “very archaic.”

Karelis went on to say attorneys have advised that the water board is one separate board with two members and a mayor, while the sewer board is another separate board with two members and a mayor. She added there was never an official ordinance that created a utility board to combine the water and sewer boards into one “utility” board.

To date, due to the fact that monies are owed to municipal bonds, the two boards cannot be combined as one, she said.

“This review has raised questions about how the two boards should be operating, and an interpretation of the language regarding residency requirements of the board members is currently being discussed,” Karelis explained in a separate interview with The Inter-Mountain. “Efforts are ongoing to determine a clearer understanding as to who it is that can be appointed to these boards by council and to make sure the town and its agencies are conforming to the language of West Virginia State Code and town ordinances.”

The town council is now awaiting a second opinion from Steptoe and Johnson, as Karelis explained in her statement at the beginning of Thursday’s meeting.

Council member Connie Pingley, who was present for Thursday’s board meeting, explained she believes the opinion offered by an attorney is just that, an opinion.

“I think what everybody here needs to know is there is no case law on that, it was an inclination from our attorney,” she said. “And the second opinion is going to be what they think was implied with the language in there. … I think that needs to be known by everybody in this room because I guarantee it will not end there.”

Randolph County Commissioner Mark Scott raised concerns during the meeting, stating the system affects more than just the town of Beverly.

“Madam Chairperson, I fundamentally disagree with you. I believe you have both a water board and a sewer board that have been constituted legally,” he said to Karelis. “You have bylaws, and what you’re trying to do is make an inference from the bylaws. It is not clearly stated in your bylaws that people who are not from the town cannot be a part of this board. It is an inference that is being taken from it. … You are inferring that because it said that the engineer could be from outside the town, you are inferring that board members cannot be outside of the town.

“This system not only affects the city of Beverly, this system affects Randolph County because there are citizens outside of your city that are a part of the system,” Scott continued. “So, I disagree with you when you say that the water board has not been constituted. The water board was constituted many, many years ago. These members are legal members of (those) boards and they have the authority to act as board members for that board.”

Scott went on to say that “inference is not law.”

“Whatever opinion is rendered by an attorney, it’s only an opinion, simply because it is not stated clearly in the bylaws,” Scott said. “(The ordinance) does not state that members of these boards have to be residents of the town of Beverly. … It is simply inference based upon the fact that the original ordinance said that the engineer did not have to be from the town. It does not say that (board members) have to be.”

“There is no case law,” Pingley added.

Karelis argued she is only holding the town “to the letter of the law.” Furthermore, she added she believes she has “done nothing but good” for Beverly during her time as mayor.

“You have done some good things for this town, but my concern, as a county commissioner, because this utility operates within the county, not just the city,” Scott said. “My concern is that the actions you are taking as the chairperson of these (boards) is jeopardizing and causing issues with the utility. … My concern, as a county commissioner, because this utility covers (parts of) the county is that the actions you are taking may cause irreputable harm to these utility boards.”

Scott said if the board was disbanded, it could potentially cause additional and unnecessary fees and expenses.

In addition to community members, board members also raised concerns regarding potential new members being sought to fill their positions.

“We have heard that you already have your people (chosen) to put on (the board),” Kenny Weese said.

Weese also noted he believes the boards have operated successfully for 39 years and should not be changed.

“Why did you start digging, digging, digging when everything went fine for 39 years?” Weese asked.

“I go on record, I never wanted to remove any member,” Karelis said. “It was our lawyer’s interpretation of that line. … I have asked in case we do not have the right to continue with you being out-of-town residents. … What do I do, wait another month or two and try to find folks?”

“(Karelis) is shutting everyone down and this town is suffering because of it,” Ware added.

Ware added he believed the meeting was not legal and should be adjourned.

Following heated discussion at the Beverly Town Hall, it was suggested by Karelis and other town officials that the meeting be adjourned; however, the meeting continued on and new business was addressed but not voted on by board members out of concern for legitimacy.

A regular council meeting will be held today where council members will be asked to vote on the matter in question.

“Until council removes them, they are the members of the board,” Scott said. “The attorney advises the council, but the decision still rests with the council.”

According to information provided by town officials, due to concerns over raw sewage being dumped into the Tygart Valley River by homes and local industries, a Sanitary Board was created by ordinance adopted by Beverly Town Council on April 12, 1979.

Town Council appealed to Sen. Jennings Randolph in 1978 for help securing the funds for a new sewage treatment plant and collection system to address this problem. The Sanitary Board ordinance created called for the mayor and two members to serve on the board, one of which needed to be a registered professional engineer during any construction project. The first members to ever serve on this board were Mayor D. K. McWilliams, civil engineer Frank Rogers and resident Tom Trigg. The plant constructed through this project is still in operation today.

The following year, a Water Board ordinance was adopted on June 3, 1980 that created a Water Board. Discussions by council began earlier that year to fund needed improvements to the water system in place. Municipal bonds issued to make the improvements were attached to this new ordinance. The membership requirements of the new Water Board were exactly the same as for the Sanitary Board. The sitting Town Council at that time expressed the desire for the same two members to serve on both boards, according to the information provided by current town officials.

The goals of these two boards are to oversee the “construction, acquisition, improvement, equipment, custody, operation and maintenance of all works” for both the distribution and treatment of water and the collection, treatment and disposal of sewage within and outside corporate limits, according to the language of both ordinances creating the two separate boards.