CHARLESTOWN – In a room filled to capacity, the Charlestown City Council unanimously voted to table a proposed ordinance that would start a new sewer board just weeks before three new council members and a new mayor take their seats at the table in January.
The audience erupted in applause as the ordinance’s author, councilman Brian Hester, explained that he had meant no harm by developing the plan and that he did so without advice or input from sitting Mayor Bob Hall, who lost his bid at re-election to Democrat Treva Hodges by 32 votes. Hester won his bid for re-election and will return to the council in January. New council members joining him include Republicans Bo Bertram, Ruthie Jackson and B.J. Steele, who will take the seats vacated by Ted Little, Mike Vaughn and Tina Barnes, the sole Democrat on the council. Little and Vaughn did not seek re-election. Barnes ran for clerk treasurer, instead of her council seat, and lost to incumbent Donna Coomer.
Once the community heard of the proposed sewer board being added to Monday night’s meeting agenda, public outcry grew on local social media forums, including one run by Stefanie Manning, who also came to the council meeting.
“I just appreciate Brian for supporting what we wanted,” Manning said, adding that she is friends with him as well as Hodges. “I wanted it to be held off until Treva took office. I think it was too close to a new term … It was just kind of thrown on everybody.”
Manning said she hasn’t made a decision yet on the need for a sewer board. However, many in attendance said they already know their thoughts, including David Reed, who held up a sign, reading “Vote No,” during the meeting.
“It could affect us greatly as far as finances for the city and our sewer bills,” Reed said. “It’s a totally independent board that makes its own decisions on rates, and who they hire and the sky’s the limit as far as cost. So, it’s too wide open … I think we’ve been operating quite satisfactory up until now with the sewer board being part of our public works, and I see no reason why to change that at this point.”
Hester said he proposed the board as a way to address the city’s sewer issues. He said the three-member group would include the sitting mayor, which would be Hodges in January, as well as a licensed engineer outside of the city.
“[That engineer would have] no political ties to the city whatsoever,” Hester explained after the meeting. “That [person] could give us unbiased advice on the best position that our city should do with the sewer. That was the whole intention of this.”
People commented online that this was the start of a potential sale of the system, which Hester denied.
He said the outcry shocked him, but he understood that he should wait until the new council members are seated. Hester said he plans to bring this up again, in January.
“Our system is going to fail. Probably sooner rather than later,” Hester said after the meeting. “So, it needs to be addressed.”
Hodges agreed, but said a new sewer board is not the answer.
"I think in larger cities it makes sense [to have a sewer board] ... I wouldn’t be opposed to talking about it as our population grows. Right now our Board of Public Works is perfectly capable of handing any sewer issues that come up," Hodges said prior to the meeting, adding that she believes an engineer could be hired to help that board, if needed. "I hope the new council will take the time to really consider it and look at the pros and cons of creating a sewer board ... If they still decide to vote this through, then that’s the process. That’s what government does. To try to rush this out … it feels like a partisan move and I don’t think that’s going to be healthy for us."
Hodges, who was also in attendance at the meeting, called Hester’s moved to table the ordinance courageous.
“I think that what he did was bold, because I think it shows that he’s willing to listen to the people and that’s what matters most,” Hodges said. “He got a lot of calls and he paid attention to those calls. Those sent a signal to him to say that people were not ready for this, this was not something they were comfortable with and he truly listened to the citizens and I applaud him for that.”
Hodges, a Democrat, will have an all Republican council. She said Monday night's move shows they will get along.
“I think it’s a good sign that the council and I are going to work together just fine,” Hodges said of the meeting. “I’ve been asking for transparency. I’ve been asking to restore that kind of civic, people-led government and I think that what Brian did [Monday night] reflects his desire to do that too, so I’m optimistic that we’ll move forward.”