Rural Water District No. 1 manager fired, operator contract terminated
by Clarke Davis
The Jefferson County Rural Water District No. 1 board of directors voted to fire its office manager and terminate the contract with its operations manager at its regular meeting July 11.
With a 5-2 vote, the board fired its office manager René Keller and terminated their contract with maintenance supervisor Tristan Charbonneau. Keller had been with the district for over eight years. Charbonneau signed a contract with the district last fall.
The Meriden office was closed the next day and personnel from the Paul Heinen & Associates accounting firm in Valley Falls have been keeping office hours since.
A special three-hour meeting was held Friday night at the bank in Meriden with eight members attending and about 25 in the audience.
The main order of business was compiling an ad to run in area publications seeking bids from potential contractors.
Board Chairman Rod Bigham announced that he was a Class II operator and therefore the district was in compliance with regulations until someone could can be contracted on a temporary basis.
Bigham and board member Bill Hilbert were to meet as a committee later this week in order to obtain a licensed operator for the district on a temporary basis. They have about 15 days to acquire someone. The newspaper has been told that the state Department of Health and Environment can fine a district up to $1,000 a day if it fails to have a qualified person operating the system and the board chairman and the operator cannot be the same person.
The temporary operator will be in charge until the board can advertise for bids and sign a contract with a permanent operator.
Bigham reported there had been one water leak during the previous week, which he had helped fix. Another contractor was called in to do the digging.
Friday’s meeting began with a closed executive session called for the purpose of lawyer-client privilege, but no justification or purpose was given. District lawyer Todd Luckman attended that session.
A couple of office burglaries and problems with the accounting software have complicated matters in recent months, as well. Security has been a concern, since the billing program contains automatic bank withdrawals.
Bigham told the board of an individual and a Topeka firm that were called to assist with the computer and to help get the billing out.
Board member Mike Carmona asked Bigham if background checks were done on the person who worked on the computer and then informed him that the person did have a long criminal history, mostly bad check writing.
Sheriff’s detective Jerry Greene was present and asked for an update on the burglary investigations, but he declined stating he never comments on investigations in progress.
Committees were appointed to work on establishing bid specifications and managerial guidelines for hiring replacements. Another special meeting was set for July 20.
Bigham allowed the meeting to be interrupted three or four times to hear from patrons who questioned the board members as to why they fired their personnel and to express concerns over secrecy and closed meetings.
Problems between a certain number of board members and the employees surfaced soon after the annual meeting in February and the election of Rod Bigham to the chairmanship.
In May the dissension was strong enough among board members to cause one member, Mike Carmona, to call for a special meeting for the purpose of ousting Bigham as chairman. Bigham was being accused of carrying out a personal vendetta against the employees. That effort failed.
Present at the July 11 meeting were Bigham, Mike DeWilde, Adam Petesch, Kyle Brown, Jeff Brun, Bobbie Clough, and Bill Hilbert. Clough and Hilbert cast the opposing votes. Jim McMillan and Carmona were absent.
Eight members were present Friday night with McMillan absent.
RWD No. 1 serves a large area in the southwest portion of Jefferson County, including the city of Meriden. It serves in excess of 930 meters.
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