At a heavily attended March 5 meeting, the Caledonia Board of Aldermen heard a complaint from a candidate about the election commission, discussed the status of a proposed water rate increase and took no action on a draft open container ordinance.
Aldermen Hear Election Complaint, Take No Action on Alcohol Ordinance
Susan Bell, who has filed papers to run for mayor, had a complaint about the election commission. Bell claimed that attempts to verify her residency have crossed the line into harassment.
“For the last week or so I’ve had an issue with the election commission,” Bell said. “There seems to be a question about my residence. [Election Commissioner Ken Byers] came to me last week and asked me to change my address. I assured him that there was no reason to and that I would be glad to supply him with a copy of my homestead. He declined it. On Monday another committee member checked my utility bills. I pay utilities at my home, and you don’t have to pay utilities to have a homestead. I have had them since 1987. I have a copy of my driver’s license and my homestead. I feel, after reading state law, that this is harassment. How many people have to put up with this for their right to vote?
“I don’t have a problem with anyone asking me anything or proving anything, but I do have a problem with people calling around and getting into my privacy,” she said. “I can show you proof of my identity and proof of my residency. I’m at the point where what do I do now, take them home and let them spend the night? Am I being picked on, or do we treat everybody this way?”
“Do you want to answer to that, Mr. Byers?” Mayor George Gerhart asked.
“No comment,” said Byers.
“The way it works is that you have the code section that sets out the requirements,” Town Attorney Jeff Smith said. “If she is allowed to qualify and then wins the race, it would be incumbent on the loser to challenge her residency. You have to be a resident a year prior to the election and you can’t be convicted of a felony. Beyond that the qualifications to run are pretty slim. You have to have a heartbeat, be over 21 years of age and meet the residency requirement and not be a felon.”
“She said she did not receive this much opposition until she decided to run for mayor,” Gerhart said. “But I’m not going to say anything else because the committee members are not here to defend themselves.”
“It’s up to the election commission,” Smith said. “[The board of aldermen] has no authority to allow someone to run or not.”
“We’re trying to make sure this election is run fairly,” Byers said from the audience.
“I hope you’re not implying the last election was unfair,” said Alderman Mike Savage. “I would take offense at that.”
“No, but the poll books are out of date,” Byers said. “We’re just trying to get rid of the people who have died or who don’t live in the city limits.” [Someone familiar with the issue told me that the problem with Ms. Bell’s candidacy is that she owns a home on Lawrence Street – which is inside the city limits – and a home on Dodson Road, which is outside the city limits. It is unclear which is her actual primary residence. – Brian Jones]
Water Superintendent Benny Coleman updated the board on the status of the long-delayed water rate increase. The town has been struggling since 2011 to raise its water rates in order to pay down bonded indebtedness from the construction of the new water plant. If approved, the new rates would be $7.25 per thousand gallons for all customers inside and outside the town limits. The minimum water bill would be $7.25.
“Every time we deal with one issue, it seems another crops up,” Coleman said. “We have been in touch with the people on the Public Service Commission. Now they’re telling us the minimum rate is too low. I couldn’t understand that, personally. They suggested 60 percent of the average bill. I told them we had folks on a fixed income who don’t need an $18 or $20 water bill. They kind of let that go, and then the next conversation was about our deposits. We charge $60 to homeowners and $100 to renters. If we lose money on a customer, it’s more than likely to be a renter. They are proposing going to a flat $25 rate, or maybe returning deposits after a certain period of time. That’s just not good common sense to me.”
“The increase is only just enough to help us pay down the debt,” Alderman Quinn Parham said. “What is their concern about the deposits?”
“We have gotten at least three rate increases approved with the deposits the way they are,” Smith said. “It’s a bunch of crap. I hate to say that publicly, but that’s exactly what it is. It is strictly the Public Service Commission. I think it’s squarely in the lap of Brandon Presley. If he wants to endanger the public health and welfare of the 1,966 customers….”
“The state health department told us to either add capacity or stop adding customers,” Parham said. “Nobody in here wants a water rate increase, but we didn’t have a choice.”
Smith recommended the town request a public hearing in Caledonia.
“We can ask for a public hearing and give them some dates and then they pick one,” Smith said. “There are three commissioners, and [Presley] is only one vote.”
Bill Darnell made the motion, with a second by Steve Honnoll, to request a hearing. It passed unanimously.
The aldermen took no action on a draft open container ordinance.
In January Marshal Ben Kilgore asked the board to draft an open container ordinance. He said people were drinking alcohol at Ola J. Pickett Park, but there was no ordinance on the books that would allow him to put a stop to it. Smith was asked to draw one up and report back.
Smith’s ordinance would ban open containers in all public spaces in Caledonia. Honnoll objected, opining that the ordinance was overbroad.
“I agree there is a need at the park and at municipal buildings,” Honnoll said. “But this ordinance goes further than that. This is something I have given a lot of thought to, and I just think sometimes we make too many laws.”
“I agree with [Honnoll],” Gerhart said.
Kilgore said he and his officers would use common sense when enforcing the ordinance.
“If you’re not acting like a fool, we won’t mess with you,” he said.
The board took no action.
In other business, the board accepted the resignation of Emma Jane Wiggins from the election commission due to a relative being a candidate this year. Rebecca Martin was appointed in her place.0