A group calling itself The Members Committee for a Better Highland County Water Co. is urging members of the utility to join its campaign to establish what it describes as more accountability for the company’s management to its members.
While applauding any individual’s desire to serve the more than 11,000 Highland County Water Co. (HCW) members, HCW General Manager Hattie Lovedahl told The Times-Gazette that she questions the true motives behind the committee’s efforts.
“To our knowledge, the individuals leading this group have never attended a company annual member meeting or a regular board of directors meeting,” Lovedahl said. “This apparent lack of interest and engagement also makes us question the group’s contention that term limits should be placed on members of the board.”
The committee claims that twin by-law proposals it is advocating will reform the company’s current method of electing board members, which its says will shield the incumbent directors from scrutiny or input from the members.
Mark Brooks, who represents the group seeking changes to the water company and is a member of the Utility Workers Union of America which represents 14 workers at HCW, said that members the group had been in contact with expressed displeasure with how the company was being run, and that the two by-laws proposals would make running for the board of directors positions easier for members.
For example, they say that the company’s directors currently serve staggered three-year terms, so that each director only stands for election once every three years, thereby preventing members from electing an entirely new board of directors.
In addition, Brooks claimed, each year the company issues general proxy cards to all members — paid for by company funds and therefore by the members — and then uses the proxies to elect management’s hand-picked candidates to the board.
Under the Members Committee proposals, every director would have to stand for election every year, and any proxy paid for by the company would have to grant equal access to all duly-nominated candidates, whether supported by the existing board or by members.
A news release stated the group is mailing proxy materials to other members in the five-county region served by the company, urging them to support the election of Highland County residents Tim Sheeley and Gregory Jones to the board of directors, and to adopt the reforms in the two by-laws.
Lovedahl sees it differently, though, believing the timing of the group’s campaign is, in her words, a “thinly veiled attempt to stack the board with individuals sympathetic to the union representing some of our employees in order to influence contract negotiations.”
“Highland County Water Co. is currently engaged in labor negotiations with Utility Workers Union of American 477-W,” she said. “The collective bargaining agreement with the local expired on Aug. 15, 2019, with union members continuing to work under the terms of the old contract as we continue good faith negotiations.”
She said the most recent bargaining session was held in December, with the company agreeing to another negotiation meeting that is now set for the week of April 13, per the union’s request.
UWUA representatives rejected proposed negotiation dates the company offered in January, February and March, she said.
She insisted that the company is always willing to consider change that will improve the board of directors, but also acknowledges the importance of experience and familiarity to insure smooth operations.
“We are eager to negotiate a fair contract that puts our customers and the five counties we serve first,” she said, contending the company was committed to negotiating a new contract in the most professional manner possible, while at the same time following all fair labor practices.
In the committee’s news release, board of director’s candidate Sheeley said he feels the company has been insulated from the views of its members — the true owners of the company — for too long, adding that with the committee pushing for change, members would have a chance to have their voices heard, thereby improving how the company operates.
The committee is promoting the campaign for the by-laws change at the company through its website, BetterWaterCompany.com.
The Highland County Water Company is a private, non-profit water utility serving, at last count, nearly 11,600 members across parts of Highland, Adams, Brown, Clinton and Ross counties.
Customers of the company are also voting members of the non-profit corporation, with the company’s next annual meeting taking place on April 9, 2020.
“Public participation and comments are encouraged at regular meetings of the HCW Board of Directors, which meets on the third Monday of every month at the company offices at 8:30 a.m.,” Lovedahl said. “The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, March 16 in our main office. We welcome everyone to review the information on the web, attend our meeting and form their own conclusions.”
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571