The Highland County Court of Common Pleas issued a preliminary injunction Thursday against the Highland County Water Company (HCWC), with the order stating that the local water utility violated the rights of its members under Ohio law and a recently adopted amendment to the company’s by-laws.
Outgoing company general manager Robert Smith told The Times-Gazette that he could not comment at the present time due to the ongoing litigation.
He said his successor would be Dan Cutler, the current water treatment plant superintendent, whose first day on the job as general manager will be April 5.
A news release from the Utility Workers Union of America stated that the court also ordered the company to include the names of Jeffrey Patton and Thomas Snyder, two independent candidates for the company’s board of directors, to be placed on the water company’s proxy materials for the upcoming 2021 annual meeting in accordance with the revised by-laws.
The court also held that the Highland County Water Company illegally expanded its board of directors from seven members to nine at its Feb. 16, 2021 board meeting, and then improperly appointed two directors — Roger Ruggles and Lynn Stevens — who had been defeated by the members at the October 2020 annual meeting in violation of Ohio law.
“We are pleased we have been able to uphold the rights of Highland County Water members under our new by-laws,” stated Greg Jones, one of three independent directors elected to the company’s board last October and a plaintiff in the lawsuit against the company. “Now the members will be able to direct their votes on the company’s proxy for two candidates committed to making this a better water company.”
According to the union, which represents hourly employees at the Highland County Water Company, the controversy stems from efforts by members of the company at last year’s annual meeting to elect directors not hand-picked by management, and to reform the by-laws.
At the meeting, the members elected Jones, Phil Burchett and Steve McComas, sweeping all three board seats that were up for election, and at the same time amending the by-laws to change how the company conducts its elections for director.
One of the reforms adopted at the 2020 meeting required that any member wishing to run for director who submitted enough signatures from other members two months prior to the next annual meeting would be included as a candidate on any proxy mailing paid for by the company.
The union maintained that Patton and Snyder submitted more than enough petitions to be included on the company’s proxy for this year’s annual meeting, but a majority of the board voted in February not to comply with the new by-law.
After a four-month delay, the union said that the company finally seated Jones, Burchett and McComas at the February meeting, but then the board majority voted over the objections of the new directors to expand the board and to “reappoint” Ruggles and Stevens.
Thursday’s court order held that both actions were unlawful.
The next annual meeting of the Highland County Water Company is scheduled for Thursday, April 8, at 7 p.m. at the company offices at 6696 U.S. Route 50 in Hillsboro.
The union said that the company’s proxy statement is expected to be mailed soon, and if the membership votes to increase the size of the board at the annual meeting, members can also nominate and elect additional directors from the floor of the meeting.
Reach Tim Colliver at 937-402-2571.