A Monticello City Council meeting ended on a contentious note Tuesday night as Mayor Joe Rogers broke a 4-4 tie, voting to hire Monticello attorney Cliff Gibson to represent the city on issues surrounding a $10 million water project. Alderman Joe Meeks questioned the validity of the mayor’s vote.
The city last year contracted with Siemens Industry, Inc. to upgrade the city’s water system with new water meters and replace water lines in the “core” of the city where most of the city’s water leaks are located.
Since the installation of the new meters, the city has had numerous problems. Many of the meters, which incidentally are not the type of meters the city contracted for, were not properly installed. The city is also having problems with the water billing system software, and as a result, has had to estimate customers’ water bills.
In a presentation prior to the vote, City Water Department Manager Andrea Chambers outlined the problems with the meters and the problems her department has had with the billing system.
“First and foremost, I want everyone to understand that we are fully committed to this project,” Chambers said. “We have been working very diligently to make this work for the city of Monticello and for our citizens. I very much regret the problems we have been having. We have caused a lot of hardships on our citizens and I am sorry for that.”
Water bills for the month of August were estimated and the city is still having difficulties with the system, according to Chambers.
Chambers said it is not the city’s policy to estimate. “We want accurate bills for our citizens,” she said.
Alderman Tim Chase recommended that the city not move forward with the water line project until all of the issues with the water meters and billing system are resolved.
The council did not immediately take action on Chase’s recommendation.
Following his recommendation, Alderwoman Claudia Hartness, who subsequently voted against hiring Gibson, said it is her opinion that the city is not fully cooperating with Seimens.
“The city must provide 100 percent cooperation,” Hartness said. “When they come in to see the mayor, he needs to be there and talk to them.”
The mayor said the city is cooperating with Seimens
“The city has provided 100 percent cooperation since I’ve been in office,” Mayor Rogers said. “We got a bill… Wednesday of last week for another $480,000, and guess what’s on the bill: Mueller water meters. So, how did this go on so long without getting what we ordered.”
Hartness said she was told that a Seimens representative was in Monticello last week and the mayor would not talk to him.
“He has not been in my office,” Rogers said. “I’d like to know where you got your information.”
“You are out of your office a lot of the time,” Hartness responded.
“I’m out of my office, but the ladies know where I am all the time,” Rogers said. “I do my job. You didn’t do your job when you took the contract.”
“I want it on record that the city cooperate fully, because I do not think they’ve done that,” Hartness said.
City Attorney Whit Barton said steps toward resolving the water meter issue got off to a good start a month ago and then stopped.
“We got to September 4 or so and we didn’t make much progress,” Barton said. “And I don’t know why.”
Alderwoman Hudson questioned why the city is having so many problems from such a “reputable” company that “should have known how to do this.”
“We do have a high (water meter) remediation rate,” Barton said. “It’s not an eight percent rate; it’s a 30 or 40 percent remediation rate.”
“Why?” Hudson asked.
“I don’t know,” Barton said.
Alderman Joe Meeks laid the problem at the feet of the subcontractors and said the city should have had a construction manager overseeing the installation.
“Why should we have to do that?” Hudson asked.
“Because we’ve got $10 million at stake and we have to make sure they do the job right,” Meeks said.
“But we weren’t interested in hiring our own engineer to make sure we are protected,” Hudson said, referring to the council’s inaction on the mayor’s August request to hire an engineer and an attorney to look out for the city’s best interests in the water project.
“We hired an engineer,” Meeks said.
“No, we did not,” said Rogers, who apparently doesn’t believe the Seimens-recommended engineer is working on behalf of the city.
“In my opinion, we paid Siemens a lot of money to provide us that service,” Barton said.
“Did we get it?” Alderman Al Peer asked.
“We got a 40 percent remediation rate,” Barton responded.
Alderwoman Hudson then made a motion that the city hire Monticello attorney Cliff Gibson to work with Barton “to advise the council on the steps that we should take to ensure that we protect this project and Monticello and the citizens of Monticello’s $10 million.”
Alderman Peer seconded the motion.
Discussing the motion, Alderman Meeks said he has confidence in Barton’s ability to advise the city on the water project issues.
“I would like to say publicly that I have every ounce of confidence in our city attorney, Mr. Whit Barton, to advise the city council on any matters up and into the point where if we ever have to go to litigation, unless Mr. Barton requests additional help,” Meeks said. “At this point in time, he has outlined two problems with the water meter project. Those problems were identified as a billing issue, which we have two possible resolutions to: a software fix, and if that fails, a meter reprogram. The second issue is the punch walk. Those are major issues, but those are very workable issues that Mr. Barton can advise us on. At that point, when we sign off on the water meter project, we can then move forward, if this council decides to do so, with the water line rehab project. I feel Mr. Barton is very capable of advising this council and it does not need outside help at this time unless he requests it.”
Hudson asked if the city is pleased with the meters that were installed versus what the city contracted for.
“I am,” Meeks said, explaining that he looked up the technical specs for both meters and the meters that were installed by Siemens is a fixed-based system and the retail price for that meter is higher. That additional cost, he said, was not bore by the city.
“In my opinion, the fact that the city allowed the Sensus meters to be placed in the ground, that the city accepted the Sensus meters,” Meeks said.
“The city was told it didn’t have a choice,” Rogers said.
“We should not have allowed Sensus meters to go in the ground if that’s not what we wanted,” Meeks said.
“With all due respect, Mayor Maxwell had just passed away and we had a lot of stress going on at City Hall,” Chambers explained. “When the wrong meters came in and we were told we had to accept them and we didn’t have a choice, we accepted that as a fact. We did not look into it.”
Rogers added that there was no change order.
“The contract says we get Hershey meters, and then there’s some wiggle room in there about some reasonable equivalent or something,” Barton said.
“Why did the city of Monticello pay $7 million up front?” Rogers asked.
The question went unanswered.
Following more discussion comparing the two types of meters, the council returned to Alderwoman Hudson’s motion to hire Cliff Gibson.
“What is his expertise?” Alderman Cedric Leonard asked.
Hudson said one area is contract law.
“The contract is very vague, so you don’t have a lot of answers,” Hudson said. “Like the payment schedule, for example. It does not give you a scope of work per percentage of payment. It just says, you will pay this amount, this amount and this amount, and we’ve paid it without knowing which direction we’re going; without knowing why we paid $7.5 million.”
Alderman Raymond Hubbard then asked Barton if he believes hiring Gibson is the direction the city should go.
“I think this is the direction we need to go if we are at litigation stage,” Barton said. “I don’t think we’re at a litigation stage right now, but I think we are approaching that.”
“I think we need to go forward,” Hubbard said.
“Exactly,” Alderman Al Peer said, agreeing with Hubbard that the city should hire Gibson.
The contract was signed a year ago, but the company still hasn’t provided the city with a map outlining the water line construction project, Hubbard said.
“After the contract was signed, they stated that we would be provided with a map outlining the construction of the main core of the city,” Hubbard said. “Have we seen that map? Are they working on it?”
“We’ve not seen it,” Barton responded. “I don’t know if they’re working on it or not.”
Sharing his thoughts on the issue, Barton said he wants to get through the water meter project first, and wants it done right.
“We paid for it and we’re entitled to it,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds with the water line project.”
Apparently referring to Alderman Tim Chase’s previous recommendation to not go forward with the water line rehabilitation project until the water meter project is completed to the city’s satisfaction, Barton said, “Let’s get the billing part fixed; let’s have a regimen we agree on and follow through with on the inspections and repairs no matter what happens…. The third part of that is, we don’t take any action on the water line project until we see good results on this. That is my recommendation as to what we do.”
Meeks told the council he does not believe the city will “come out ahead” if it goes into litigation with Seimens.
“I implore you to think before we hire an attorney because once we hire that attorney, Seimens will look at that and I don’t believe we will avoid litigation,” Meeks said. “If this town goes into litigation with Seimens, we will not come out ahead.”
Alderwoman Hartness agreed.
“You are so right,” she said. “We do not have the deep pockets they do.”
“Are you in agreement with that Mr. Barton, that we will not come out ahead?” Alderwoman Hudson asked.
“I think this matter can resolve itself,” Barton said. “Litigation is ugly, but I’m not saying we can’t win.”
“I don’t want litigation, but I don’t like them dragging their feet,” Hudson said. “I don’t like the fact that we’ve asked them for months to get back with us and they’ve refused to do so…. I don’t want litigation. I want Seimens to do what they promised us they would do.”
The council then took a vote on Alderwoman Hudson’s motion to hire Gibson. The result was a 4-4, with Aldermen Joe Meeks, Carolyn Brown, Tim Chase and Claudia Hartness voting against the motion. Aldermen Cedric Leonard, Raymond Hubbard, Al Peer and Beverly Hudson voted for it.
Casting the tie-breaking vote, Rogers voted in favor of Hudson’s motion to hire Gibson.
“The mayor can only vote to fail a motion,” Alderman Meeks said.
“I can’t vote to break the tie?” Rogers asked Barton.
“Why don’t you go ahead and make your vote and we’ll get clarification,” Barton said.
“Yes, I vote to go forward,” Rogers said.
After the vote, the council then took a vote on Alderman Tim Chase’s motion to not move forward with the water line project until the water meter phase of the project, including the billing system, is completed to the city’s satisfaction.
The council voted unanimously in favor of Chase’s motion.