Mayor’s Family at Center of Sewer Dispute in Rock Hall

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The Rock Hall Utilities Board on Monday reversed a 2009 decision that cut the sewer rates for the Sailing Emporium and Spring Cove Marina to the in-town rate, which is a 50 percent discount from the out-of-town rate. The Utilities Board is also the Mayor and Council.

“Only if the town had changed the code was there a legal basis for reducing anyone’s sewer fees outside of the town limits [and] that did not happen,” said Elise Davis, the attorney for five Rock Hall citizens who brought a complaint to the council in a letter dated July 1, 2013.

The vote was 3-0 with Councilman Butch Price, Brian Jones, and Brian Nesspor voting in favor. Councilwoman Susan Francis was absent and Mayor Bob Willis did not vote.

The Council voted to reverse the decision after councilmembers first heard legal advice from Town Attorney Charles “Chip” MacLeod in a closed session that lasted about 20 minutes. The council agreed that the rate cut was illegal under the town ordinance and restored the out-of-town rates to the two marinas effective April 1.

“Lets move forward,” Nesspor said after the closed session. “From this day forward everybody is on the same playing field.”

The council also applied their decision to two private residences.

The council decided not to make their decision retroactive to 2009 when the rate cuts were granted – making discounts to the Sailing Emporium of nearly $9,000 unrecoverable to the town.

“This was a problem that was brought to our attention, and for Councilman Nesspor and myself, we were not here when this decision was made,” Jones said. “ We [sought] legal advice and this is our decision.”

Bob Willis was not allowed to attend the closed session because he is part owner of the Sailing Emporium with his father Art Willis. He was also on the Utilities Board as a councilmember in 2009 and recused himself from voting on the rate cut then.

The citizens who raised the issue to the council, Janice Plotczyk Anita Gottlieb, Kate Johnson, Linda Buckle and Gren Whitman, learned of the rate cut for the Sailing Emporium when they investigated claims by Art Willis that he was paying a “multiple of the in-town rate for the water and sewer services delivered to the marina.”

The group learned that the rate cut was granted for only one year and Art Willis was obligated to an annual review by the Utilities Board at the end of the first quarter of 2010. He acknowledged the annual review requirement when he told the board at the end of the 2009 meeting that he would return “this time next year.”

But over the last four years the Utilities Board and Art Willis never scheduled the annual rate review and the discounts to the Sailing Emporium have approached $9,000, which the group wanted reimbursed back to the town.

Bob Willis thought that the decision by the Council on Monday would require all of the out-of-town sewer contracts with Kent County to be reviewed — but was told by MacLeod and Town Manager Ron Fithian that all of the other out-of-town users were not subject to a vote before the Council.

“This doesn’t effect any contract with town and the county,” MacLeod said. “Those are not accounts like the ones that are subject to this motion because the town does not bill those accounts directly.”

“You’re mixing apples with oranges,” Fithian said to Willis. He said the other out-of-town accounts are based on agreements with the county.

Willis still seemed confused over which properties are billed by the town and those billed by the county outside the town limits. He asked to review all the contracts in the unincorporated areas that are served by the town’s water and sewer facility.

“You can review any of those contracts whenever you want,” Fithian said. “You can have every contract for every agreement. You can have it all and view it whenever you want.”

See the exchange after the closed session below, the video is about 7 minutes.

Art and Bob Willis believe their business was targeted for political reasons — because there was no mention of the three other accounts in the July 1 complaint to the Council, which asked the council to seek reimbursement from Art Willis for the years the discount was applied.

But Gren Whitman said that Spring Cove Marina never asked for the rate reduction nor did its owner make public statements that she was paying a “multiple of the in-town rate.”

“The person who asked for the rate reduction in sewer was Art Willis,” Whitman said. “Spring Cove Marina never asked for the rate reduction, it was simply a policy decision by the Utilities Board.”

“We did our research because we wanted to challenge what Art Willis had said in a public letter about the sewer rate he pays to the town,” Whitman said. “Art claimed he paid a multiple of the sewer rate to the town…and that was incorrect.”

“We want the law enforced.”

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