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Paris attorney Bill Flanary addresses the council Monday night, calling for an apology to his clients, Roger and Sharon Stripland, for characterizations that they “illegally” tied onto city sewer lines in 2000. City manager John Godwin apologized, saying he “made a big mistake” when he “foolishly repeated” … “certain things that he was told that turned out not to be correct.” (eParisExtra! photo by Charles Richards)
By CHARLES RICHARDS
Paris attorney Bill Flanary demanded and received an apology Monday night from city manager John Godwin for using “rank hearsay from another staff member to (erroneously) accuse citizens of engaging in theft of city services, a crime of moral turpitude.”
As a direct result of Godwin’s internal comments to council members, which were reported by the media, Flanary said his clients Roger and Sharon Stripland and their young daughter “have been defamed, embarrassed, held up to ridicule, shamed, humiliated and angered.”
The Striplands were on the agenda for the council’s July 9 meeting to ask for a reduced rate in their monthly sewer because they provided some of their own infrastructure. They asked to pay $25 a month instead of $31.36 a month.
Relying upon what finance director and former interim city manager Gene Anderson told him, Godwin told council members in an agenda briefing sheet for that meeting that the Striplands and a few other families “connected onto the city’s sewer system illegally more than 10 years ago.”
Oddly enough, Flanary said Monday night, after he obtained affidavits revealing that the Striplands fully communicated with the city in 2000 before doing the work and that the then-city engineer reviewed and approved the work, the city “then determined that the Striplands are really not such villains as they had been portrayed.”
Flanary added: “An apology to Roger and Sharon would have been, and still is, altogether fitting and proper, and it’s the right thing for you to do. Shame on you, Mr. Godwin, and shame on Mr. Anderson.”
Mayor AJ Hashmi revealed later that he contacted both Godwin and Flanary earlier in the day to suggest an apology from the city, putting the matter to an end. Flanary made a reference to that during his comments.
“Since writing this, I now have reason to believe that a public apology and a reprimand of the person or persons responsible is forthcoming, and that hopefully will bring this unfortunate matter to a conclusion,” Flanary said. “However, I note that as of late today Mr. Anderson is still saying that these people need to obtain a ‘legitimate’ connection to the sewer.”
Flanary’s comments came during citizens’ forum at the beginning of Monday night’s meeting.
About 10 minutes later, when the Striplands’ request for lower sewage fees came up as the second item on the regular agenda, Godwin spent a minute and 25 seconds making the apology.
“Mr. Mayor, before we begin, I would like to correct and apologize for inaccurate information that was given out at the July 9 meeting,” Godwin said.
“We made a big mistake. I was told certain things that turned out not to be correct. I foolishly repeated those without knowing what I was talking about. I am ashamed, and I do certainly apologize.
“The Stripland family did in fact meet with the then-city engineer way back in 2000. The plumbing work was done under city permit. We know all of that now, and we should have known it when we met last time. Somewhere along the line, the city made assumptions and failed to communicate internally.
“And even now I’m not sure how we got where we are, but I’ll be finding out today, tomorrow or the next day, and fixing responsibility for those mistakes. We will hold any existing staff members responsible and will investigate how inaccurate information was passed along as if it were a fact.
“In the meantime, I do apologize to the Stripland family, and I apologize to Mr. Flanary, and I apologize to the city council because you were given inaccurate information by the staff that you depend on.
“In closing, I thank Mr. Flanary for speaking up tonight and holding us accountable, because if we’re not held accountable, we don’t get better. So thank you for fussing at me. I hope you don’t have cause to ever do it again. So again, we do apologize both personally and as an organization.”
Asked by Hashmi if he had any other comment, Flanary said to Godwin: “I still have one question. Who gave you that information?”
Godwin said: “I spoke to Mr. Anderson about it.”
Flanary said: “So he told you that?”
Godwin said: “Yes.”
Flanary said, “Thank you, sir.”
After taking several steps from the citizens forum podium, Flanary turned around.
“And we accept your apology,” he said.
“Thank you,” Godwin replied.
“And we also expect one from the other staff,” Flanary said.
“I understand,” the city manager said.
The mayor then said: “On behalf of the council, I apologize to the Stripland family and all others affected by it. Hopefully, that makes this the last time that it happens.”
“Thank you, sir. And may we be excused?” Flanary said before he and the Stripland family left the council chambers.
No action was taken on the request for a lower rate. After the meeting, the mayor said that was an administrative decision that would be left to Godwin.
In his council memo for Monday night’s meeting, Godwin had said he had found “no evidence to suggest we should offer a lower monthly usage rate than assessed to other residential users in the city.”
Godwin said after Monday night’s meeting he will give the matter more thought.
“On one hand, we shouldn’t do this. I’ll just have to think about it and see what we’ve done in the past. You worry about setting a precedent,” he said.
Ironically, it was persistent drainage problems on Stripland’s property early this year that led to the “discovery” in March that he and others were connected to city sewage lines.
Each month, the city council receives a report on routine maintenance of ditches, culverts, inlets, etc., and on “ongoing and re-occurring problems.”
Hashmi wanted to know back in February why 3420 Clement Road, where Stripland lives, continues to be on the “ongoing” drainage problem list every month. The city should not let problems go unresolved, Hashmi said.
City engineer Shawn Napier responded the following month. In recent years, he told the council, the drainage pattern had changed along Clement Road between Northeast 33rd Street and the Brownwood addition at Northeast 36th Street.
Water does not drain to the west as it once did, Napier said. As drivers have “cut the curve” at NE 33rd Street and Clement Road, he said, the inside of the road has become lower than the outside.
Napier told the council that city crews would even out the road and would also re-grade a ditch so that water would once again drain properly. In the June report on drainage issues, received by the council Monday night,
The public works department’s drainage report for the month of June (received by the council Monday night) says the roadside ditch is poorly drained and there is no outfall for the ditch.
“The engineering department is evaluating the possibility of regarding this ditch to allow it to drain. Grading will be performed this summer by the street department,” the report says.
It was in March, while trying to fix Stripland’s drainage issues, that the current city regime realized that Stripland and several of his neighbors were connected to the city sewer system.
That was a surprise, since almost three years earlier, in June 2009, that city officials had stopped assessing the Striplands and neighbors a monthly sewage fee in the mistaken belief they were not connected to city lines.
The city at the time also refunded approximately a thousand dollars in back monthly sewage fees collected to the Striplands and to three other families.
After the “discovery” in March, the families were sent a letter advising that they would again be assessed a sewer charge since they were indeed connected to city lines – albeit by their own doing.
When they asked for a break in the monthly bill since they had to pay for their own infrastructure, Anderson said no.
Asked during the July 9 council meeting to shed light on the matter, Anderson said: “I mentioned to the mayor that they hooked up without a permit and the city couldn’t maintain those lines because they were run across private property.”
He added: “They’ve got different-size pumps. And so, in some cases, one pump is overpowering another home’s pump and they get some backup, and so they’ve got some problems with that.”
Normally, Anderson said, when someone buys a house or lot, the infrastructure “is permitted, and it’s developed, and it’s done correctly.
“But in this case, it wasn’t done correctly. It was done individually. And so the engineering on it is not done correctly. It doesn’t run down the right-of-way where we can access it and maintain it.”
What needs to happen, in his opinion, Anderson told council members on July 9, “is that it be correctly engineered and they obtain a legitimate connection. … They want some kind of discounted fee or rate. … I would never approve that.”
City councilman John Wright, at the beginning of Monday night’s meeting, took exception to city clerk Janice Ellis’ summary of Anderson’s remarks in the minutes of the July 9 council meeting.
Regarding Anderson’s comments she wrote only: “Mr. Anderson said there was no basis to decrease their monthly sewer rate.”
Wright said: “If you’ll compare that to the articles written by (the local media), I think you’ll see them to be incomplete.”
Ellis said she will amplify on Anderson’s comments and bring corrected minutes to the council’s next meeting.
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