Lawmakers might examine rural water associations

JACKSON — State lawmakers could examine Mississippi’s rural water associations with an eye toward stronger regulation when the next legislative session begins in January.

The interest comes after allegations surfaced about alleged wrongdoing at North Lee County Water Association and widespread customer complaints about being denied access to that association’s board meetings.

“You need to have a comprehensive review of our rural water systems, what state agencies are involved with them and what additional regulations need to be implemented,” said state Sen. Gray Tollison, D-Oxford.

Tollison is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee B, which earlier this year killed a bill that would have placed rural water associations under the state Open Meetings and Open Records law.

It was co-authored by several other legislators including state Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn.

Turner said he saw a need to open rural water associations to the public after hearing from constituents who were denied access to meetings.

He plans to resubmit the bill, which had passed the full House, again this year.

“When you have a membership contributing to the finances of it and when the state, a lot of times, has to put up a lot of grant money for infrastructure in the beginning that was done through taxpayer money,” Turner said, “people should be able to attend those meetings.”

Turner’s comments echo those of Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who said he had sent a letter supporting the bill to Tollison. In the end, though, Tollison declined to bring up the legislation to his committee.

“You don’t want to pass something in haste and have unintended consequences,” Tollison said. “I think the Legislature needs to look at this in the next session, but there are a lot of good water associations out there that are doing their jobs and making sure people are getting good clean water and you don’t want to overburden them with regulations.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Mississippi Rural Water Association Chief Executive Officer Kirby Mayfield, who said it’s unfair to let a few mismanaged organizations set the tone for the entire state. The vast majority of these associations, he said, follow the law and some go above and beyond it.

But he also said his group might push to strengthen the state’s requirements on training for rural water board members.

Currently, Mississippi mandates all new board members receive eight hours of training within the first two years of appointment. Mayfield wants to add a supplemental four-hour class every four years thereafter.

“Additional training,” Mayfield said, “would make boards aware they have a job and a responsibility to take care of the water association as a business and treat everyone fairly.”

The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has published a series of stories since Sept. 30 about allegations the association’s supervisor forced employees to work side jobs for him while on the clock, including at properties owned by longtime water association board President Mitchell Scruggs, who resigned Tuesday.

The newspaper also reported claims that state-mandated water samples were collected from one site instead of from various locations across the district.

Scruggs is the sixth person to quit the board since last week. He had served 21 years. Four board members now remain, including two who had been hastily appointed after others resigned Oct. 4.

Board attorney Bill Beasley said the board unanimously voted to meter all water outlets, thus ending the long-held practice of allowing certain farmers free water in exchange for access to their land.

It also voted to charge all association customers — including those who serve as board directors — the same water rate. Previously, most board directors paid a flat monthly fee of $10.30, regardless of their water usage.

And it voted to ask the Mississippi Department of Health to do more water testing besides what the agency had done earlier this month.

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