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Jellico power board appears to be on a power trip

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Peter's Perspective

 The Jellico Board of Mayor and Aldermen has been able to accomplish several things since being elected last November.

It passed a balanced budget and paved streets. The board did this without raising taxes. There are personalities in that administration with a lot of ambition and enthusiasm to get things done.

But this has caused some problems since the members of the municipal board have become the utility board.

It appears the current utility board in Jellico wants to exert too much control over the system. And the system in Jellico has its problems. The workers were underpaid. They recently received a 2.5 percent increase thanks to former general manager Mike Bethurem’s recommendation. And the system in general is aging and in need of maintenance. Perhaps a desire for control played into Bethurem’s removal on Monday.

Maybe it had something to do with rates. This board does look to have an unrealistic sense of how much control it has over rates. Bethurem and former power board attorney Terry Basista seemed to have to twist the board members’ arms to pass the Tennessee Valley Authority’s 3 percent rate increase to the customers a month ago. And this was so the company could continue to operate the system in the black.

Whatever the reasons for Bethurem’s removal, the board went about it the wrong way.

Recently appointed Alderman Darrell Byrge hasn’t been shy about expressing his opinions at some of the utility meetings. In June, Byrge made a motion to reinstate the board member’s $100 monthly pay. Those in attendance, Tommy Bowlin, Pam Carbaugh, Cissco Johnson, Mayor Les Stiers, Charles Vermillion and Byrge , approved this motion unanimously, according to the minutes. This decision had to be approved by the utility board members when they met as the municipal board. The pay was reinstated at the board of mayor and aldermen’s July 28 meeting, but each member was given $150 instead of $100. The minutes of that meeting do not specify why the pay was increased. The motion carried with Byrge, Johnson, Vermillion, Carbaugh and Bowlin voting “yes” and Evans voting “no.” This will cost the utility company $1,050, which is more than twice the power board attorney’s monthly salary. It is not consistent with keeping rates low and managing an aging system, either.

At the special meeting last Wednesday, Basista was removed as power board attorney after he gave his advice about Bethurem’s contract. The contract is clear. Bethurem was hired for four years in 2006. Each year after that, the contract was extended for a year in order to maintain a four-year contract. The only year this was not done was in 2010 when the contract was extended two years. Bethurem’s contract, according to the minutes of the utilities meeting on Oct. 12, 2010, does not expire until Oct. 1, 2015.  It is evident in the contract that firing Bethurem without a good reason will put the board in a position where it is liable to pay Bethurem the balance. This balance is around $400,000. Had Basista not voiced his opinion, he would have been failing to give the board members proper warning for their actions. Contrary to Byrge’s accusation before Basista’s removal last week, this isn’t being more loyal to Bethurem than the board. This is merely cautioning the board against making an egregious error that could cost it money. After hearing something it didn’t like, the board let Basista go. How else can you call it?

Stiers claims he did not want to have the same attorney representing both boards. But Stiers, along with Jellico’s aldermen, serve on both boards. He claims there is a difference because the aldermen and mayor are elected officials while Basista isn’t. Stiers feels this will keep the power board members accountable to the people. It is true that Stiers and the aldermen are elected officials. But, when they sit on the utility board, they make decisions that affect customers that live outside the town limits, who don’t get to vote for them. Jellico Electric and Water System serves around 4,700 customers, many of whom live in Kentucky. There are only 1,489 registered voters in Jellico. So the majority of the utility customers do not have a vote if they are dissatisfied with the job the members of the utility board is doing. The aldermen and mayor serving as the utility board infringes upon the rights of customers who cannot fight back with a vote.

If Stiers really meant what he said were his reasons for removing Basista from the power board, then he won’t support removing Basista as Jellico’s municipal attorney.

“He has no contract,” Stiers said after Bethurem’s removal. “The contract was from ’06 to ’10.”

Stiers does not want to honor Bethurem’s contract because Jellico’s charter does not allow town employees to have contracts. But Bethurem was a Jellico Electric and Water System employee. Stiers said the only reason he had for firing Bethurem was he didn’t like that he had a contract. Why did he fire him then? Just don’t extend his contract anymore. What else is going on that he’s not saying? All I know is Bethurem was terminated prematurely and it seems the board did this with no plans to pay the balance of his contract. I have no idea how litigations will play out, but I see nothing honorable in the way the utility board has treated Basista or Bethurem.