The Holley Navarre Water System Board of Directors met criticism from a packed boardroom over its closed-door hiring of former District 4 County Commissioner Rob Williamson.
Water system members voiced their concerns at a meeting Nov. 20. held in advance of a January election in which four seats on the board are up for grabs.
The member-owned utility has signed Williamson to a two-year contract as CEO at an annual salary of $100,000. He begins effective Dec. 1.
Williamson’s hiring also resulted in his appointment Tuesday as executive director for Fairpoint Regional Utility System, the water-supplying collective in which HNWS is a member. Paul Gardner, the outgoing general manager of Holley Navarre Water, is also the executive director of Fairpoint Regional, which pays about 20 percent of his roughly $100,000 in annual salary and benefits.
John Grant, volunteer president of both the Fairpoint Regional and Midway Water boards of directors told a reporter that Gardner is relied on at Fairpoint for his engineering expertise and 30 years of experience at HNWS.
“I’m not sure what Rob Williamson’s experience and education are in terms of running a water utility,” Grant said.
Further, in response to a reporter’s questions, Grant said he’s concerned about how Williamson has been chosen as Holley Navarre Water’s new boss
“The last time Midway Water hired from outside, we advertised the position and interviewed several candidates,” Grant said. “If there isn’t a public process like that, it makes people wonder what is going on.”
Grant referred to the hiring of Bobby Cooley in 2011. Cooley, now retired, came to the Midway job with an engineering background that included being a vice president at Hatch Mott McDonald consulting and a stint at the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
After Cooley retired, Midway promoted two long-time employees from its ranks to run the utility.
In a press release issued by the Holley Navarre Water System ahead of last week’s public meeting, board president Will Goulet said the majority of the board voted in favor of Williamson’s hire.
“The board, by a 5-1 vote, felt that Mr. Williamson’s unique experiences, relationships and skills best served the future of the water system and our members,” Goulet said in the press release.
During the meeting, member Donna Orbik took issue with the hiring being done without posting the position so that others could apply. She said if the company would conduct a competitive bid for air conditioning units and issue a request for proposals for a restaurant operator, it should advertise the company’s highest paid position as well.
“I drink this water. It is important to me that the people that operate my water system are qualified in the biology and engineering,” Orbik said. “I am not interested in someone who can just manage people. I want someone who also knows about water, and although Mr. Williamson might know about water—I know he drinks it—he certainly hasn’t been proven to be qualified.”
She went on to question Williamson’s qualifications based on what has been made public.
“I know for a fact that I have as good a college degree as Mr. Williamson. I don’t think I have enough knowledge just because I drink water to run a water system,” she said.
Her comments prompted applause from the crowd.
Tim Carmichael said he wanted the hiring process looked in to as well.
“The hiring of Rob Williamson was not public. I would like to put my resume in on the subject. I would do the job for about $70,000,” he said.
Elisa Bailey also questioned Williamson’s qualifications.
“I was a wastewater operator, and a water operator. I couldn’t run this plant, and I know what they are talking about most of the time in the engineering reports. Most of the companies that I have worked for all had engineers at least, if not licensed people,” she said. “Mr. Williamson could be the best person in the world. I voted for him, but he is not qualified. And the way you did this was totally out of line.”
All three speakers asked for an explanation regarding the hiring.
None was given.
The meeting was adjourned immediately following the public forum without any response from the board members, prompting several shouts from the crowd.
Member Fred Terasa is currently running for a seat on the board of directors.
“The bottom line is we are the owners of this system. I can’t imagine any company or system where the owners don’t get answers to their questions,” he said following the meeting.
In the HNWS press release, Goulet defended Williamson’s hiring as the right choice given his public experience and the water system’s needs.
“The Holley Navarre Water System is at a unique time in its history with complex ongoing negotiations related to increasing our capacity to ensure we can support the expected growth in our area. Those negotiations require understanding of how the water system fits in with the county plans, local military bases and other area utilities,” Goulet said in his prepared statement. “It also includes negotiating financial arrangements and potential bond issues that go well beyond the day to day operations of the water and sewer operations.”
But Williamson will likely be barred from those negotiations when it comes to the county under Florida Statute 112.313 (14), which states that those who served in political office may not represent any entity to the body they were elected to for two years.
Under the law, Williamson would not be able to make any communication to Santa Rosa County on the water system’s behalf. Board member Daryl Lynchard, the lone dissenting vote for Williamson’s hire, said he is concerned that this law effectively ties the new CEO’s hands.
HNWS board attorney Keith Kilpatrick acknowledged the legal limitations set by 112.313, but he said the company should be able to easily avoid violating the statute.
“In my opinion it affects very minimal his ability to represent that water department as a whole. They could very easily have someone else from the system represent them with the county,” he said. “Obviously, he is going to be conscious of what he is signing. He won’t be signing anything that will not go before the board.”
As four seats on the board come up for election in January, the concerns surrounding Williamson’s hire, as well as other issues Williamson will be handling, are likely to impact the members’ votes.
Rob Johnson contributed to this story.
As seen in the Nov. 29 issue of Navarre Press.
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