Williamson’s hands are tied at the water utility

The list of duties that are legally off-limits to the newly minted $100,000-a-year Chief Executive Officer at Holley Navarre Water System keeps growing.

Already being held at arm’s length by Santa Rosa County officials, ousted District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson also won’t likely be allowed to handle applications for federal and state grants or loans to fund new infrastructure or make emergency repairs of HNWS lines, pumps or tanks.

That’s because most such requests by member-owned Holley Navarre Water must go through county officials, with whom Williamson is prohibited by state statute from contacting on utility business.

In fact, neither County Administrator Dan Schebler nor Dave Piech—who soundly defeated the one-term Williamson’s bid for re-election last August, would even attend a tour of HNWS facilities offered by the utility recently until being assured that the defeated commissioner wouldn’t be involved.

“It’s okay because our staff and directors can handle responsibilities of that sort,” said volunteer HNWS Board President Will Goulet. “There’s a lot that someone with the talent and experience that he (Williamson) has can help us with.”

Still, Goulet told a reporter in an interview last week that before Williamson was hired in November he wasn’t aware of Florida Statute 112.312, which prohibits former commissioners from any communications with county officials on behalf of the water system or any third party.

Goulet said, “No one pointed it out until after the vote,” which was 5-1 in favor of Williamson’s hiring. The only no vote was Daryl Lynchard, former president of the board. Goulet didn’t vote because the panel’s president only does so to break a tie.

Goulet stopped short of saying that he wouldn’t have supported Williamson for the CEO job if he had known about the law, but he said: “If I had known about the statute, I would have looked closer at the position.”

Lynchard was blind-sided by the request for the vote to hire Williamson on Nov. 7. “If they were interviewing him, they could have done some basic research. It took me less than 12 hours to figure out the limitations due to the state statute,” said Lynchard of the future limitations Williamson would have at the water utility as an ex-commissioner.

Now Goulet and the HNWS board must look closer to see what Williamson is actually allowed by law to do. Williamson’s role at HNWS is diminished because of the state law meant to eliminate political cronyism and conflicts of interest among public officials—past and present.

Chief advisory officer

Goulet and others who supported Williamson as the utility’s new CEO had hoped that the former commissioner’s experience and contacts with Tallahassee and Washington D.C. officials, whom he dealt with on county business and for training, would help HNWS find new sources of grants and loans.

But in that capacity, it appears Williamson will be limited to a largely advisory role.

At the December 18, 2018 Holley Navarre Water Board meeting, a budget line item of $50,000 annually was approved at the request of Williamson for, “Government Services.” The approval essentially authorized Williamson free reign for out-of-town trips to lobby for “alternative sources of funding.” Williamson emphasized in the meeting that it was a “not to exceed” budget.

“We haven’t had a seat at the table in Tallahassee when grants and legislative allocations were discussed in a long time,” said Goulet. However, Holley Navarre Water System will have a difficult time meeting requirements for obtaining grants because of it’s “membership owned” status.

So stringent are the laws governing member-owned utility funding from state and federal sources that Pace Water System (PWS) created–in cooperation with Santa Rosa County–a special entity to apply for grants: The Pace Property Finance Authority.

The nonprofit affiliate of PWS has successfully applied for about $1.4 million in state and federal grants during the past 15 years, according to Damon Boutwell, the utility’s general manager.

Yet Boutwell’s role with the finance authority extends beyond where Williamson will be allowed to go for Holley Navarre Water.

“On applications for grants, I always sign for it,” Boutwell said.

In fact, because, such financial arms of member-owned utilities are created in cooperation with county officials, Williamson probably couldn’t even participate directly in establishing an organization of the sort set up by the Pace water utility.

Lynchard, the HNWS board member who opposed Williamson’s hiring, said, “We are going to have to hire someone to do the job that we hired Williamson to do.”

Williamson waded in extensively on a HNWS-related matter before the County Commission on Nov. 5, three days before the utility board voted in a closed-door meeting to hire him and six days after letters of recommendation for his HNWS job had started coming in from the County Administrator and Senator Doug Broxson. The issue was the still-unresolved decision on the county’s possible joint venture with Holley Navarre Water to dispose of effluent.

Williamson expressed concern for possible costs to both HNWS and the county depending on the alternative eventually chosen for piping treated wastewater from Navarre Beach Water to a spray field at either Eglin Air Force Base or one closer that’s owned by the City of Gulf Breeze’s South Santa Rosa Utility System.

The county owns Navarre Beach Water and plans to eventually allow HNWS to acquire it, probably in the form of a cashless merger of sorts. Such a deal would be part of an HNWS expansion and perhaps the creation of a regional effluent reuse system led by Williamson’s new employer.

But Williamson’s county commissioner background restricts him in an area that might be of considerable financial benefit to the utility and its roughly 14,000 customers.

 

As seen in the Jan. 3 issue of Navarre Press.

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