Accusations cloud water utility election

Hopes are being shaken that cronyism at Holley Navarre Water System would be challenged by the Jan. 15 election in which four seats on the volunteer board of directors are up for grabs.

Five Navarre residents who are customers of the water utility recently wrote to its attorney that board member Doug Larson had improperly transferred his membership to girlfriend Jennifer Jones so she could qualify as a candidate.

Although the utility’s attorney, Keith Kilpatrick, concluded on Jan. 2 that both Larson and Jones are eligible to run for board seats, their behind-the-scenes deal making may taint the election results.

Board member Daryl Lynchard is among those who describe the Larson-Jones qualification arrangement as a thinly veiled strategy to ensure that the new board won’t oust Holley Navarre Water CEO Rob Williamson, who was hired in November at a closed-door meeting of the utility board. Lynchard was the only no vote in a 5-1 decision to hire Williamson without interviewing other candidates, advertising the job or even having a       written job description.

“This is at least partly about trying to make sure there is enough support on the board to keep him,” said Lynchard.

Neither Jones nor Larson could be reached for this story.

Larson was a contributor to Williamson’s failed re-election campaign for the District 4 Santa Rosa County Commission seat. Lynchard and some of the five utility customers who have charged that Jones’ HNWS board candidacy shouldn’t be allowed say she will follow Larson’s wishes to keep Williamson as the utility’s $100,000-a-year CEO.

Carmen Reynolds, a retired Air Force officer who later worked for a time as a copy editor at this newspaper, is among the five HNWS customers who wrote in protest of Jones’ candidacy.

“It seems clear that Larson helped Jones qualify so she could support Williamson” if other new board members dispute the way he was hired and his lack of qualifications to be CEO, Reynolds said.

Debbie Gunnoe is another of the five HNWS customers who signed the letter disputing Jones’ eligibility. Gunnoe was appointed to the board last year but removed a short time later in a political shake-up led by Will Goulet, the panel’s president.

Goulet is also a supporter of Williamson. Goulet didn’t respond to a reporter’s request for comment on the Larson-Jones matter.

Still, Reynolds said that if Jones is allowed to run, the five letter writers may mount a legal challenge to the election results.

There are four seats open on the eight-member HNWS board. The three candidates who receive the most votes will serve for three years and the fourth will have a one-year term.

Missing the deadline

Although the group of challengers who wrote to Kilpatrick cited several possible reasons for Jones’ disqualification, including possible violation the HNWS bylaws that cover membership transfers, Lynchard said the main    issue is less complex.

“She missed the deadline of Nov. 15 to become a Holley Navarre Water member, (a verified customer with a valid address) which a board candidate must be,” Lynchard said.

Indeed, Jones’ membership certificate—obtained by this newspaper—is dated Nov. 21. The document was signed by Goulet.

The deadline to file as a board candidate was Nov. 15.

Board candidate Kevin Lanier said, “Regardless of what horse hockey Kilpatrick (the board’s attorney) says about Jones being eligible, this should be proof that she was not an official member at the time the   application was due.”

The letter from the HNWS customers who oppose Jones’ candidacy said, “Only current members as of the date of qualifying to run for the board of directors can qualify to run for board election.” The letter then cited the Nov. 15 deadline to qualify.

The group also cited a ruling by the HNWS board in 2017 that removed Brian Kelly as a board member for failure to provide proof of ownership or a valid lease where his water utility bill was being sent. The attorney making the determination, James Magaha, said in part, the subscriber had to receive approval from the board of directors  for membership admittance.

Their letter asserted, “In the case of Ms. Jones, this policy seems to have been neglected.”

Their letter added that the current board’s handling of Jones’ candidacy could subject the utility “to litigation that will only harm the members of the corporation they were elected to represent.”

The letter writers who oppose Jones asked that she be removed from the Jan. 15 ballot and that any early votes already cast for her “be considered null and void.”

As seen in the Jan. 10 issue of Navarre Press.

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