As the election of four new members to the Holley Navarre Water System’s board of directors draws near, discussions of the utility have flared on social media, in conversations and even in the Board of County Commissioners’ chambers.
The candidates chosen Jan. 15 will act as the leadership entity for a water system that serves roughly 14,000 residents of Navarre and is growing. The water system’s history dates back to the early 1970s when residents of Holley used pitcher pumps and wells for their water source.
A small group of Holley residents saw the need for a reliable source of potable water and stepped forward to form what is now the Holley Navarre Water System. With funding from the Farmers Home Administration, they began laying the pipes to bring water into their homes.
A 99-year exclusive franchise agreement was given to HNWS by Santa Rosa County Nov. 10, 1970, authorizing it to build, expand, operate and maintain the water system and to provide services to the public for domestic, commercial and other uses. A replacement franchise agreement was signed with the county in 1986.
Currently, HNWS is not subject to oversight from the Public Service Commission, the state agency that exercises regulatory authority over utilities throughout Florida and ensures that reasonable rates are charged for services.
In fact, HNWS is not currently regulated by any authority including Santa Rosa County government, according to County Attorney Roy Andrews.
“There is some state statutory exemption for customer-owned water and sewer systems… This board meets that definition. There is the ability and the county has exercised some in the past over water and sewer systems. That ordinance was repealed several years ago. That may be something we want to look into,” Andrews said Dec. 10 after being asked about regulating the water system.
In 2012, HNWS entered the golf business with the purchase of The Club at Hidden Creek. The purchase ensured HNWS could continue to dispose of wastewater on the course and use it as a spray field for treated effluent.
The amount of disposal has caused concern among Hidden Creek residents who live along the golf course property. It has also prompted complaints from golfers who have reported play being disrupted because holes were closed due to flooding caused by overspray of wastewater.
Last year the golf course’s restaurant was closed by the board due to concerns over money losses. After the departure of General Manager Jim Morgan in April 2018, the restaurant’s chef quit. Despite a competitive request for proposals put out by the HNWS board, the restaurant remains empty.
In 2014, the company added to its portfolio again, establishing Municipal Engineering Services Inc. to provide engineering services to the utility and other systems. For more than 25 years, that work had been done by Fabre Engineering, but in 2014 two of the company’s longtime engineers made the move to HNWS under MESI.
Fairpoint Regional Utilities
In 1999, three water utilities–Gulf Breeze, Midway and Holley Navarre–came together to form Fairpoint Regional Utilities, headquartered in Holley Navarre Water System offices. The three utilities purchase water from Fairpoint.
While Fairpoint’s articles of incorporation state that all three entities are equal partners in the company, it is managed, operated and maintained by HNWS. In fact, in addition to sharing an address, the two shared a general manager, Paul Gardner, who is compensated by both companies.
That arrangement changed as of December 2018 with Gardner’s retirement. Fairpoint is now managed by HNWS’ new Chief Executive Officer, former County Commissioner Rob Williamson. His official start day was December 1, 2018.
As has often happened in recent years, the HWNS board drew ire and questions from members over the hiring of Williamson as CEO.
Williamson was defeated in August 2018 in a bid for re-election to the District 4 County Commission seat. The public was made aware of his hiring by HNWS in November 2018. The position had not been advertised for applicants, and no job description has been released.
When several members (customers of the utility) posed questions about the hiring to the board during a public meeting, the board refused to respond.
Duties of the board
The bylaws of Holley Navarre Water System speak clearly on the roles of the officers on the board and their overall responsibilities.
The board as a whole is responsible for approving members, hiring and firing staff or allowing that duty to be delegated, borrowing money, establishing the policies and procedures of the company, ordering the annual financial audit and determining the rates and connection fees paid by its customers.
The president presides over the meetings of the company and the board and is authorized to perform all acts and duties usually performed by an executive and presiding officer, sign all membership certificates and other documents of the company as directed by the board.
The current HNWS board president is Will Goulet.
The vice president is authorized to perform the duties of the president should he or she be absent or become unable to perform. Mark Miller serves in this role.
In case of death or disability of the president, the board may declare the office vacant and elect a successor.
The secretary/treasurer keeps the records of all meetings of the company and the board and has general supervision of the books and records of the company. The person holding this position also is responsible for issuing the membership certificates with the president. In addition, the secretary/treasurer is responsible for issuing all notices required. He must keep a record of all members of the company, address and date of issuance, surrender, cancellation or forfeiture.
Doug Larson is in this position. He is seeking re-election to the board Jan. 15
Election process complicated
For years, HNWS elections have been scrutinized by members, drawing criticism about complicated processes and accusations of potential fraud.
Proxies continue to be a point of contention. The bylaws state that proxies may be used, and the company has long relied on the proxy system for the elections. The majority of members who actually participate in the election opt to hand their vote to someone else through the proxy process.
For 2019, the water system has added yet another layer to the election process by allowing members to request and submit proxies through email. HNWS also discontinued the process of automatically sending proxies to members through the mail.
If a member chooses to give away his or her vote, they can request a proxy by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, by calling 850-939-2427 or in person at the HNWS office. He can then mark the sheet with the member they choose to vote in their place, sign and return it in the provided envelope, through email with electronic signature or in person at the office.
If a member wishes to cast his or her own vote in person, that can be done by appearing at the HNWS office at 8574 Turkey Bluff Road in Navarre on Tuesday, Jan. 15, from 7:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Members can also vote by absentee ballot. Absentee ballots can be requested via email from email@example.com, by phone at 850-939-2427 or in person at the office.
On Election Day, the county Supervisor of Elections office will assist in administering the election.
“It is their election, so they just tell us what they want to do,” Supervisor of Elections Tappie Villane said.
On the day of the election, her office will provide a DS200 ballot counting machine, voting booths and two poll workers, Villane said. These workers receive the same training as poll workers for official county elections.
“At 7 p.m. we close the polls. We print the result tape and give the tape to them. Then we take out the ballots and give them all the ballots,” Villane said. “The poll workers will be there all day. I usually start there in the morning and come back that evening.”
Villane’s office is providing a lock box for proxies and absentee ballots. The box is provided at no cost to the water system, and Villane will be the only one with access to the key.
Per HNWS’ notice of annual meeting, “HNWS accepts no responsibility for lost, stolen, damaged, or late proxies / absentee ballots.”
Gail Acosta contributed to this story.
As seen in the Jan. 10 issue of Navarre Press.
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