The controversy started when resident Richard Ford (pictured presenting to the council) noticed a change in his city utility rates: an increase of $10 on his trash service bill and $1 on his sewage service.
“No one really knew. There was no notice on the bill; we just thought we had been using a lot of water,” Ford said, but after comparing the bill with a previous bill, it was apparent the rates had been raised.
Ford said he called the city and that he was told that it was a last-minute addition to the July Board of Trustees agenda and that he had two options: Move or pay the bill.
Ford said the mayor and city workers also told him that the agenda item to raise the rates was a last-minute addition added two hours before the meeting started.
The Oklahoma Open Meeting Act states that public bodies must publicly display agendas 24 hours in advance.Most of the people in Valley Brook are on a fixed income and many are disabled, Ford said. He started a petition requesting that the raise in rates be rescinded, that the residents be reimbursed for the extra amount paid, that citizens be properly notified of votes and that extensions be granted for utility payments to Sooner Utilities.
Ford collected about 144 signatures on the petition and presented it at the board’s regular Aug. 9 meeting, which was attended by approximately 40 people.
“We want them to know this isn’t OK,” Ford said before the start of the meeting.
Right off the bat, however, things got complicated.
Although the Aug. 9 meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. — and the agenda posted in the window of the town courthouse, where the meeting was to be held, stated the meeting began at 7 p.m. — it was delayed until 7:30 because the courthouse was also a polling location for the Republican primary for the Senate District 43 race. Those entering the courthouse were told they were not allowed in the public building until after voting was finished.
Once the meeting started, the Board of Trustees received an audit stating that the city’s public works authority, which manages sewage and garbage, was running at a relatively severe loss of about $74,000, mostly because the systems weren’t bringing in enough money, the audit stated.
Much of the meeting and parliamentary
procedure was directed by town attorney Robert Thompson, (pictured) and the
measure to allow for a sewage and trash rate increase had been placed on
the Aug. 9 agenda, despite having been approved by the trustees the
When the town clerk read the agenda item, Ford asked why the matter was on the agenda again.
“Last month the (trustees) voted to increase the rates and I think this agenda (item) was put back on here today, it’s my understanding, so there could be an explanation and discussion about why, because apparently there weren’t that many people here for that meeting,” Thompson said. “I can assure the (board) and public there was an agenda posted more than 24 hours before the meeting.”
Thompson said the raise in rates was not enough to cover the entire deficit in the public works budget, which has seen ever-increasing deficits in recent years and is required by the state Department of Environmental Quality to be self-sustaining.We want them to know this isn’t OK.
—Richard FordAfter the meeting, Thompson said he had received a copy of the agenda the day before the July meeting and the item was on it, and the town clerk also said she had posted the agenda.
When asked what the mayor’s name was, Thompson said he did not know.
“I just call him mayor,” he said. “I don’t know his full name; I just call him mayor.”
During the meeting, Ford said he had met with mayor of Valley Brook, Sam Harp, when he was collecting signatures for the petition and that prior to asking him to sign, Harp had told him that the item was added two hours prior to the meeting.
“I had never seen (Ford) before then,” Harp told Ford.
“The same day at the front door, you were a little bit intoxicated,” Ford replied.
Harp denied drinking and said he could not because of a heart condition and that if he were to have a drink, “it would probably kill me.”
During the meeting, several frustrated and angry citizens aired their grievances over the increase, the lack of notice and other issues surrounding the matter. At one point, a city worker questioned the amount reported to have been spent on trash services in the audit, while demanding to know if his job was in danger because of the public works deficit.
As the meeting went on, citizens began to debate the issues between themselves, sometimes speaking over one another as the board members spoke quietly among themselves.
“I think you just need to make a vote,” Thompson told Harp, “They’re not going to pay attention, and they’re not going to honor your —” “We are paying attention,” someone in the audience protested.
Thompson said the trustees could choose to defer the rate increases until September, reaffirm the rate increases or change the rate.
“Your community has spoken. You see the paperwork in front of you with the signatures,” Ford told Harp. “The community does not want to pay this bill and cannot pay this bill; therefore, you’re leaving a lot of people in a hard place.”
Ford asked that the item and rate increases at least be deferred, if it would not be immediately rescinded and Harp agreed with the idea.
“Let’s fully investigate it and find more out about it,” Harp said, and the trustees voted 4-1 to put the item off until September.
Ford said he was pessimistic about whether the fight was over.
“I think that we got a postponement, but honestly, I think, at the end of this, it will come back to the fee. They wanted to calm the public and give us a month,” Ford said. “I’m definitely going to keep the town going on it, but the way it looks, it doesn’t matter what the town says; it’s up to them.
that’s the case, we’ve got to find out how to get these people out of
power and bring in people who live in the town who understand that the
town is on a fixed income.”
Photos by Mark Hancock