HALL COLUMN: What happened in 2005?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2007

In the words of Cool Hand Luke, &8220;What we have here is a failure to communicate.&8221;

The decision of Mayor Cecil Williamson’s guilt or innocence will most likely fall to a jury to determine, unless an out-of-court settlement is reached.

However, one thing that is abundantly clear is the need for the city council to review the communication procedure between it and the governing boards that make up the city’s governmental infrastructure.

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We know that the Water Board knew of the city paying premiums for Williamson’s health care as early as June 6, 2005. Minutes from a meeting on that day show where a memo from then-payroll clerk Paula Rich detailed an invoice from the city to the Water Board in the amount of $7,464.

This is how it works. The city council cannot change the salary or benefits of an elected official. That must be done by the state Legislature. Therefore, it falls to a city governing board to do so, if the city sees fit. In the City of Demopolis, the mayor also serves as Superintendent of the Water Board. Due to this arrangement, the Water Board sets part of the mayor’s salary and all of the mayor’s benefits.

In the case of former Mayor Austin Caldwell, the Water Board agreed to a monthly salary plus payment of partial benefits. The city would pay for those benefits as part of their normal payroll process, then the city would send an annual bill to the Water Board for reimbursement.

According to statements made to this newspaper by former city officials, Williamson’s benefits with BlueCross/Blue Shield were set up by office staff in the same manner as Caldwell’s when she first took office.

Along comes May 27, 2005, and Rich writes her memo to the Water Board to detail the invoice that was sent by the city seeking reimbursement.

At the June 6, 2005, meeting, the Water Board, for at least the second time, addressed the mayor’s request that the Water Board provide her health insurance as they had done her predecessor. (The Water Board first addressed the request at a Dec. 6, 2004, meeting when they set her salary at $1,000 per month with no benefits.) The Water Board, according to the minutes of the June 6, 2005, meeting, denied the mayor’s request and told her that they had upped her salary from the $600 per month paid to Caldwell to cover the cost of benefits.

So here’s the rub. Each governing board of the city has at least one councilman sitting on it. In the case of the Water Board, that councilman is Woody Collins.

Collins said yesterday that he did not remember the June 6, 2005, meeting and was unaware of the fact that the mayor had been receiving benefits until September of last year when it was brought to his attention through the course of an official audit that was taking place.

OK. So here’s where we sit. We take Collins at his word. He doesn’t remember the meeting. I couldn’t tell you where I was on June 6, 2005, save that I was working for The Scott County Times, so who am I to say he’s not telling the truth?

That leaves us with the city’s Water Board knowing that Williamson was receiving health insurance from the city without their approval. Except for denying the mayor’s request for health benefits, the minutes of this meeting reflect no further action taken by the board.

In fact, the only person who has been able to answer what the board did to recoup the money from the mayor was Rich, who said board members instructed her to tell Williamson that she had to repay it.

Rich said she discussed the situation with the mayor in the mayor’s office. According to Rich, Williamson told her to continue paying the premiums as in the past because the mayor was still negotiating with the Water Board to get benefits. Rich, and subsequent payroll clerks, did so.

Then, on Sept. 29, 2006, following an audit by the city’s accounting firm, the mayor repaid $15,300 to the city. That means in addition to the $7,464 the city invoiced the Water Board in 2005, the mayor received $7,836 in benefits over the next year.

So, here’s the million-dollar question (or, in this case, the $7,836 question): Why did city leaders &045; elected or appointed &045; not put a stop to the mayor’s benefits in the summer of 2005?

Whether or not Williamson is guilty of felony theft is irrelevant to the question at hand. If a jury finds that she stole the entire $15,300, then it stands to reason that a jury would have found that she stole $7,464 in the first year.

But as we have followed this story and ask the $7,836 question of city leaders &045; elected and appointed &045; nobody seems to know why the premiums continued to be paid, save the mayor’s request. Nobody can tell us any action city leaders &045; elected or appointed &045; took to stop the misappropriation of funds.

In light of that, it is absolutely incumbent upon on our elected city leaders to review the process by which governing boards report their activities to the city council.

Perhaps the procedures are well designed and virtually flawless. Perhaps this was a hiccup in the system. But regardless, our city council needs to reassure its citizenry that a lack of communication by other boards has not led to the misappropriation of funds or waste of city resources &045; whether by accident, by negligence or by deception.

I don’t believe the breakdown in communication between the Water Board and the city council does not put at fault either board or its members for the mayor initially receiving benefits during her first year in office.

What I do think it means is this situation could have been resolved two years ago instead of now, and that $7,836 in public funds would not have been erroneously expended for the mayor’s health benefits.

In short, the Water Board failed in rectifying a known misappropriation of public funds when they learned of it in 2005. That fact, we cannot change.

Protecting against this kind of breakdown in the future is something that can be done, and it is a necessity, regardless of the mayor’s legal situation. Hopefully our city council will agree.

Sam R. Hall is editor and publisher of The Times. He can be reached by e-mail to sam.hall@demopolistimes.com.