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Law would shut off utility elections

The Unicoi County Gas Utility District plans to vote on a second resolution to the state of Tennessee seeking exemption from new legislation handed down Monday, May 16, which would require input from the county mayor in appointing new commissioners.
The UCGUD board brought itself into conformity with the then-non-existent legislation in early April, when it passed a resolution by a 4-1 vote giving the county mayor input on commissioner appointments and doing away with elections. These were costing the utility in excess of $2,000 each time, with a voter turnout of less than 10 percent.
The vote prompted a heated response from some residents, who attended a late-April meeting of the board to express their dissatisfaction with having their right to elect gas commissioners taken away.
During that meeting citizens called for the commissioners to rescind their earlier vote to conform to the new appointment method, which they unanimously decided to do.
However UCGUD General Manager Tim Whitson said it is his understanding that the Tennessee Utility Management Review Board will not allow the commissioners to change their vote on the resolution.
Whitson said if the new resolution is recognized by the state, it would exempt the utility from the new legislation and allow them to continue holding elections for commissioners.
Blake Fontenay, communications director for the comptroller’s office, said that even if the resolution were to be stricken from the record, the UCGUD would still be required to comply with the new legislation because the resolution was the only reason they were exempted in the first place.
If signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, the new law would require the Unicoi County Gas Utility District to accept a system in which the board of commissioners will compile a list of three nominees and then send that list to the mayor when a new appointment is needed.
The mayor can in turn either appoint a new commissioner off the list, reject the list of nominees entirely, or simply choose not to respond to the appointment request. However, if the mayor does not respond within 21 days, the commissioners may appoint someone themselves.
According to the release, only 41 utility districts in the state are affected by this legislation, as the other 149 have already approved and implemented systems permissible under the new law.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said the former system of electing commissioners “seemed to work.” He added he was surprised the state moved so quickly with the legislation.
“If it’s a state law and we can’t opt out of it, then of course we’ll abide by it,” he said. “I sort of wish they had done this prior to the fiasco and we could have avoided it.”
The legislation does not require county mayors to make the appointments. They could simply allow the 21-day deadline to expire, putting the responsibility back on the commissioners to choose.
Lynch has said previously that he wants no part of any appointment process because they aren’t his appointments to make. In a telephone interview with The Erwin Record on Monday, he noted that he would take appointment requests “on a case-by-case basis.”
“This is really tricky. It’s a political nightmare,” he said. “I feel like I’ve done my job (and) it would be a shame for the county mayor to make a block of people mad over that.”
According to a press release from the comptroller’s office, the legislation, sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager and Rep. Ryan Haynes, is aimed at bringing greater accountability and transparency to utility districts statewide.
In addition to the new system of appointment, the legislation also requires travel expenses and related costs to be included in district spending reports published annually in newspapers, and that all district expenditures be for utility-related purposes.
Utility districts will also be mandated to charge rates sufficient to cover all expenses and debt obligations, and will require them to file copies of their annual budgets with the comptroller’s office if they have any outstanding debt.
In addition, any notes or bonds issued by gas utility districts will have to have approval from the comptroller’s office before being issued.