With a history of attempted takeovers by the City of Dripping Springs, the revelation by Brewer that he had recruited Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell to serve on the Employee Code of Conduct review committee stirred considerable concern among
Send your comments and news tips to email@example.com, to Mr. O'Dell at firstname.lastname@example.org, call the Dripping WS at 512-858-7897 or click on the "comments" button at the bottom of the story
Note: Things are heating up between the member-customers of the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp, its management and board members. Charles O'Dell has been following this story for well over a year of an internal feud that is costing the city's water supplier tank loads of money on legal expenses alone, not to mention the cost of severely frayed relations all the way around. In his third installment, O'Dell reports that things are coming to a head – and it may mean the head of board president Steve Harris.
A rising tide of public reaction
By Charles O'Dell
Those in the audience were shaking their heads in disbelief as the Dripping Springs Water Supply Corp (DSWSC) board meeting adjourned at their last meeting on Nov. 1. Board member Jim Walden had been stranded in San Marcos with a failed pickup transmission, and DSWSC General Manager Doug Cones had been called out on an emergency, leaving only four board members in attendance to address agenda items. The meeting provided some unexpected fireworks.
During Citizens Communications a former DSWSC board president stood up and implored the current president, Steve Harris, to stop his infighting because it was damaging the corporation’s reputation and interfering with its operations.
& president Harris
An expensive harassment cover up
This code of conduct for DSWSC employees and another code for the board were both prepared by outside attorney Phil Haag. This was in response to an investigation orchestrated by Haag to deal with a year old harassment complaint filed against Harris by an employee who Brewer unsuccessfully tired to fire during the September board meeting. The investigation report has not been made public or even shared with the employee who filed the harassment complaint against Harris. Instead, it appears Harris and Haag have tried to bury the complaint behind the board’s code of conduct actions.
The board went into executive session just to discuss an invoice from Haag in the amount of $10,700, reportedly in payment for the harassment investigation. According to the Open Meetings Act, such a discussion should have been held in open meeting. This invoice brings legal costs for eleven months to over $125,000. According to public records, little of that cost was for legal counsel. Most of the $125,000 was for non-legal services requested by Harris that could have been obtained for little or no cost from more appropriate sources.
Eliminating transparency and accountability
A third public speaker urged the board to reinstate notice of board meetings on monthly customer bills so members were better informed. Board president Steve Harris, under pressure for his harassing tactics, pushed through a motion at the September board meeting removing that notice to members. Member attendance at board meetings has increased substantially as word of Harris’ disruptive actions spread.
And as if to address Harris’ refusal at the October meeting to accept the outside financial audit, a CPA in the audience remarked that he had reviewed the audit report obtained through an open records request and found the audit to be in good order.
Harris has repeatedly said or implied there are accounting irregularities (none of which Harris could substantiate) and that Cones is trying to cover them up. At the October board meeting Harris claimed personal knowledge of accounting mistakes and said that he personally signed checks for major capital expenditures that records show he didn’t sign. Harris also claimed check amounts that records show were incorrect on checks that Harris did sign.
A personal vendetta or something more sinister?
Harris clearly has a personal vendetta against Cones, and coupled with an apparent controlling personality Harris is a threat to effective water operations. This threat is demonstrated by Harris’ repeated efforts to damage Cones reputation with reckless attempts of character assassination, and by exceeding his authority and undermining Cones’ management efforts that have served DSWSC well for over twenty three years.
Harris repeatedly demonstrates a lack of understanding for even basic accounting principles or tax reporting, but refuses to accept the work submitted by those hired to provide professional services. Instead Harris makes unsupported accusations in his campaign against Cones and other DSWSC employees despite assurances from hired outside professionals.
That disruptive behavior came to a head at the last board meeting as Harris was speaking against Cones during his absence, and after Michael Grimes, the new CPA approved by the board, responded to Harris that Doug Cones had signed his letter of engagement as was normal for a GM to do. Normally a man of few words, board member and Vice President, Travis Garnett had enough and chastised Harris, “For the way you are treating him.” “Cones isn’t a snake,” Garnett angrily said to Harris. Taken aback by Garnett’s stern rebuke, Harris quickly tabled the remaining agenda items and called for a motion to adjourn.
Controlling the message
At the board meeting, Harris pushed through an action that replaces the quarterly DSWSC newsletter with a letter from the president so Harris could control communications with the members. Garnett voted against the action and Walden was stuck in San Marcos. Harris claimed he wanted to, “save members money,” but the cost of printing and mailing his unedited letter to members will have no cost savings. The first President Letter was scheduled to be mailed last week and was expected to contain Harris’ spin on DSWSC affairs.
Harris’ efforts to dominate the board so he can run DSWSC to his personal liking appear to be his undoing. It is reported that DSWSC members have collected a sufficient number of signatures and will file charges against Harris with the Sec/Treas and vote for his dismissal as called for in the by-laws. A 2/3 vote of those voting can remove Harris from the board.
Another takeover attempt?
The question many are asking is, “Why is Harris engaged in such destructive and disruptive behavior that is bringing harm to DSWSC and discredit to himself?”
Some say that’s just the way Harris is. Others report that Harris is having financial problems and speculate that he wants Cones’ job. A review of public records does show that Harris is embroiled in a civil suit and has two federal tax liens filed against his home.
With a history of attempted takeovers by the City of Dripping Springs, the revelation by Brewer Monday night that he had recruited Dripping Springs Mayor Todd Purcell to serve on the Employee Code of Conduct review committee stirred considerable concern among DSWSC members. And board secretary/treasurer Gilbert Wolf also reported that he had asked Ben Metcalf to serve on the same committee. Mr. Metcalf is a friend of Brewer.
Adding to those two unsettling conflict of interest revelations was a report that Harris had approached Mayor Pro-tem Bill Foulds in an attempt to create a supporting witness to the unsubstantiated claims about Cones that Harris had placed in Cones personnel file. As one member put it, “Is Harris just trying to cover his tracks or does he have other plans for the DSWSC?”
Orchestrated efforts by a simple board majority to usurp the General Manager’ authority, to use DSWSC for their own purpose, and to escape accountability for their behavior appears to be on a collision course with DSWCS members.
The DSWSC by-laws provide a legal and democratic process for removing Steve Harris and perhaps his main collaborator, Larry Brewer, and to protect member interests. Those spearheading the petition say their goal is to eliminate Harris’ unwarranted, costly and disruptive behavior that is harming the corporation and that if left unchecked will result in higher water rates and a lower level of service. DSWSC members should not miss the December 6th board meeting.