New Administration Not Transparent With Carthage Water


Last fall I campaigned on bringing you, the constituency, more transparency in our city government. I knocked on every citizens’ door, speaking with thousands of you and my slogan was “Transparency in Government”. My mission statement was simple:

Our local government must be more transparent about issues that affect not only the community, but the taxpayer’s wallet. New building projects, grants, and drastic building code changes should be shared openly with the community, not spring up suddenly. Projects should be out in the open. and companies allowed to openly bid on the projects, without special favors between government officials and their close friends. The community should have more of a voice in these decisions before they are made, not hear about them afterwards. “

Recently, a project between the city and the county has been discussed. The details of this project, I have shared openly with you. The meetings that have happened, have been documented, thanks to Smith County Insider showing up. I have written various details about this project, freely accessing our vital infrastructures in both the county and the city. Neither of which I have had to ask permission, until now…

Carthage City Hall

Carthage City Hall

Last Wednesday, following our meeting with Brett Ward, the MTAS Waste Water Specialist, and many other experts, I visited our water and sewer plants to follow up and document some photographs for the public to see and learn the process of treating water and wastewater. Visiting the water plant was encouraged by Mr. Ward, as you can see in this video clip, courtesy of Smith County Insider, at the 3:00 mark:

Since before I took the oath of office, I had begun to visit the water and sewer plants. I know many of the employees on a first name basis. They have been nothing but completely transparent with me, teaching me, and helping me understand as a citizen and elected official, what it takes to operate a water and sewer plant including the expertise, the equipment, and the governing standards which must be maintained.

When I visited on Wednesday, I received an email from Mayor Sarah Marie Smith which stated the following:

Dear Councilman Ebel,
We need to talk. I’ve been informed that you went to the Carthage Water Plant today and asked to come inside to take pictures. The plant operator was concerned if he did the right thing by allowing you to do this. Unfortunately, he did not. Both our water plant and sewer plant are secured facilities. That is why we have a fence around them and a gate. No pictures can be taken by the public inside these facilities for security reasons. I must ask that any photos you took of chemicals or anything else inside the water plant be destroyed for security reasons. If you have any questions about this, please contact me.
Yours truly,
Mayor Smith
— Mayor Smith, Jan 23, 2019, 5:13 PM

This email was received the evening before I was scheduled to take the MTAS Module 1 Water Training. I replied the following:

Mayor Smith,
Respectfully, these are not top secret or secret facilities, I am a member of a governing body and I have a right to see how my water is treated as does the public. If you want to press this issue, you may. You can not restrict me or a public person from seeing a process in which my tax payer dollars go towards. If the public has a concern, I have the right to visit these facilities and report on what I find. Any taxpayer has the right to see these facilities. Anyone who pays a water bill and receives their water can see them. If you have an issue with this in the future, please let me know now. I answer to the voters, I do not work for the city and my job is to keep the executive area accountable to the governing body which is the council. I will be attending water training tomorrow as well and get you confirmation from there as well. I was under the impression you were for transparency and this is the complete opposite. I’m very disappointed if this is your stance and I know the constituents will be as well. I respectfully ask you to rethink your stance. Thank you.
— Cole Ebel, Wed, Jan 23, 9:56 PM
Joanna Owenby, MTAS Training Consultant, Utility Board Training, Module A

Joanna Owenby, MTAS Training Consultant, Utility Board Training, Module A

As planned, I did attend the training. I learned quite a bit which I will be sharing after I am able to confirm with our water and sewer treatment plant some follow up information. We were told that as city council members, we are OBLIGATED to make sure regulatory requirements are met. So not only can a city council member not be banned from these facilities, a city council member has a duty to ensure we are improving the health and safety of the system. Just around an hour before this training was to take place, I was sent the following email from our City Attorney, David Bass:

Dear Council Members:
On behalf of Mayor Smith, I am writing to advise and remind the council members of their limitations concerning access to city property and employees. As a council member, you should be concerned with the physical assets and the employees work, but you have certain limitations that should be and must be observed. Assess to city property is not an absolute right, but one that can usually be arranged with proper notice. This issue may require a protocol or policy to be addressed at a council meeting to establish boundaries for such access to both city property and employees. Until then, any request for access to city property or city employees (while on duty), should first be addressed through the mayor’s office. If you have need of technical information from one of the city departments in order to help you with council decisions, please put your request in writing to the mayor. She will obtain that information from the appropriate employee and provide it to all council members. Your attention to this matter is appreciated.
— David Bass, Thu, Jan 24, 11:08 AM

I immediately replied with a couple emails of why I disagreed with this judgement.

With respect, we vote upon the budget of these facilities and we cannot be barred access from them. The people drink the water from these facilities and are privy to know and observe what goes into their water as well as their waterways. Security for the integrity of the water supply is a concern to the people as well. We, the council, are the check and balance to make sure the city is adhering to the proper standards set forth by our charter as well as the state and federal governing laws. We may observe and document procedures of the treatment of water as well as the chemicals we are putting into our constituents bodies. Last, please provide documentation as to where these certain limitations are. We do not work for the mayor or the city government. We have the right to access that information without going through the mayors office in order to maintain integrity and and balance of opinions and facts.

I wanted to also make the council aware of the powers granted to us by Tennessee Annotated Code as governing officials for municipalities with mayor-aldermanic charters.
TCA Title 6, Chapter 2, Part 2 6-2-201
3 - Make special assessment for local improvements
24 - Inspect, test, measure and weigh any article for consumption or use within the municipality...and provide standards of weights, tests and measures.
Basically, we are being told by the mayor there are limitations where none exist and in fact the exact opposite, it is our job to have access to these facilities in order to legally do our job by making assessments and inspect, request testing and measurements which may be consumed by the public and directly ask these facilities the information without a biased governing opinion. We are being legally directed to go against the code that governs our city charter. As per sunshine laws, we cannot deliberate on this issue unless we have a meeting in a public forum, which I will be requesting we put on the agenda at the next council meeting. I would ask that all members look into this directive and study up on this issue. I am simply voicing my opinion on the matter and stating I will continue to do the job required of me as an elected official to look at all areas of our most expensive asset in our city. Last, I would also remind everyone that the first thing Mr. Brett Ward, the MTAS expert which Mayor Smith invited and asked us to listen to, recommended that we learn and monitor these sites.
— Cole Ebel, Thu, Jan 24, 11:15 AM & 1:49 PM, TCA Title 6, Chapter 2, Part 2 6-2-201

As of Monday, January 28th at 8:30 PM, I have still not received any documentation which allows a mayor to prevent a council member from visiting, requesting information, documenting, and distributing. I was though presented with a limit to documentation based on security concerns. This I had already read into, but would like to make note this was sent to me by Mayor Smith.

Dear Councilman Ebel,
On Wednesday, I sent you an email requesting that you destroy pictures you made of chemicals inside the Carthage Water Plant building that day (first email below). I have been told that you also made pictures of equipment on the grounds of the Water Plant within the fenced, secured area. Since our Water Plant facility, as well as our Sewer Plant facility, is covered under the provisions of the Homeland Security Act, I contacted one of our utilities specialists, Mr. Brett Ward, to get his thoughts about this. Below is his response.
“A water plant is not a secret place, but it is supposed to be a secure facility with limited access due to the sensitive infrastructure within the plant. Most water systems try to allow visitors to their facilities with some caveats: visits are arranged with a date and time the visitor will be there, they are never left alone within the secure area, they are never allowed to touch the equipment or chemicals. The Terrorism Prevention and Response Act of 2002, Section 12 (A) (i) addresses records, which would include photos. SECTION 12. Tennessee Code Annotated, Section 10-7-504(a), is hereby amended by adding the following new, appropriately designated subdivision: (i) Records that would allow a person to identify areas of structural or operational vulnerability of a utility service provider or that would permit unlawful disruption to, or interference with, the services provided by a utility service provider;
— Mayor Smith, Fri, Jan 25, 2:35 PM / Mr. Ward, Unknown Time and Date
Cumberland River as seen from the Overpass

Cumberland River as seen from the Overpass

As security of our water treatment and river is very important to me, I take note not to take pictures of particular chemicals, the manner in which they are stored or of any security feature which may cause harm to our water supply. You can look back, my pictures are taken of different water stages, beakers, areas visible from public highways, etc. The fact of the matter is that the city council is the check and balance to make sure the Mayor and the city are adhering to the wishes of the council and the constituents regarding these security measures.

For the Mayor to try to control the flow of information is not only not being transparent, but unethical as our government is set up to balance itself between an executive and a governing body. I am not here to just take the government’s word for it, nor should anyone in our community. We should all have the right to know what exactly is going into our drinking water and into our waterways. We should not make judgements on pre-determined agendas in areas which are not our expertise, but have free access to the people who have been caring for our facilities for decades.

I received other emails demanding that I stop trying to visit and document these plants without express permission from the Mayor. I asked other council members if they had ever had restricted access to our infrastructure and I was told this had never happened before. I’m not here to play politics with this, I am here to get answers and my final email to the Mayor, sent this morning was as follows:

Mayor Smith,
Respectfully, my emails state facts, not opinions. Where I am going with this is transparency. As a member of the council, I will not be barred from access from our city areas. You are welcome to try by whatever means necessary, but I will access them. I will do this on my own as accessing them in a group violates sunshine laws if not announced 3 days prior. We are a different entity than the city, we do not require permission from the city government to get access or ask employees questions. We do not have to have your approval. While we make decisions as a body, we can freely access information individually on our own without permission. It is our job and what we were elected to do. I took several pages of notes, I’ve watched the video, thank you for your advice. MTAS does not operate these plants. Our employees do. MTAS do not govern, the city council does. I’m not going to explain myself further, I only do so out of courtesy, I answer to the people alone and we will let the people decide how they feel about this level of transparency.
— Cole Ebel, Mon, Jan 28th, 9:10 AM
Carthage Sewer Treatment Plant, January 28th, 2019

Carthage Sewer Treatment Plant, January 28th, 2019

With that, I went to the water treatment plant with a followup question and then to the sewer plant with a couple more followup questions.

1) What is the Ammonia, Chloride and BOD levels previously tested in our drinking water?

2) What life span does our sewer plant have left, and should we look at expanding it, as well as training new staff?

3) Why do we have a capacity differential of 500,000 gallons to 625,000 gallons, and where did it come from?

When I visited the water plant, the employee I spoke with was very kind and took down my request. They stated they could not give me that information, per instructions of the Mayor without her permission. They were very courteous and wanted to help but their hands were tied.

I then went to visit the sewer plant and was met with a pad locked door, something I hadn’t encountered since I have been visiting our employees there.

City Hall, January 2019

City Hall, January 2019

I then went to City Hall and requested to speak with City Recorder, Michael Ray to which I was told he was in a meeting with the Mayor. I expressed the importance of getting a call back and as of 8:30 pm, I have not received one.

In summary, it is vital that I am able to communicate freely with city employees. I continually am told these employees are “the Mayor’s” employees. This simply is not true. These employees serve the community, and I may add, that most I speak with, do so proudly. Many feel intimidated by mayoral administrations, past and present. This has to stop. We should be transparent. A city employee should not be instructed to withhold information from a council member or a member of the public for that matter. We have the absolute right to know what is going on with our taxpayer money, our environment, and especially our water.

I am not out to get anyone. I am simply following through on a promise I made to you. I have put this issue on the agenda next week. I sincerely hope that Mayor Smith changes her stance on this and we can get back to more transparency in government. Thank you for allowing me to serve you.

Cole Ebel