No. 7 News Story of the Year: Public rural water proposal returns to the table -- sort of

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

CARROLL COUNTY -- Persistent drought loomed over 2012 -- desiccating the fields, ponds, and resources of farmers throughout Carroll County. For many, the long, thirsty months also drove home the importance of a reliable, rural water supply.

It was against this backdrop that county officials decided in August to delay for another two years a long-disputed proposal to bring public water to rural parts of the county.

Justices of the Peace had hoped to pass a rural water ordinance in time to refer it to voters in November. However, the committee assigned to draft that ordinance decided on Aug. 17 to postpone the vote until the 2014 general election.

In the interim, JPs say they plan to research various legal vehicles available to bring public water to the county and, also, to solicit public participation and feedback through a series of public hearings -- for which dates have not yet been specified.

JPs have said they hope doing so will let them avoid repeating history.

The Quorum Court had passed a rural water ordinance in August 2010, after five months of often-heated public debate.

The provided for a "public facilities board" to oversee the construction of water infrastructure in the county. However, voters overturned that law -- and rejected the JPs method -- by ballot initiative last February.

Those who opposed the public facilities board objected to the entity's broad powers and lack of accountability. Board members, they pointed out, would be unelected, but granted the power of eminent domain. Opponents said they did not want their land seized for water lines they didn't ask for. Some also objected to laws exempting the agency from competitive bidding requirements.

At the Aug. 17 meeting, JPs decided they could not reach a compromise in time for the 2012 elections. JPs still did not agree how best to bring rural water to the county.

JP Lamont Ritchie -- elected after the 2010 ordinance was passed -- has expressed reservations about creating a public facilities board.

"There are parts of the public facilities board that are just standard operating procedure," he said in late August. However, "(t)here are a couple of parts that just scare the crap out of me. One of them is the ability of this group to be able to construct things without going out for bidding. Its a quasi-governmental entity. It has powers that the government has, like eminent domain, and yet, it has no control over it."

Besides the need to reach consensus among themselves, JPs also said they needed more time to solicit public input. Several have suggested the last attempt failed because voters were not well enough educated on the proposal.

Richie has said he was frustrated by the previous court's handling of the process and wants the encore to be more transparent and inclusive.

"The public was told to have one representative speak on their behalf (at Quorum Court)," Richie said in August. "We need to have public meetings other than at the Quorum Court."

The Quorum Court Water Committee will meet again at 9 a.m. on Jan. 16 at the office of the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service, located at 909-B Freeman Switch Road, in Berryville. For more information, call 870-423-2967.

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