Saturday, June 25, 2022

Heated H2GO: You’ve heard the rumors, here are the facts

Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO serves over 20,000 people in northern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO serves over 20,000 people in northern Brunswick County. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

BRUNSWICK COUNTY — In arguably one of the most heated elections in Brunswick County, rumors, claims, and skewed facts are swirling around Brunswick Regional Water and Sewer H2GO.

Related: Facing higher costs, requests for reevaluation, Brunswick County moves ahead with wastewater expansion plans

Because it’s election season, and because this particular election could prove confusing for even a seasoned local, Port City Daily is attempting to vet out common rumors with available facts.

Background

Two seats are open on H2GO’s board. No additional regular meetings are scheduled this year that would take place prior to the release of expected election results in November.

Incumbent Chairman Jeff Gerken is running for re-election; Commissioner Trudy Trombley’s term soon expires and she is not seeking re-election. Gerken is running a campaign alongside newcomer John Bradley. Steve Hosmer, a founding organizer of the advocacy group Clean Water Team, is running alongside fellow organizer Barry Laub. To oversimplify: the Hosmer-Laub ticket endorses building H2GO’s long-planned reverse osmosis plant; the Gerken-Bradley ticket generally opposes H2GO moving forward with the plant on its own (Gerken has said he is not opposed to the technology in general).

Both factions have claimed the other spews lies.

Taking a note from the StarNews’ coverage of last year’s heated Lee-Peterson Senate race, Port City Daily asked all four men to compliment one another in their candidate questionnaire. Hosmer did; Bradley didn’t; Gerken thanked Laub and Hosmer for the ‘limited support’ voiced by their supporters for the compromise plan produced by the regional working group; Laub wrote Gerken was an “obedient soldier and demonstrates transparency.”

At a July H2GO board meeting, Bradley characterized the local minority’s (the Clean Water Team) public comment routine as “abuse” on current Commissioners. In December 2018, Hosmer handed out packets to Commissioners that featured Brunswick County schoolchildren, with a caption directed to Chairman Gerken, implying one of the students would die early due to water contaminants. Gerken called the captions “horribly inflammatory.” The next month, Hosmer warned the voting majority of a possible lawsuit, a “price to pay for your continued abuse of your customers’ trust.”

Claim, source, available facts

Claim: The interlocal agreement is really about annexation in Leland

Source of claim: Belville press release, Hosmer’s public comment

Fact: Leland hasn’t refuted the legitimacy of the map. If the map is legitimate, then to some still unknown extent, the agreement has something to do with annexation.

Hours before H2GO’s meeting last week, where “it was anticipated that the commissioners would vote on the proposed plan,” according to a post in a neighborhood email chain by the Chairman’s wife, June Gerken, Belville shared a surprising press release. The release shared a copy of a map, purportedly included as part of “unrelated annexation agreements” included in the interlocal agreement. The map, which bears the Town of Leland’s logo, assigns areas well outside of town limits as “Leland Development Areas.”

On WHQR’s Coastline candidate interviews that aired Oct. 4, Gerken said the interlocal agreement had not been completed. News Director Rachel Lewis Hilburn asked Gerken what the sticking points were, to which Gerken responded:

They’re very legalistic points. The term of the agreement, various things. Making sure that it is legal for the Town of Leland to require annexation in order for a customer to receive water and sewer services from H2GO, things like that.”

Friday, Gerken produced an analysis of Belville’s press release, stating it is filled with false claims. His analysis does not address annexation but does state the map is related to the proposed agreement.

Claim: Gerken wanted to pour cement down the reverse osmosis wells

Source of claim: Commissioner Rodney McCoy

Fact: Gerken did not order concrete down the wells.

H2GO completed work on six wells to source aquifer water for the reverse osmosis plant. After construction work was frozen on the partially-constructed site due to the January 2018 injunction, the Department of Environmental Quality informed H2GO it must choose from a few options to ensure safety. Because the wells were uncovered, the DEQ required H2GO to complete construction or cover the openings as a safety precaution. During a closed session meeting in the spring of 2018, H2GO executive director Bob Walker presented the utility’s options to bring the site up to safety requirements. 

Commissioner McCoy discussed some aspects of this conversation outside the closed session itself. McCoy’s comments were repeated by others, and ultimately led to the rumor that Chairman Jeff Gerken asked to pour cement down the RO plant’s wells. 

Discussing closed session conversation is not illegal — elected representatives may choose to discuss closed session topics outside of the confines of a meeting in accordance with their First Amendment rights. However, sharing closed session information isn’t always looked upon favorably. McCoy’s leak of the discussion led to the formation of H2GO’s Litigation Committee, a group separate from the utility’s Board of Commissioners comprised of the anti-RO-plant voting block: Chairman Jeff Gerken, Commissioner Trudy Trombley, and Commissioner Bill Beer. Nearly all activity conducted by the Litigation Committee occurs in in closed session.

Reached this summer, McCoy clarified that he had the impression Gerken would not mind the wells being rendered inactive. He did, however, clarify Gerken did not verbalize the apparent impression he left upon McCoy in the meeting. Gerken cites the affidavit of H2GO’s Executive Director Bob Walker, which explicitly states no board member directed him to pour concrete or otherwise destroy the wells. Read more about Gerken’s clarification of the rumor.

Claim: Current interlocal agreement is an iteration of Clean Water Team’s December 2018 proposal

Source of claim: Clean Water Team

Fact: Some basic aspects of both are similar but they are also different.

The proposed interlocal agreement is a “work product of the attorneys,” according to Leland Manager David Hollis. It has undergone several iterations since this summer. 

No attorneys or participants privy to the legal discussions have explicitly acknowledged the Clean Water Team’s proposal as an inspiration or source document. Chairman Gerken, who has participated in these discussions, denies the applicability of the Clean Water Team’s claim. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Gerken told Port City Daily. 

Read the Clean Water Team’s 2018 proposal here; read the most detailed version of the interlocal agreement, created by Leland, here (note: this agreement has since been updated; the most up-to-date interlocal agreement is not publicly available).

Claim: Hosmer is allegiant to Belville 

Source of claim: www.GerkenBradley.com (Gerken and candidate John Bradley’s campaign website) 

Fact: Hosmer admits he sides with Belville

The Gerken-Bradley campaign website shares emails between their opponent, Hosmer, and Belville Mayor Mike Allen. In December 2017, after H2GO’s outgoing majority board transferred all of its assets to Belville, Hosmer (not a candidate at the time) wrote to Belville Mayor Mike Allen, “I have been working as a citizen to raise awareness and interest in making sure that Belville successfully acquires all of H2GO.”

Reached to address this claim, Hosmer did not deny the legitimacy of the email. He provided the following statement to explain his supposed allegiance to Belville:

“From day 1, my goal has been to make sure that the RO plant is built and the customers of H2GO get cheaper, cleaner water faster. It was clear to me from the very beginning that Belville and their actions to protect the assets of H2GO customers were the only way the reverse osmosis plant could be built. It continues to become ever clearer that both Leland and the current board of H2GO cannot be trusted to complete the plant or to protect the assets. As we see from the Chairman’s actions since 2015, everything he has done has been to destroy the plant, a goal stated and shared by Leland. H2GO’s project would have been financially crippled because of the likely destruction of the wells and the potential selloff of assets. It makes perfect sense that I would work with fellow customer advocates to complete the water plant and that is what I have done since 2017.

Based on information revealed in Belville’s press release on October 15th, it is clear from the latest version of a proposed inter-local agreement that Leland and the H2GO Chairman (as inter-local committee chair) still have little or no interest in completing the plant and are acting, instead, to block the completion of the plant and cripple H2GO financially.

My running mate Barry Laub and I believe that H2GO should remain what it is today: an independent, cooperative utility serving its customer/owners. H2GO should not become a satellite or subservient organization to the Town of Leland or any other interested parties. We believe H2GO’s purpose is to provide clean water and sewer services to residents in Leland, Navassa, Bellville and any unincorporated areas in our service district area that wish to be served by H2GO. Its purpose was never to be a dumping ground for Leland’s legal expenses, court-imposed fines or potential DEQ fines related to Leland infrastructure violations, as this latest agreement version suggests.

If elected, we will work hard to deliver cheaper, cleaner, safer water faster to the present and future customer/owners of H2GO. We will continue to partner with fellow customer advocates who share our goals.”

Claim: Gerken is allegiant to Leland 

Source of claim: Hosmer, Clean Water Team

Fact: Gerken has a positive working relationship with Leland officials. 

Accusations that H2GO’s current majority serve the Town of Leland rather than the utility have long lingered over the board. Recently, those accusations have become more pointed, with Hosmer calling Gerken a “Leland soldier” at last month’s meeting (Hosmer disputes this: “Never did I directly accuse Gerken of being a Leland soldier or even assert that he was a good little soldier. Rather, I ascribed that simile to his actions based on mounting evidence which I detailed in the presentation.”).

The Town of Leland has yet to fulfill or respond to requests for updates to a Port City Daily public records request filed in October 2018 that could potentially vet out this claim. 

Circumstantially, Ron Batleman, the husband of Leland Councilwoman Pat Batleman, shared Gerken and Bradley’s campaign announcement with the press. Councilwoman Batleman recently spoke out on social media Sunday to criticize the Clear Water Team. Batleman voiced her opposition of the “destructive acts and incessant lies being freely vocalized by Hosmer, Laub and their cronies. The vitriol spread by these two and their cronies is despicable.” However, she did not, and has not publicly, endorsed Gerken or Bradley in her criticism of their opponents.

In fact, no sitting Leland Councilmembers have endorsed Gerken, Bradley, or any political candidates for that matter.

Claim: Judge Henry found no illegalities in steps of the process

Source of claim: Steve Hosmer candidate interview, Port City Daily

Fact: Technically, Judge Charles Henry did not find any individual Open Meetings Law violations occurred. However, the court “reluctantly” concluded those involved in the transfer violated state ethics law. 

In a recent candidate profile, Hosmer wrote: “Procedurally, Judge Henry found that no illegalities occurred in the steps of the process.”

Though he said he agreed with the 2017 actions of outgoing H2GO Commissioners and Belville Commissioners, Hosmer did concede: “…the method by which it was accomplished correctly raises questions about legality.”

According to the April 22, 2019 court order, the sum of the actions shielded from public review left Judge Henry to conclude state ethics law was violated: The court finds that there was competent and substantial evidence to support the legal conclusion that the commissioners of both governing boards of H2GO and Belville, acting in concert, failed to act in good faith, and their actions were so clearly unreasonable as to amount to an oppressive and manifest abuse of their discretion.” Read more about Henry’s ruling.

Claim: H2GO’s plant will make rates increase for the rest of Brunswick County’s non-Leland-area customers.

Source of claim: September draft Raftelis Financial Feasibility Report, Brunswick County Manager Ann Hardy

Fact: It will. 

Neither Leland nor H2GO has produced any independent analysis or financial information that would refute this claim. The draft September Raftelis Financial Feasibility Report does attribute water rate increases for county customers due to the loss of Leland and H2GO as wholesale customers (when and if H2GO completes its aquifer-based reverse osmosis plant, it would become independent and no longer reliant on Brunswick County as a water source). 

According to County Manager Hardy, the magnitude of this change could make as much as a $5.15 difference on non-Leland-area customer’s water bills, should the aquifer RO plant be completed. 

In a lengthy rebuttal, Hosmer concludes the more appropriate culprits to blame for the water rate increase are the polluters, regulators, lobbyists, and politicians. 

Read more about the impending county water rate increase.

Claim: Brunswick County declined to participate in the interlocal settlement proposal 

Source of claim: Mayor Brenda Bozeman’s Port City Daily questionnaire response

Fact: Brunswick County says it has not declined to participate in interlocal discussions

In a joint August press release, Leland, Belville, H2GO, and Navassa announced the northern governments had reached a tentative settlement solution. Notably, Brunswick County’s position statements encouraging countywide utility regionalization were not incorporated. The county had just announced its position statements weeks prior. County officials applauded the northern governments’ cooperation but said they were “disappointed.”

In her candidate questionnaire, Leland Mayor Brenda Bozeman said in response to a question about the region’s utility drama that the county declined to participate: “Brunswick County declined to participate in a proposal to create a county regional approach to water and sewer.” Read Mayor Bozeman’s full response.

Gerken recently told WHQR“We would love to work with Brunswick County. We really, really wanted to involve Brunswick County in the agreement but we were unable to get that done within the timeframe. We would love to continue to work with them and will.”

When presented with Bozeman’s statement, Brunswick County’s spokesperson wrote in a statement to Port City Daily:

“Brunswick County has not declined to participate in a regional approach to water and sewer service and remains open to considering such a solution. The Board of Commissioners reaffirmed the County’s position to provide potable water and wastewater services to wholesale, retail and industrial customers within the Brunswick County region with a resolution at the July 23, 2019, special meeting.

This resolution encouraged regionalization and consolidation of systems and encouraged water utility providers to seek consolidation grants to assist in regionalization costs and improving the overall system. It also proposed that the County provide all potable water for the entire county and is amenable to acquiring water and wastewater systems for those wholesale customers desiring to turn their system over to another entity.

With a population approaching 140,000 residents and growing, Brunswick County continues to assert that the Cape Fear River is the only viable source of raw water that can provide an adequate and reliable supply of water to support all of Brunswick County’s residential, commercial and industrial needs both now and in the future.”


Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee at johanna@localvoicemedia.com

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