The City of Fayetteville’s dispute with its Public Works Commission may soon be a thing of the past. PWC filed suit against the city asking the court for a declaratory judgment defining once and for all the operating relationship between the bodies. Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour, Jr. ruled that under current law PWC has the protections of a public authority. That means the city-owned utility enjoys nearly total autonomy, and its governing board does not answer to City Council. The judge’s 16-page order confirms the legislature’s intent in establishing the Public Works Commission more than a century ago. And Baddour found that “the general assembly, in consolidating and re-codifying the PWC Charter in 1979, intended for the PWC to continue to have the same authority…”
The unusual dispute has lingered for two years, provoked initially by former City Manager Ted Voorhees. He and a 6-4 city council majority interpreted the city charter as giving council more day-to-day authority over PWC than had ever been exercised by the board. The utility commission decided to file the lawsuit to reconcile the disputed differences. Last year’s election changed the council majority and Voorhees was forced to resign following a closed council meeting.
City Council met in closed session again last week but took no action afterward. Mayor Nat Robertson tells Up & Coming Weekly, however, that in the last minute of the hour-long meeting, Council made a decision not to appeal the judgment. The city has 30 days to decide whether to do that. Robertson says City Attorney Karen McDonald should have advised the council, in keeping with the Open Meetings law, that its decision should have been made public when the regular meeting resumed. Robertson appears to have succeeded in winning a council consensus, having said earlier that “I look forward to a renewed relationship with the PWC Board and know that we will be able to continue to work together even better since the courts have defined our roles. Council has decided to come together with PWC to find common ground we can agree on.” He says a starting point would be a review of House Bil 392, which included concessions not in the judge’s order. The bill was referred to the Senate and rests in committee pending further action which was put on hold during the judge’s deliberations. The mayor said the council vote to review and revise the house bill was “nearly unanimous.” He would not identify members who prefer appealing the decision.
Public Works Commissioner Wade Fowler, a former City Council member, said “I believe the issue had to be settled by someone in authority. I was prepared to live with whatever the decision was,” Veteran Councilman Bill Crisp is among those who prefer appealing the judge’s decision to a higher court. The court order clarified that PWC is obligated to make annual transfers of funds to the city in keeping with an agreement that has been in effect since 2008. Baddour declared that as a public authority, PWC is independent of city government even as it applies to budgeting.