By Elon Glucklich
A group of Terrebonne residents has launched a recall effort against four elected board members of the local water district. The residents say they’ve received no explanation after getting summer water bills at least three times as high as they’re used to paying.
The group filed petitions to start a recall against Terrebonne Domestic Water District board members Kay Walters, Jay Walters (Kay’s son), Sharon Struck and David Dow. The group has until mid-April to collect 57 signatures from Terrebonne residents to oust each of the four members individually, according to Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship, who approved the petitions earlier this month.
A fifth board member, Tammy Altimus, is not part of the recall effort, having just joined the board in the last few months. Elected officials can’t be recalled until they’ve served at least six months.
If the group gets enough signatures, the board members would then have five days to resign or submit a letter to the county justifying why they should stay on. Terrebonne residents would then vote whether to remove them from their elected positions within 35 days. The water district would pay for costs associated with the recall.
Dustin Hewitt is involved with the recall effort. He said Terrebonne community members decided on a recall late last year, after appealing unsuccessfully to Deschutes County and the state to step in.
Hewitt, 37, has lived in the Terrebonne area for about six years. He said he’s used to paying about $150 on his monthly water bill during the summer, but was stunned to receive a nearly $500 bill in August.
“I checked to make sure there wasn’t a leak in the house or anything,” Hewitt said. When he asked around, Hewitt found dozens of community members received similar bills, though others didn’t see any change.
“We were pretty fired up about that. We just weren’t sure what was going on,” he said, adding that many of the residents receiving the higher bills are elderly and rely on Social Security for income.
More than 50 people showed up to the water district’s September board meeting to complain. But the board members had no explanation for why the bills were so high, Hewitt said.
“I have been to four meetings in a row — four months — to ask what’s going on, but we’ve gotten no answer,” he said.
A water district employee reached Friday referred questions to the board members. Struck did not return a message seeking comment, and Dow declined to comment.
Kay Walters declined to comment, but sent a statement to The Bulletin. She said one of the water district’s two paid employees resigned in late June and the other passed away shortly after, leaving the district without anyone to manage the office and read water meters.
“As board chairperson, I did everything I could to keep the water district open,” the statement read in part. “The district’s Board of Directors, and our two new employees, are working hard at replacing needed equipment and purchasing a more efficient meter reading system. The board has stressed the importance of both water utility employees being involved … to avoid a scenario like the one that happened to the district in July.”
The recall petition group sent a letter to the Oregon Ethics Commission in October protesting the bill hikes. But absent any proof of fraud, the state couldn’t do anything about it.
Deschutes County’s hands are tied on the issue, because the water district serves as an independent taxing district, which gives the district board sole governing authority, county Administrator Tom Anderson said.
“If we could have found anyone at the state level to help us, it probably wouldn’t have gone this way,” Hewitt said. “We haven’t gotten any accountability for an issue that’s not our fault.”
This is the first recall to reach the signature-gathering phase in Deschutes County since 2002, when a Bend resident launched an unsuccessful bid to oust four members of the Bend Park & Recreation District Board of Directors.
If three or more of the Terrebonne water district board members are removed, the county would likely have to appoint replacements, because the board wouldn’t be able to reach a quorum and make appointments on its own, Anderson said.
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