FLINTSTONE, Ga. — Held inside a cramped room in a small building in a tiny town, Tuesday night's Walker County Water and Sewage Authority meeting had all the fixings that said "municipal government gathering" in a monotone voice.
Then a visitor shook things up.
Local Republican activist Aleq Boyle raised several questions about the board's ethics. He questioned why Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell is the board's chairman, arguing the board and the county are supposed to be separate. Same goes for board members David Ashburn, the county coordinator, and John Culpepper, the former Chickamauga city manager who is also a member of Hutcheson Medical Center's board.
"Sir," Boyle said to Culpepper, "I think you should resign from this board."
"I think you need to shut up, is what I think you need to do," Culpepper responded.
"Pick a board and resign from it," Boyle pressed on.
"I'm not resigning from a damn thing!"
Heiskell abruptly ended the meeting. She said this wasn't the place to argue.
Boyle raised questions Tuesday because the water board raised rates last year without a public notice. But below the surface, he prodded at one issue: In the only state where one person can run the local government, how much power should a small number of people hold?
He noted that Heiskell appoints the board members, who receive $2,400 a year for their service. She also holds the chairman's seat, which comes with an annual $2,700.
That's all legal in Georgia, said Ashburn.
That may be, Boyle said, but it isn't the best practice.
He asked the board to create an ethics clause that bans county employees from serving on boards, arguing that the boards' decisions are supposed to be separate from the county's. He also said residents should not be allowed to serve on multiple boards because that would give one person too much power.
Culpepper did not care for the suggestion, pounding the table as he responded to Boyle.
"I'm trying to save your hospital, and I'm doing a damn good job!" he said.
"Well," Boyle responded, "I'm not so sure you're saving anything."
"I think you're just playing politics," Culpepper said.
Later, Boyle added, "With all due respect, you've done nothing but take money from Walker County."
Boyle said he raised questions because the water board raised rates last year. It has to repay a $10 million bond that it borrowed, in part, because wells went dry in Villanow, Ga.
About two years ago, Ashburn said, the county began laying 91 miles of water line, using SPLOST funds and some of the money from that bond. Officials estimated the active project will cost $9 million when completed, though Ashburn believes the final cost will be about $5 million because county employees have been efficient.
The bond also covered two other projects, Ashburn said.
Last year, he said, the water board didn't have enough revenue and had to raise rates.
In January 2014, the board cut the "minimum use" level by half. The base rate had been $8 a month for 2,000 gallons, and $3.50 extra for every 1,000 gallons above that.
The board lowered the base usage to 1,000 gallons a month, plus $3.50 per 1,000 gallons over the base.
Then in September, the board raised the water rate from $8 to $11 a month for the minimum amount.
Ashburn said the changes brought in $400,000 in new revenue last year. The board announced the tweaks in the water bills before they happened.
But Boyle said the board should have warned residents with an advertisement in the local newspaper.
Ashburn said this would not have been effective because some water users don't read the paper.
"Everything we've done is perfectly within the law," he said. "Everything he brought up is his opinion. The way (Boyle) presents himself, you would think he wants to be on the board."
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at email@example.com or at 423-757-6476.