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Council looks at electric rates again

City attorney addresses use of public comment section of meetings

September 18, 2012
Anne Blankenship ( , The Daily Freeman Journal

Webster City residents will likely see another hike in electric rates later this fall, following a discussion at the City Council meeting Monday night.

Back in January, the City Council approved a base electric rate for residential users of $18.50 per month and a kilowatt hour charge of 8.3 cents per kilowatt hour. The increases came on the heels of an increase to the city of 10.5 to 11 percent from Corn Belt Power. In response to that, the city, as in previous years, raised rates by less than the rate of increase from the wholesaler. The last increase totaled 6 percent.

"We thought we could make do with the 6 percent increase if we didn't have an inordinately hot summer," said City Manager Ed Sadler. "We'll guess what - it was a nasty, hot, dry summer with some serious demand numbers and we're short at least 4 percent even if everything works out perfectly just to break even, much less to try to make money for future expenses."

The 4 percent shortfall totals an estimated $380,000 for the year.

Sadler said that meant that the 5 percent the council hadn't tried to recover, will now need to be recovered.

"The question to you is, what do you want me to do about it?" Sadler asked the council. "You could send me out of here tonight and tell me to hurry up and give us some rates to look at and we're going to implement them now. Or, you can wait until we get the rate increases we will inevitably get in December and deal with this in addition."

If the council moves ahead with an increase now, Sadler said it could be presented in October and implemented in the November bills. If an additional increase comes, it would be considered in January for implementation in the February bills, Sadler said.

The City Council directed Sadler to prepare some rate options that would reflect a 5 percent increase for consideration at the October meeting.

City attorney comments

City Attorney Gary Groves told the council that he commended the council for allowing citizens an opportunity voice concerns or issues that are not on the agenda through the "Petitions, Communications and Requests" section of the agenda. During that time, any citizen can address the council for a few minutes, though unless an emergency, the council rarely acts on the issue but has the city staff research the matter or places the matter on the agenda for a future meeting.

"Since our meetings are televised and the press is here to cover it, the citizens who come before you have an enhanced means to inform not only the council but the community as a whole. And that's a good thing," he said. He added that he himself refrains from commenting on those issues addressed, especially concerning legal matters, until he can review the information.

Groves said he felt it was necessary to respond to comments made at the last meeting.

"This goes back to the Sept. 4 meeting, when Attorney Pat Chambers - who is a good friend of mine, a colleague and distinguished member of the Hamilton County Bar Association - used the 'Petitions, CCommunications and Requests' portion of the agenda to publicly comment on a court decision made over two years ago, involving his clients Gerald and Bev Huisman in reference to their lawsuit against the city of Webster City," Groves said.

The case involved a hard surfaced road put in place by the city over the city property lot to provide access to the farmland owned by the Gillette family. The Huismans owned the property adjacent to the lot, Groves reminded the council. The court order required the city to remove the hard surface roadway, which was immediately done, he said.

"The court made no determination in reference to the use of the property lot for access by the Gillette family. I think Mr. Huisman's position is that for us to allow Mr. Gillette to use the city property to get to his property, a city street should be constructed. The city disagrees. The court made no such order for the city to construct a street," he said.

Groves said he felt compelled to make comments in response publicly for several reasons.

"First of all, the language used by Mr. Chambers, either intentionally or not, that the city is either doing something it shouldn't be doing or it's not doing something it should be doing," Groves said.

"Secondly, the fact that Mr. Chambers is the Hamilton County attorney gives further impact to his words which threaten a contempt of court action should the city fail to comply with the court's order and giving rise to the impression that the city may face some type of sanction either civilly or possibly criminally."

Groves went on to say that more than two years had elapsed since the court ruling.

"To my knowledge and recollection, neither the city or I have been afforded the professional courtesy by Mr. Chambers, to bring his concerns to my attention first for further discussion of the legal meaning of the court order," he said. "Instead, Mr. Chamber's chooses to use the council agenda item to air his concerns publicly."

Groves said he would be sending Chambers a letter this week in hopes of establishing a better line of communication with Chambers, his clients and the city concerning the court order.

"If we fail to reach some solution, it is the court room where these issues are to be argued and not a public stage afforded at a council meeting," Groves said.

Groves concluded by saying he had provided the council and the press with copies of the court order.



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