Mayor, council clash

Deborah Cantwell may have won the battle at the polls last year, but the new mayor of Lawrence has yet to win her war against the privately owned Lawrence Utilities and the 50-year contract she believes allows them to continue soaking the public with astronomical water fees ("Lawrence Election Becomes a Water Fight: No-bid Contract to Manage Water Utility Has Democrats Boiling," by Fran Quigley, Oct. 15-22, 2003).

For many, Cantwell's victory signified a public mandate for changing the city's water service provider.

But at least one member of the Lawrence City Council disagrees.

"You definitely had a vocal, relatively small group of local people that were for changes with the water contract," Councilman Kyle Walker says, "but you also had a sitting mayor with an image problem because of a nasty campaign for sheriff.

"It wasn't so much that she won as it was people voting for anyone but Tom Schneider."

The new mayor, however, believes she is making good on her campaign promises as she begins her legal battle to extricate residents from the agreement with Lawrence Utilities.

According to court documents filed on behalf of the City of Lawrence last week, the former mayor violated Indiana law by awarding a no-bid contract for the city's water services and by signing the agreement without holding public hearings.

Additional documents also call into question Lawrence Utilities' use of ratepayer monies to pay for such items as lavish office furnishings, leasing of luxury vehicles, creating campaign Web sites and coaching employees in advance of a NUVO interview.

Based on these and other charges, Cantwell's suit asks the judge to declare the contract illegal and, as a result, non-binding.

But Cantwell's battles as mayor are not limited to Marion County Superior Court.

In a counter move, members of the Lawrence City Council set a plan in motion to remove the water service from the mayor's jurisdiction.

At the last Common Council meeting on Nov. 1, an ordinance was introduced to create a Water and Sanitary Board appointed by and comprised solely of council members.

According to Walker, who introduced the proposal, the council plans to keep the current contract with Lawrence Utilities but hopes to negotiate lower rates on behalf of consumers.

In addition to usurping the mayor's power to oversee the city's water utility, Cantwell alleges the council planned to pass the ordinance with as little public scrutiny as possible.

"My office only received the agenda for this meeting on Friday at noon, and only after insisting on getting the agenda that is usually delivered by the clerk several business days before the council meeting. I was astonished to see the new proposal quietly placed on the agenda without any advance notice."

Walker resents the accusations.

"We absolutely had no intention of ever pushing this through. We really want folks out there to get educated about [our plan]. When they see all the risks and the potential problems with the course of action her administration is on right now, we'll have far more support for our idea than [hers]."

But the Common Council abandoned its most recent opportunity to educate the public by canceling a hearing scheduled last Monday, Nov. 15.

According to several council members, the discussion between residents, the council and Lawrence Utilities had to be canceled at the request of the utility company's attorneys.

"The litigation the Mayor's Office is pursuing ... threw a wrench into the plan," Walker explains. "Attorneys for the water utility needed time to review the motion before they went out and had a public meeting with public questions. They wanted to make sure they had a good handle on things before they answered specific questions."

Motivating the core

In the absence of council members, the mayor turned the evening into a Town Hall meeting.

Nearly 200 residents attended and most said they had come specifically to address their representatives. Many expressed anger at the council's absence.

In Cantwell's view, the court of public opinion swayed further in her favor after she concluded a Power Point presentation detailing her rationale and evidence for the lawsuit.

"It was amazing," she said afterwards. "I had people coming up and thanking me for finally making this information public."

Walker, however, dismisses any large-scale support. He claims, "They're just motivating this same core group of people."

Members plan to reschedule a public hearing before the next Common Council meeting on Dec. 6, when the ordinance for the new Water Board will come up for a vote.

Walker promises the ordinance will not be passed without public input.

"We have no desire to push anything through without having a public conversation about it - that's the last thing we want to do."

His larger commitment, however, is to sway public support towards the City Council's position and perhaps convince the mayor to drop her lawsuit.

That doesn't seem likely. Mayor Cantwell has already vowed to veto any ordinance creating a Water and Sanitary Board that lands on her desk.

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