The following letter was delivered to Mayor Ridenour and the City Council on February 3, 2020.
Mayor Dan Ridenour and City Council Members:
A few days before taking office, without discussing his intention with anyone at the District, Mayor Ridenour—who, during his campaign, spoke exhaustively about transparency—slid in an amendment to an ordinance to expand the size of the District’s Board.
The Board welcomes adding additional members—there is a lot of work to be done to achieve the mandated sewer separation project that has been underway since Sharon McShurley entered into the consent decree during her tenure: a $200 million project that is about half-way completed. The District does, however, have a few concerns.
The first lies in the Mayor’s intentions. Prior to taking office, Mayor Ridenour accepted an invitation on October 2nd from Muncie Sanitary District’s Board of Commissioners to meet and learn about all the great things MSD does for the City, as well as to become familiar with the budget, the projects, and the people of the District. After the meeting, the Mayor-elect declared to the Board that MSD had a PR problem, but “there was nothing wrong with the District.” This meeting took place just a few weeks before Mayor Ridenour proposed his new ordinance for the Board. Mayor Ridenour then appeared before Muncie City Council in support of his proposed ordinance and made false and defamatory statements about MSD.
Additionally, Mayor Ridenour and three others showed up to the District’s January 15th Board meeting. Just fifteen minutes before the meeting was set to begin, the Mayor demanded that Mike Cline resign from the Board, effective December 31, 2019 (backdating the document), believing Mike was on the Board by virtue of being City Engineer. The Mayor further stated that the new City Engineer would take his place, again believing that the Board reserved a seat for the City Engineer. However, the Mayor is misinformed. Mr. Cline was not serving on the Board as City Engineer—in fact, Mr. Cline was appointed because of his previous experience as an engineer. Likewise, the person who preceded him on the Board was not the City Engineer, and no records have been provided to us to show that he ever received any money from the city to serve in that capacity or that he was an employee of the city. The Mayor did not provide any documentation to support that Brian Stephens-Hotopp of Calibre Engineering was in fact the city engineer. We have since discovered that the contract to hire Calibre Engineering was not signed until January 22, 2020.
When Mike Cline refused to immediately resign his appointment, the Mayor said that “someone” had to resign their appointment. So that’s what this is all about. With the two extra appointments and forcing one to resign, he would get immediate control of MSD and would bypass the provisions contained in Indiana Law to ensure continuity of leadership and gradual change in entities like MSD.
Together, these actions—introducing the ordinance to expand the Board, attacking the District as a whole, and asking a current member to resign—left the District wondering, Why? Why would the Mayor declare, in the presence of multiple witnesses, that he saw no problems with the District other than PR, and then tell the public something else completely? These actions have made it clear that the Mayor is attempting to lay the framework to sell the District.
Mayor Ridenour stated that he believes the Board lacks proper oversight and that “it was never intended to function as a separate entity from the City.” That absolutely mis-states the law. MSD was established by ordinance of this City Council, and created under IC 36-9-25. This state statute explicitly provides that MSD is to operate both in its own name and in the name of the City. The Board is given power by virtue of STATE LAW to set rates; to levy taxes; to hire and fire professionals; to adopt rules and resolutions; to condemn, purchase, and sell property independently in its own name. The Mayor’s assertion that the City should somehow have oversight or approval of action taken by the board is not only a misstatement, but contrary to the laws of the State of Indiana.
Based on reliable information, we believe that the mayor’s chosen path to “cleanse” the district is to remove as many board members as soon as possible to gain control of the board with those who are onboard with the Mayor’s plan to sell the district. The Mayor does not want to hold the Board accountable; he wants to eliminate it altogether. If the district is sold, there will be no Board, there will be no public meetings, and there will certainly be no voting. If the Mayor goes through with his plan to sell the district to a private company, then the hundreds of jobs that MSD currently provides will almost certainly be gone. Your only option for public input on the actions of the district will be a 1-800 customer service line. If you think rates are too high now, who do you think will pay for a private purchase? The rate-payers will pay by increased fees, with an additional profit added for the private company.
That brings me to the District’s second concern: the amount of misinformation surrounding the Muncie Sanitary District.
The MSD is responsible for many things most citizens might not know. Along with managing and maintaining the City’s sewer system and wastewater treatment plant, it is also responsible for managing storm water runoff, for monitoring the water quality in our streams and the White River, for protecting our City from floods via the levee system and Madison underpass, for sweeping and plowing the streets, for picking up our trash and managing our free recycling program, for running educational programs for kids and adults, and for sponsoring community cleanups. It also has a 24/7 response team that handles sewer and drain backups, delivering a 30-minute response time—even in the middle of the night.
We, the general public, have 143 hardworking family men and women at the District to thank for these services. These employees are dedicated to their jobs and to making our community a better place. When the Mayor declared in a Council meeting that the problems at the MSD “ran deep,” he defamed those hardworking citizens who had absolutely nothing to do with the allegations the Mayor referenced in his address. He ignored the fact that, after three and a half years of investigation, the FBI has charged (and not yet convicted) only 2 MSD employees with misconduct. That represents just 1.3% of the District’s employees. The over one hundred and forty remaining employees at the MSD are members of our community—our friends and our neighbors—who work hard day in and day out to ensure everyone here has a clean, safe city to call home. These employees do not deserve the defamation that the Mayor bestowed upon them.
The Mayor had every opportunity to ask questions about the budget and funds before he made his false and misleading claims. The Mayor has been invited to every public Board meeting, which are held every two weeks and are also recorded and broadcast on public access television for those who are unable to attend. Until Mayor Ridenour’s frivolous lawsuit, time was set aside at every meeting to answer questions from the public. There is nothing “secret” about anything the District does; there is nothing that is done “in the dark,” as the Mayor claimed.
Thank you for taking the time to read this—which is intended to inform the public on everything MSD does for the community and to express the District’s concerns surrounding Mayor Ridenour’s recent actions—on behalf of the District. Again, the Board welcomes an additional member; it simply wishes the Mayor would handle this issue with more professionalism and less politics.
Bill Smith, President