Carthage dispute continues to be conversation topic

Aug. 27—CARTHAGE, Mo. — Despite efforts at reconciliation, a dispute between the Carthage City Council and the Carthage Water and Electric Board continues to be talked about by officials and residents.

The dispute, which started in May over a request from the Carthage City Council for more detailed information about CW&EP salaries and escalated to the council dismissing and then reinstating the entire six-member utility board in June, was front and center of the regular Carthage City Council meeting last week.

The issue is expected to be brought up at a City Council work session slated for 5:30 p.m. Monday at Carthage City Hall. City Administrator Gregg Dagnan said that the agenda for the work session was left "loose" so that matters such as the dispute could be discussed.

The meeting will start with a dinner for council members at 5:30 followed by the meeting in council chambers at Carthage City Hall, 326 Grant St.

Roots of dispute

The dispute has its roots in the process of approving Carthage's fiscal year 2023-24 budget and concerns over whether the CW&EP Board was following proper procedure to approve salaries for utility workers.

Mayor Dan Rife has said that the council asked for additional information about how salaries are approved at the utility after an unrelated search led Dally to discover that CW&EP Board minutes showed that no vote had been taken by the board to approve salaries in the past few years.

When Rife and the city asked for proposed salary information as part of the process of creating the fiscal year 2024 city budget, the utility board provided salary information from the previous fiscal year and the salary surveys by public utility associations representing electric utilities and water utilities that were used to determine those salaries.

Rife said that wasn't sufficient, and council members voted 7-2 in an emergency meeting called June 15 to remove the six members of the board, citing threats among city and utility employees over the dispute.

The board declined to revisit that vote at a June 27 meeting that was held at Carthage Memorial Hall in front of a crowd of about 375 people. City ordinance required that seven members vote to reconsider the decision, but the vote was 6-4.

Then on June 30, Rife announced in a news release that the dismissed board members and city officials had met and "resolved their differences." The council then voted July 11 to reinstate the CW&EP Board members by a 7-0 vote with two abstentions.

Since that vote, Rife created an ad hoc committee of three council members and three members of the CW&EP board that met Aug. 14 to discuss changes to city ordinances to help prevent communication issues in the future.

Residents upset

Tuesday's regular council meeting opened with two Carthage residents expressing anger and frustration over the dispute.

Resident Bren Flanigan, who ran for mayor against Rife in 2022, expressing his "disappointment, bordering on disgust, with this divided city that some of you have foisted upon us."

"We have neighbors that aren't waving to one another," Flanigan said. "We have high school classmates that are not speaking to one another. We have four members of the council that are under recall efforts. We have a distinguished board at the CW&EP being publicly accused of criminal activity. I've seen demands for the resignation of the city attorney. I've seen demands for the resignation of the city administrator. I've seen demands for the resignation of the mayor. Very, very disturbing. I would submit if you don't recognize or think that we currently are dealing with a divided environment, well, then you don't live in Carthage."

Jana Schramm, another Carthage resident, blamed the dispute on a "lack of leadership, a lack of transparency and a lack of trust in city officials.

"It is our duty as citizens of Carthage to make this council accountable to us," Schramm said. "We have lost confidence in several members of the council to do what is in the best interest of the citizens of Carthage."

Councilman Alan Snow, during his report this month, said people "continue to ask me, all the time, what do we need to do to move past this issues we've had with the Water & Electric Board? I believe the way we have to move forward is we have to stop creating an us and them. The Water & Electric Board is a group of men who their only interest is to provide the best service we can have for the city of Carthage."

In his response, Rife said the salary study was intended to be a joint effort between the city and CW&EP Board.

"Approval wouldn't come from one or the other but both, so we still need to take a look at it and provide any input if possible when needed," Rife said. "I'm sure they've done a great job with it and it's going to be fine, but that was the reason we needed that information."