In a plea for help, West Odessa residents asked the Ector County Commissioners Court last week to remove and reset the five member Ector County Utility District (ECUD) Board of Directors due to continued legal violations by the ECUD Board and ongoing concerns about ECUD operations. Citizens who spoke addressed concerns about the lack of access to ECUD Board meetings, water availability and costs, election integrity and lack of diversity on the ECUD Board. Click here for video.
In the week before Thursday’s Commissioners Court meeting, longtime west Odessa residents John and Shirley Kelley along with numerous other residents were locked out of an ECUD public meeting in what appears to be an intentional act to keep the public from joining the meeting. Men guarding the front door refused to allow the public to enter and the entrance door remained locked during the meeting. In violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act (OMA) the board refused to allow for public comment.
When arriving at the meeting, members of the public were told the Fire Marshal had placed the brand-new occupancy limit sign in the window – which is not required in the county – limiting the capacity to 23. With Board Members and ECUD workers adding up to 10 people, the public was limited to 13 seats and it appeared that the available seats were filled with residents sympathetic to the ECUD Board. Around 2 pm the occupancy limit was reached for the 2:30 meeting and others that arrived were locked out. The crowd outside was told the Fire Marshall was on-site but was never identified. In a follow-up call to the Odessa Fire Marshal residents were informed that the Fire Marshall had never been to the ECUD offices and that he had nothing to do with the occupancy limit. Intentionally restricting public attendance at an open meeting is a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act.
Following this meeting, the Kelleys started a petition drive on Saturday to express their concerns and lack of confidence in the current ECUD Board. When the petition was presented to the County Commissioners Court it included 403 signatures from West Odessans who are unhappy with ECUD services. Issues addressed by the petition were general access to water, fair pricing, the quality of the water delivered, and the overall lack of customer service.
Recently ECUD began cutting off water service the day after customer payments for bills were due, without providing the 10-day mandatory advance notice to the customers for delinquent accounts. Posters on social media have complained they were caught off guard and after realizing they had no water they could not reach ECUD’s office to rectify the issue and get the water turned back on. In the face of the growing complaints it does appear that ECUD is now providing the required notice.
During the Commissioners Court meeting, Sylvia Garcia, an Ector County resident, expressed her concern and frustration at the lack of diversity on the board. All 5 members of the Board are Anglos, and that, she says, does not in any way represent our County population. She was inside the meeting the Kelleys could not get into and witnessed Troy Walker make a motion to hold off on the appointment of a new Board Member for 30 days so they could accept applications from the community; Marget Burton seconded the motion and Board President Stephanie Shaw was heard saying the motion passed. However, less than 24 hours later ECUD posted a special meeting which contained the same agenda item that was just passed calling for a 30 day application period. The meeting was posted around 1 pm on Thursday, and ECUD was closed Friday for Veteran’s day and Saturday and Sunday for the weekend. The meeting was set for 9 am Monday morning giving the public little time to obtain and fill out applications and turn them in.
During the Monday special meeting Troy Walker made a motion to appoint Tommy Brown as a new Board Member. Brown appears to have personal ties to Past President Tommy Ervin who resigned after failing to provide proof of a felony pardon he has claimed for years he was granted. Board officers were then appointed appointing Stephanie Shaw, President; Sheila Black, Vice President; Margaret Burton, Secretary; Tommy Brown, Treasurer. In addition to Brown there appears to have been a number of applications submitted for the vacant seat which received no consideration.
Jennifer Woodall was the third and final speaker in Court to ask for the reset of the Board. She stated that West Odessa needs ECUD and residents need them to be successful as reliable water service is a critical need in West Odessa. Research shows since ECUD was formed in 1976, they have 5800 connections documented with only about 5300 connections currently active. In over 2.5 years since ECUD took over sole responsibility for their system from the City of Odessa, only about 200 connections have been installed despite a $45 million expansion. Currently there are over 14,000 residential structures plus additional businesses in west Odessa. While some residents have water wells, the falling water table has left many residents in need of municipal water.
Woodall also spoke about the lack of election integrity with the Board attempting again to set the next election again for November, when the Texas Water Code clearly states the election is to be held in May. A lawsuit last year alleged the same violaton and that suit remains open. Woodall also advocated for the voter roster to be corrected to ensure that people being taxed by ECUD are able to vote in ECUD elections.
Commissioner Gardner, who represents most of the west Odessa community, indicated that these complaints are not new to him, in fact, he could not get into the Wednesday meeting either. He has attended many ECUD meetings and has urged them many times to follow the law, only for his pleas to fall on deaf ears. Citizens now wait on County Judge Dustin Fawcett and the four Commissioners to decide how their concerns regarding the ECUD Board of Directors will be addressed and when.