Somerset Water Works District managing conflicts with county

County working to improve the situation

By Katherine Nettles

Gunnison county has been engaging with residents from the town of Somerset following what appears to have been a feud between the Somerset Water Works District board of directors and some local citizens. Efforts to work with all parties is now under way, which include pinpointing areas for community building and finding Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) resources to assist the town in making strides to improve the appearance of its public spaces.

The Water District appeared to be mired in drama in May, which initially caused a bit of a problem for Gunnison County. Marlene Crosby, director of Gunnison County Public Works, reported to the Gunnison County commissioners on May 14 that she had begun receiving calls the weekend prior about a contentious situation within the Somerset Water Works District in which no clear picture of leadership or next steps had emerged.

Somerset is an unincorporated community and coal mining town at the west end of Gunnison County. The town’s only structure, aside from 53 residences, is the Somerset Waterworks District, formed to supply water to the town residents.

Crosby wrote later in an e-mail to the News that a feud between citizens and the board of directors erupted during a meeting in the district office building, which also serves as the Somerset community center and houses the sheriff’s deputy office for that district as well.

The district board includes Michael Byers, president; Michael Norton; and Wanda Buskirk. Crosby wrote that during or after their meeting, a member of the crowd named John Malaker asked to speak and raised issues about the management of the district. After Malaker’s comments, Byers asked the group of 20 or so people if they wanted him (Byers) to resign. It appears the majority of the people voted yes.

Byers promptly announced his resignation, as did the other board members, and they left the building.

The group of citizens then put their own padlocks on the doors, assuming they had taken over the district, said Crosby. She described the scenario as a group of “interlopers” who wished to take over. “People were all having a fit,” she said.

The situation grew so contentious that DOLA was called to get involved. Crosby said that placing a padlock on the facility to block board member access was likely an unlawful act that could lead to criminal charges.

“As we all know in these situations, the truth is always somewhere in the middle,” Crosby said on May 14, in preface of her discussion of the incident with the Gunnison County commissioners.

The county commissioners and county attorney David Baumgarten proceeded to discuss what, if any, part the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) might need to play in the process. Baumgarten said if a special district approved by the county no longer has a board of directors, and service is in danger of being interrupted, then the county has to take over in some form, potentially appointing temporary board members and facilitating an election.

“So who steps in?” asked commissioner John Messner.

Baumgarten replied that the answer wasn’t entirely clear, and would depend on the bylaws of the district itself.

“I can’t find the statute that says that you do,” he said.

The origin of the feud was not clear at the time of publication, but commissioner Jonathan Houck said, “There is a layer of old guard and newcomers.”

“It’s very much a coup,” said county manager Matthew Birnie.

One issue for the county was the manner in which the board members have quit their positions, having been elected to them and therefore needing to follow specific procedures to resign.

The “interlopers” had asked to speak with the commissioners, according to Crosby.

Baumgarten suggested that the commissioners begin by talking to the existing board, and trying to navigate the conundrum in a work session May 21. However, no representatives from Somerset appeared at the May 21 meeting.

“We need to facilitate a conversation with the existing board about their roles and responsibilities, and then with the community about what needs to happen, so everyone understands … the potential ramifications of what is going on here,” said commissioner John Messner.

“There is no way for you to predict what is going to happen,” said Baumgarten, describing several scenarios in which one board member left standing would get to appoint other board members, versus an empty board that would require more oversight and involvement from the county.

The commissioners decided to request that the Somerset officials formulate a memo to the county and come together for a special meeting, to “see if they can get something together explaining what is going on so we can all acknowledge that ‘this is the situation,’” said Messner.

That meeting happened on June 12, and afterward county manager Matthew Birnie described the situation in a follow-up e-mail to the Crested Butte News.

“The Water Board has not resigned and remains in place. We are helping the community access some resources through DOLA so that they may determine how best to address their issues,” he wrote.

Crosby told the commissioners on June 18 that the public works department is working to schedule a trip to Somerset with DOLA, but a date has not yet been set. The efforts to clean up and improve streets, alleys and private property within the community are in progress. Crosby also said members of the community have been working on the sprinkler system and doing some plantings in the community park.

The community is also working to identify the number of tires and appliances to be recycled. Gunnison County hopes to haul the tires and appliances directly to a recycler to keep costs down. “So just that alone should clean up the town a little bit,” said Crosby.

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