Lehigh sets new, cohesive utilities policy

LEHIGH – New policies to more formally control certain town functions were passed at a contentious Lehigh City Council meeting Monday night.

Council members at times accused the mayor and each other of abusing their power or being difficult to work with, while the mayor said the council needs to make decisions in a more orderly fashion.

“What happens is the carriage keeps jumping in front of the horses, and all we’re doing is creating turmoil, as you can see what is going on at this council meeting today,” Mayor Mark Johnson said. “It’s not a smooth-running ship.”

The council created a new Utility Committee to directly oversee the electric, water, sanitary sewer, storm sewer and garbage removal utilities managed by the city. Consisting of the mayor and council members Troy Twito and Doug Dellachiesa, the committee will monitor delinquent accounts and suggest action for curing delinquencies.

“There’s been a lack for years in how we’ve gone about receiving payments,” said Johnson. “We tried to be a small town, where everybody knows everybody. Now we’re just going to try to get back to how it’s stated in code.”

Johnson said letters have now been sent out to delinquent accounts, which should help the city resolve the accounts without “just axing them.”

At least once in the past, council members simply shut down a Lehigh company’s utilities without Johnson’s knowledge, he said.

In that instance, Twito said, “We shut the guy off, who was numerous dollars behind, and you turned him back on. That’s what they’re having an issue about.”

“If I had been contacted I probably wouldn’t have a problem with it. But being as I wasn’t contacted I have a problem with it,” Johnson said.

“Where do you get your power?” said council member Dwight Tuel.

“By being mayor for one,” Johnson said.

“Why does that outweigh us?” Tuel said.

“Nobody said it outweighed you,” Johnson said. “Where does your being a council member outweigh me being mayor?”

Council members Kay Timmons and Dellachiesa also said they weren’t contacted about shutting off the utilities.

“I’ve talked to everybody about that too,” Johnson said. “We can’t just get three council members together and come up with an answer, and then do it. I think all five council members need to be contacted. Even if you’ve got three in favor of it.”

All council actions need to be done in open session, and be noted on the agenda beforehand, City Clerk Wanda Ganeff said.

“It needs to be on the agenda and needs to be discussed. We don’t need three council members just talking amongst each other to make the decision and call the other two,” Ganeff said.

That business was shut off, and then turned back on again after things were worked out, Twito said. He did not say when the incident happened.

The resolution passed unanimously.

Later, Lehigh resident Jenny Eckert also voiced her disapproval of recent actions by some council members.

“I would appreciate it if you’re going to discuss city issues, it needs to be here, with the mayor present and the clerk as well, so it can be on the record,” Eckert said. “It doesn’t need to be in my front yard or at the local watering hole.”

Eckert said she came home to a “hornet’s nest” after Tuel and her husband, city maintenance worker Jason Eckert, took the city bucket truck while Jason Eckert was off-duty to deal with a problem with a transformer near their home.

She said a council member came into her home uninvited and ignored her brother-in-law’s questions as to why he was there, but did not identify the council member.

“Later my daughter said that man in the red shirt scared me, because he came in with sort of a surly demeanor. I understand my husband works for the city. He answers to you folks and the mayor. But you need to respect my home,” Jenny Eckert said. “I’m very much a mama bear when it comes to my territory.”

“I apologize for that,” Twito said. “(Jason) let me in.”

Johnson said that if council members believe a city employee is doing something wrong, they should wait and bring it before the council.

“It’s still wrong two weeks later if it’s wrong today,” Johnson said. “Take the time it takes to find out who’s wrong. It keeps us out of the paper, it keeps the paper from being here.”

The council also passed a resolution specifically stating how utility customer information could be disclosed.

The council did not say if this was related to an incident from July 21 when Ganeff was sent home for a day with pay. Johnson initially told The Messenger that, to his knowledge, she had been suspended, but Twito later said she had not been suspended. Both said everything had been worked out the next day.

Twito said the issue was a disagreement between Ganeff and some council members on if she was following the proper policy. He said they determined that Ganeff was in fact doing what she had been told to do.

He did not give any more detail, or say what the policy pertained to, but said that a change in the policy would likely be made at the meeting.

At the meeting Tuel and Timmons voted no, with Twito, Dellachiesa and Orr voting yes on the resolution. It states that confidential customer information can be disclosed to the utility committee members or the mayor in order to monitor delinquent accounts.

It cites Iowa code stating how records can be kept private.

Tuel said the council has been unable to find out about utility payments in the past.

“It seems like we are the last to know. We’re supposed to be running this show,” he said.

“Everybody in Lehigh has the right to look in here at what goes on, don’t they?” Twito said.

“They can’t look at utilities,” Ganeff said.

The resolution was written by the city’s lawyer, Michael Tungesvik, said Johnson.