CENTER — A group of Center citizens attending last Tuesday’s town board meeting accused an energy management group of criminal activities and one of its members was asked to leave the meeting.
The group attending the meeting included Jenny, Stella and Adeline Sanchez, Mary and Bill McClure, Dora Trujillo, Audrey Chavez, Donna Mae Jenkins and several others.
Jenny Sanchez, Adeline Sanchez and Bill McClure were among the most vocal attendees.
The main complaint from the group centered around the town board’s choice of firms to help perform an energy audit for the town and install water meters. Energy Systems Group (ESG) has been working with Center Mayor Susan Banning and Town Manager Forrest Neuerburg since last year to coordinate energy saving measures in the town and bring down energy costs.
Citizens accused the town of not discussing their plans with ESG in the monthly newsletter or inviting citizens to comment on the project before passing an ordinance to okay the matter Tuesday.
“We’ve been having discussions about this since you were on the board,” Banning told Adeline Sanchez, who accused the board of keeping Center residents in the dark.
Later in the meeting, Trustee Moe Jones also told Sanchez that, “You know a lot more about this than people are saying.” But neither Jones nor Banning was able to answer the group’s concerns to their satisfaction.
“You’re just going to put $2.8 million on the back of citizens without a hearing on this ordinance?” McClure queried. Jennie Sanchez also accused the board of acting against the statutes and failing to hold public hearings on the matter.
Town attorney Eugene Farish told Sanchez and her group that the statute did not call for public hearings on the issue and Banning confirmed Farish’s statement.
“I hope there are people with the guts to reject it — that’s a hell of a lot of money to put on people.”
The board also discussed and approved a bid made on sidewalk construction downtown for $36,455 and approved a contract with a Nebraska energy provider. A $200 request by youths holding an all-night softball tourney also was approved.
Farish and Banning then discussed the pending appointment of an Adjustment Board for the town.
Further business by the board was, interrupted, however by a fire call. Volunteer firefighters and trustees Moe Jones and Chris Garcia left the meeting, leaving the board without a quorum.
The board approved a motion to continue the meeting Thursday, but the protesters continued to object to the high cost of water meter installation.
Stella Sanchez complained, “We have no input,” followed by McClure’s comment that the meter installation “Will double our water rates.”
McClure continued to protest, accusing ESG of “ripping us off” and loudly calling the group “a bunch of crooks.” At that point, Center Police Chief Bill Lucero, who had been monitoring the meeting, escorted McClure out of the building. He was followed by Jennie Sanchez who asked him not to hold McClure and told Lucero that McClure would “behave.”
At that point the meeting adjourned, although afterwards Stella Sanchez grilled citizen Mike Garcia on adjustment board matters. Meanwhile, other members of the group continued to make denigrating remarks within the hearing of ESG representatives and the board.
Thursday’s meeting equally contentious
On reconvening the meeting Thursday at 3 p.m. at the Center Firehouse, Mayor Banning opened the session with an announcement that all in attendance would be required to follow rules of decorum or be asked to leave.
The Sanchez and McClure contingents, along with other Center residents, attended the meeting,
Three items were on the agenda
Ordinance 431 acknowledging the water system is an enterprise; a presentation by ESG; bond ordinance 432, authorizing funds borrowed through a third party for the ESG program and Ordinance 433, approving the actual energy performance contract with ESG.
In answer to a question raised by Jennie Sanchez Tuesday, Mayor Banning emphasized that, in every audit and in the town’s budget, the water system is described as operating as a “water enterprise,” something attorney Farish said is permitted under state Tabor laws.
“This matter [installation of water meters] should have been taken care of by the previous board and was not,” Banning said.
If Center does not install the meters and meet other backflow prevention requirements concerning their water system, they could face fines up to $20,000 a day. The legislation mandating meter installation was passed in 1997, and meters had to be gradually installed by 2009.
“All the other surrounding municipalities have installed their meters,” Farish commented in a later conversation on the matter.
ESG then made a presentation on the meter installation and energy savings they plan to implement for the town, pointing out that the town would actually be saving money on energy consumption and some water user rates could even decrease. Water rates levied for the town would be based on rates in Alamosa, the group said.
With meters, folks tend to use less, they pointed out and there actually would be an increase in revenues. The group has been working for some time with the governor’s Colorado Energy Office (CEO) on different projects statewide.
The firm concluded its presentation by assuring Center residents that everything has been done properly, noting that the CEO makes the firm check its figures.
“Our biggest concern is water safety and being compliant with the law,” Banning said. “Five to eight years ago DOLA (Dept. of Local Affairs) had grant money [for the meter installation] and no one applied. Now we have no choice — we have to get this done.”
Farish began commenting on ESG’s presentation, but was interrupted by McClure.
“You can’t over speak me — you are going to be excluded if you do,” he told McClure.
“Yes sir; I’m sorry sir,” McClure responded. Following the exchange, the board went into executive session for legal purposes.
During the executive session, members of the Sanchez/McClure citizens group continued to murmur about violation of first amendment rights and even mentioned the planned recall of Mayor Banning.
When Center Post-Dispatch reporter Teresa Benns laughed out loud at the manner in which some of the statements were made, Jennie Sanchez walked up to Benns and called her an insulting name in Spanish.
Center Police Chief Bill Lucero directed Sanchez away from Benns.
Bill McClure was heard making a sarcastic comment in response to Sanchez’ remark.
When Benns stood up to take a photo of ESG speaking with some Center residents, McClure ran from the opposite side of the room, interjected himself into the group and raised both hands to flip Benns off, addressing her as he did so.
Chief Lucero walked up to McClure and told him he had violated the restraining order Benns was granted against him following an incident last October.
McClure was arrested and taken to the Rio Grande County Jail, where he was held on a $1,000 bond. Reportedly his ex-wife Mary McClure, bailed him out shortly afterwards.
When town board members emerged from the executive session, they announced that a procedural error had been discovered in the contract with ESG and that before any further discussion of the performance contract was conducted, yet another meeting and a work session would be held to allow public comment and feedback.
The next meeting is scheduled for Aug. 22.