By Martin Couch
A few weeks ago, Jill Dabbs and three others filed a lawsuit against the City of Bryant, specifically, then Mayor Larry Mitchell and the Bryant City Council, alleging that they had implemented water rate increases that were in violation of an ordinance passed by the city in 2008.
Dabbs is now the mayor-elect of Bryant and has been asked to voluntarily dismiss the lawsuit. The suit also alleges that on January 1 of this year, an increase was implemented before any review was performed to justify it.
Dabbs points out in a press release that "no review on the 2010 rate increase was done when the increase was enacted, and under law, is therefore invalid."
Under law, the review was to be conducted publicly by the mayor and city council. Dabbs contends no such review has been conducted "in the time and manner required by the 2008 ordinances." (The ordinances were passed as part of a 20-year plan to upgrade and maintain Bryant's water and sewer systems.)
"The city has not kept that promise to the people," Dabbs said. "There has been no transparency in conducting the public's business, and that is wrong. The whole purpose of this suit is to force Mayor (Larry) Mitchell and the Council to abide by their own rules. Now they suggest that consequences of violating our own laws are somehow our fault if we compel them to follow that law?
"This is absurd by any standard," she continued. "Is there a path to withdrawal of this lawsuit? Yes, there is. We want to see a consent order taking responsibility for violations. Let the engineers that Bryant hired conduct the review as required by the law, and then base any rate increase on their recommendations in a public meeting. The answer is not for us to go away. The answer is for them to comply."
Dabbs also mentioned "a breakdown in communication” between herself and the outgoing administration.
"Mayor Mitchell sure hasn't talked to me about this bond issue," Dabbs said. "I haven't even been able to get him to return a phone call since I won the election. Now, his attorney wants me to withdraw a lawsuit based on a bond issue we haven't discussed? I find that to be highly irregular behavior."
Dabbs and the other plaintiffs have stated they are not seeking money from the city and consented to waive any award of attorney fees if the case can be settled. That settlement would include: an agreed order stopping the 2011 rate increase while requiring that a proper review be conducted.
“That (the bond issue) is not a valid reason for withdrawing the suit," said plaintiff Ricky Tripp. "Putting the breaks on the city's water business is an unfortunate result of accountability and is not caused by what they deem to be frivolous litigation. The City created this situation and is responsible for any consequences. Their response trivializes the law and suggests that there are more important things to consider. I will have to respectfully disagree."
The bond issue Tripp refers to comes from a letter from Bryant city attorney Nga Mahfouz that states, "the city has planned upcoming bond closing. I have been asked whether your clients intend to nonsuit (withdraw) litigation . . ."
Attorney for the plaintiffs Steve Smith stated to Dabbs in the press release that Mahfouz said the bond issue was in jeopardy, because of the suit. Smith said Mahfouz went on to say "that if the city was unable to close on the bond issue, they would have to meet some of the expenses (that would otherwise be financed by the bonds) out of general revenue and suggested that it could be a problem for the incoming mayor, Dabbs.”
"This is not about price, it's about process," said Tara Mink, one of the plaintiffs. "If I, as a citizen of Bryant, am bound by the ordinances the city passes, I expect the city to follow those same ordinances. All I want to know is that the city has done its due diligence.
"The Mayor doesn't have to call Jill Dabbs and congratulate her if he doesn't want to," Mink continued. "But we expect him to respond to a lawsuit that names him."
Along with Dabbs, Tripp and Mink, Randy Coger is the other plaintiff.