The status of a $500,000 grant awarded to the Whetstone Water Improvement District may be in jeopardy due to an ongoing controversy that has resulted in three board members being recalled.
A recall election is scheduled on May 16 for three district board members, each of whom face a candidate on the ballot. Board president Tim Sulger is being challenged by Tony Ennis; member Leonard Howell is being challenged by Joe Dooley; and member Robert “Buddy” Tinney, who is also the district treasurer, is being challenged by Steve Usrey.
The water board has scheduled a special meeting for today to determine whether the election will be conducted by mail-in vote only, or if a polling place will be set up on election day, board president Tim Sulger said Wednesday.
The district has anticipated receiving a $500,000 grant from the Border Environment Cooperation Commission, a binational organization created to “...improve the environmental conditions of the U.S.-Mexico border region in order to advance the well-being of residents in both nations,” according to its website.
Cochise County Supervisor Peggy Judd said she contacted the organization to alert them to the controversy in the local water district and was told by BECC project manager, Gerardo Calza, that the grant has been pulled until the matter is resolved.
“My understanding is that the grant is still on, but without the two employees who wrote the grant there are concerns about the project,” Judd said Wednesday.
The district fired its three employees in January after a dispute with the board about repairs to Well No. 2, which were completed in August. The employees, Patricia Woolsey, Robert Salazar and Jim Demuth, were accused of insubordination after their actions to prevent Sulger from accessing the well site and contacting state authorities on the hiring of an unlicensed contractor to do the well repair. Allegations of questionable credit card purchases and other confrontations with the district board were also outlined in the board’s agenda for its February meeting, where the terminations were formally ratified.
Well No. 2 was taken offline after the work was completed when samples showed the presence of chloroform in the water.
Demuth filed papers with the Cochise County Elections Office to initiate the recall election and district customers contacted Supervisor Judd after contentious board meetings in December, January and February.
Judd, who represents District 3 on the county board which includes Whetstone, said Wednesday that the process water district customers have followed in seeking to recall the board members have been appropriate.
Sulger said Wednesday that losing the $500,000 grant puts the district and Cochise County in serious peril. He said some of the funding was planned for the replacement of an aging water pipe buried under Highway 90, serving customers on the west side of road.
“If that pipe blows out, there’s enough force to wash out the road and if it happens at night, someone is going to be seriously injured, or even killed,” Sulger said.
He said BECC has not contacted the water district, but board attorney Lauri Owen called the organization this week to determine the status of the grant.