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West Warren legal battle leads to heated exchange
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A legal battle between West Warren-Viola Utility District and the Jarrell family of Coffee County didn’t come to an end last week, but it temporarily included a heated exchange between representatives from the two.
The county’s Economic and Agricultural Development Committee met Thursday to consider a resolution to address “any perceived conflict of interest” on behalf of Warren County, West Warren-Viola Utility District, or James C. Hailey and Company in regard to the Community Development Block Grant Funds and publically acknowledge a known family relationship between the three.
By the information, utility district general manager Tim Pelham is the father of Hailey’s employee Anthony Pelham. At the time the grant was obtained, Tim’s bother, John Pelham, was county executive.
Tim says there is no conflict of interest.
“Here’s the deal: If him being my son is a conflict of interest, then I’m proud there is one. I’m proud he’s my son. If John being my brother is a conflict of interest, then I’m proud of that. I’m proud of my brother. This is my son and my brother. That’s a family thing.”
He denies a work-related conflict exists with the grant.
“I’m not a member of West Warren Utility District’s Board,” Tim said. “I cannot make a motion, I cannot second a motion, and I cannot vote on any motion the board passes. When the board acts, I am an employee of that organization. I have nothing to do with the actions they have taken. John, in his tenure as county executive, was not a member of the county court. He did not make a motion to the county court. He did not vote for the county court, unless there was a tie he had to break it and that didn’t happen with the grant. My son is not an owner of James C. Hailey and Company. Therefore, as an employee of the business, he was working for them.”
None of the family members will gain financially as a direct result of the grant, says Tim.
“There is no benefit to me. I get paid regardless. The only benefit, if we get the grant, is to the customers of West Warren-Viola Utility District who will save.”
A grant of $500,000 was obtained in November 2011 to help fund a $3.7 million project that included a 1-million-gallon water holding tank. The project was touted as a way to improve the water supply to Morrison School and to encourage future expansion at Mountain View Industrial Park.
The site chosen for the water tank was a 5.75-acre portion of the Jarrell family property, a six-generation family farm located near Manchester atop Flat Mountain. According to West Warren plans, the 200-acre farm would be divided by an access road with an eight-foot high cyclone fence and a 30-foot-tall, 2-million-gallon water tank.
When the Jarrell family refused to sell the property, West Warren sought to acquire the property through the power of eminent domain to condemn the Jarrell farm and acquire ownership rights. The initial case was heard on May 16, 2013. That attempt, as well as those that followed, failed.
Jackie (Jarrell) Koss, in attendance at the county meeting, says the family initially raised the issue of a conflict to prevent the county from using the grant and maybe ending the utility district’s attempt to take their land.
“Our argument about the conflict of interest was an attempt to stop the utility district from using this money and taking my grandmother’s land,” said Koss. “When the utility district first contacted us about this, we tried to work with them. We asked them if they would consider using a different piece of the property for their project. We wanted to reach an agreement we can live with.”
Koss says she would rather sell them her property, which is adjacent to her grandmother’s property.
“I would be willing to let them purchase my property. It’s adjacent to my grandmother’s. Do I want to? No. If it saves my grandmother’s property, I would do it. My property doesn’t have the same sentimental value as my grandmother’s does.”
The resolution will have little affect on the lawsuit or its outcome at this point. In August 2014, the full Warren County Commission approved a measure to change the project associated with the grant due to the utility district’s inability to acquire the land. Rather than use it on a water tank, the funds will be used to replace a 50-year-old water line along Highway 127 and 108.
According to Anthony Pelham, he wrote the resolution and presented it to the county to address the perceived conflict of interest issue raised by the family, however, he doesn’t feel a conflict exists.
The resolution will be presented to the full Warren County Commission for its consideration.