Council to talk water, lawsuit

Two legal issues are prompting town leaders to hold closed sessions tonight: resolving a claim against the town for an opinionated article in a town newsletter and the stalled acquisition of the Camp Verde Water System.

The town will not soon acquire the Camp Verde Water System, officials announced last week, and the council verified that by voting to rescind authorization to staff to acquire the water system land by eminent domain. Tonight's talks are to instruct the town attorney regarding the town's position.

The Bullard family owns the water plant, but the owners are not directly related to town finance director Dane Bullard. Officials ended negotiations in closed session recently after town evaluations estimated the plant to be worth considerably less than what the Bullards were asking. The town had been offering up to roughly $5 million for the water plant.

The town has been set to take over Camp Verde Water System by eminent domain since at least November of last year. Previous negotiations to purchase the company outright began in 1999. However, there was a difference of opinion on the value and price of the company.

Town Manager John Roberts estimated the value of the water company at about $3.5 to $4 million, in stark contrast to the $8 million price tag suggested by owner Jim Bullard. Roberts said the town arrived at the lower figure based on appraisal methodology provided by a large engineering firm hired by the town.

Roberts has confirmed that a financial commitment on behalf of the town would also be subject to voter approval. Although Camp Verde voters gave town officials the authority several years ago to obtain utilities, bond authority would still have to be voted upon if the town decided to continue attempts to acquire the plant in the future.

Another issue on tonight's agenda to be discussed in closed session is a legal claim regarding a town-published newsletter. Daniel Pierce delivered to Town Hall in late January a notice of intent to sue if Camp Verde does not recover the costs from a newsletter published last December. In the town newsletter, council member Eric Eberhard wrote in support of mining ordinances, which Pierce claimed was a violation of election law.

Pierce asserted that tax money should not have been spent to publish Eberhard's opinion, and claims that the expenditure violates state "electioneering" law. The state statute, Section 9-500.14A, states that "A city or town shall not use its personnel, equipment, materials, buildings, or other resources for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections."

Eberhard responded that no mining vote had been announced when the newsletter was published in December of 2001. Therefore, his contribution to the newsletter was merely a matter of his First Amendment right to free speech. In other words, he could not influence an election that did not yet exist. A referendum petition drive was still underway when Eberhard's opinions were published.

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