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Voters to pick new chairman at critical time for Macon Water Authority

Two of the three candidates have sat on the board overseeing the MWA water, sewer and stormwater utility

MACON, Ga. — For the first time in eight years, Macon-Bibb County voters will choose a new chairman for the Macon Water Authority.

The vote to replace Sam Hart, who is not seeking re-election, comes at a crucial time. The authority is in its second year of managing stormwater and is charging new fees to fund work on the system that has suffered from decades of deferred maintenance.

Early voting for the May 24 non-artisan election begins Monday with Gary Bechtel, Desmond Brown and Tom Ellington on the ballot.

We invited all the candidates for a sit-down interview with the Center Collaborative Journalism and asked that they provide basic biographical information. Brown did not respond to repeated requests to participate and failed to answer any of the submitted questions.

Gary Bechtel

Gary Bechtel believes he is the best candidate to lead the Macon Water Authority because of his record of public service and experience in business, development and banking.

Mayor Lester Miller appointed Bechtel to the Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning Commission last year and he continues to serve on that body.

The 61-year-old commercial real estate salesman served a dozen years on the Bibb County School Board. The former banker was elected to the Bibb County Board of Commissioners before consolidation and also served on the Macon-Bibb County Board of Commissioners for four years before resigning for an unsuccessful bid for the Georgia House of Representatives in 2018.

Bechtel was one of Macon-Bibb County’s representatives on the Macon Water Authority from 2017 – 2018.

“I’m not in it for personal aggrandizement or money. I’m doing this because this is my community and I want it to grow,” Bechtel said. “I want it to be a place where people want to come here and have the confidence they’re going to have the services at a reasonable rate that they need to have to function and run their business and run their home.”

Bechtel and his wife, Laura, have lived in Macon all their lives and raised a son and daughter here.

He believes the authority’s biggest challenge is transparency in educating the community on how it is spending stormwater fees to address infrastructure issues and worsening flooding conditions, particularly in south Bibb County.

“When many of those homes were built in the 60s, in the 70s, stormwater really was not a concern of the developer if you had ditches and you had creeks and things like that. There needs to be more infrastructure and there needs to be a better plan on how we deal with south Bibb,” Bechtel said.

Bechtel also stressed the need for expanding the sewer system as a priority for the authority and the county.

“I think that’s a policy that any person that occupies this office is going to have to take and provide leadership to make certain that that’s done in a timely manner so that our community is not put at a disadvantage because we are at capacity with our sewer system,” he said.

The self-professed fiscal conservative says he has been transparent in “everything I want to do.”

Although he was president of the school board that hired superintendent Romain Dallemand in 2010, Bechtel was one of three members who voted to hire the other candidate. Bechtel later sued Dallemand over the release to the public of Bechtel’s son’s “confidential education records” before Dallemand resigned his position amid allegations of financial misdealings.

Association with the Dallemand era became a political liability in Bechtel’s failed 2018 campaign for Georgia House, but Bechtel said that part of his school board tenure further demonstrates his leadership ability to advocate for voters.

“I think a lot of people think that even though we went through a difficult time, I proved that I was willing to stand up for what the voters thought was right,” he said. “And worked hard to eliminate that… disgraced spot as it relates to the community.”

Desmond Brown

Desmond Brown is running for MWA chairman after serving less than two years representing District 2 on the authority.

Brown, 49, vacated his seat when he qualified to run for chairman this spring, although he said at the time that he didn’t think he had to resign to seek the at-large post.

The political newcomer was elected in 2020 in his first bid for office. He failed to respond to numerous requests, including an in-person appeal for an interview, and solicitation of basic background information for this candidate profile.

According to his qualifying paperwork filed with the Macon-Bibb Board of Elections, Brown is a senior claims analyst who has lived 40 consecutive years in Bibb County and 8 years in MWA District 2.

He and his wife, Keisha, have three daughters and two sons. He is a former board member of Loaves & Fishes Ministries while representing Washington Avenue Presbyterian Church where he is an ordained deacon, according to his former MWA profile.

Brown’s career highlights include serving as an economic growth developer, commercial mortgage broker, loan officer and certified investment banker, according to his biographical information that was removed from the MWA website when he left office.

Macon-Bibb County tax records show Brown owes about $15,000 in back taxes and solid waste fees on two properties, but he filed for bankruptcy in March.

Last December, the authority launched an internal investigation of Brown’s conduct that determined he had a “blatant conflict of interest” and potential criminal liability after he billed the authority more than $46,000 on behalf of a client of his disaster mitigation company, Blue Armour Network of America.

During that probe which led to allegations Brown “targets the elderly,” his 2019 legal troubles resurfaced.

He failed to follow a judge’s order awarding $40,000 in damages to an investor in one of Brown’s defunct companies. The court-ordered 25% interest on that debt brings the current total owed to $150,000 in that case.

He never provided that investor’s attorney all the financial documents needed, according to the judge.

In February, Brown spent four days in the Bibb County jail for contempt of court before being released with the stipulation he provide the requested documents or face additional jail time.

Brown’s bankruptcy filing paused those civil proceedings.

The Macon Water Authority has an annual operating budget of $73 million $600 million invested in system assets and a $70 million five-year capital plan, according to the authority’s EVP of Business Operations CFO Guy Boyle.

In a forum April 4 at City Hall Brown said: “Finance also is not a key factor of the chairman. We have a chief financial officer that is one of the best in the state of Georgia. … The chairman, and I have the bylaws with me, he doesn’t deal with finance, but he does deal with you all. Vote for Desmond Brown.”

MWA ended its investigation conducted by former district attorney David Cooke once Brown vacated his seat. The authority was considering asking Gov. Brian Kemp to remove him from office before Brown qualified for the 2022 election.

During this recent campaign, Brown has said he is a “whistleblower” calling attention to neglected stormwater issues and questioning the redistricting process while leveling accusations of gerrymandering in redrawing district lines.

Brown accused Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Bill Howell, who represents the county on the authority, of shifting districts to accommodate District 1 authority representative Anissa Jones’ new property on Cherry Street.

Howell and Jones deny there was any special treatment in this year’s redistricting.

He said he was the only candidate to have actually worked with stormwater since his company installed manholes and sewer lines. Brown also served as vice-chair of the authority’s engineering committee.

“It takes more than having a political past career to be chair of the Macon Water Authority,” Brown said. “It takes an understanding of what we do.”

Tom Ellington

Tom Ellington is the only MWA chairman candidate who has not served on the authority, but describes himself as a bridge builder and coalition maker who learned about water systems working with advocacy groups following the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

Ellington, 48, was born in South Carolina and is a professor of political science at Wesleyan College – a job that first brought him to Macon in 2004 from Alabama, where he attended high school and college.

The former Macon City Councilman, who led the pre-consolidation Appropriations Committee, currently chairs the Macon-Bibb County Land Bank Authority.

“I feel like I have the leadership background, I have the experience, I have the financial knowledge and basically the entire package necessary to lead an organization like the Macon Water Authority,” Ellington said.

Aging infrastructure is the authority’s biggest challenge along with maintaining staff levels, he said.

“We have literally hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure work that’s been identified that needs to be done,” Ellington said. “So, a lot of that work is going to involve identifying most likely failure points, prioritizing them, and basically staging the work in a way that’s logical and causes the least disruption to people’s lives.”

As chairman, Ellington would make it a priority to use artificial intelligence technology to identify problem areas in the system.

“Other places have had success with that. And if you do that well, you avoid failures and you also save money because it’s a lot easier to be preventive than to be reactive,” Ellington said.

Ellington, who recently married his wife, Kate, also has concerns about the county’s aging sewer system that produced several major sewage spills during torrential downpours Oct. 6.

“We’re going to need to look at what we can do about that,” Ellington said. “Basically, the bottom fell out of the sky and there were inches and inches of rain that infiltrated the sanitary sewer system and just overwhelmed it. … We’re in an age where we’re going to have more and more severe weather events and we need to basically futureproof the system.”

The avid, long-distance hiker who has climbed the peaks of Nepal and mountains of France and Spain, took a sabbatical from 2019 – 2020 when he went to Harvard and earned a master in public administration degree from the Kennedy School. It was during that time he delved into the Flint water issues that plagued that Michigan city.

“I was on the ground in Flint in 2019, which is after the worst of the crisis, but I came to appreciate how much these utilities mean for a community. So when we’re talking about the water authority, certainly it’s economic development, it’s public health, but it’s also community,” Ellington said. “So you can replace pipes if you have money, that’s relatively trivial. But rebuilding trust after that’s been broken, that is extraordinarily difficult.”

Ellington wants to make sure the authority is transparent and fair about stormwater issues and fees.

“I’ve heard from pastors who are getting hundreds of dollars in billing for small churches just based on their imperious surface area. And what they’re saying is that this is potentially an existential threat for them,” he said. “You know, the point of the fee is to fund the system. The point of the fee is not to cause pain and, you know, force institutions into insolvency.”

If elected, Ellington said he would revisit the stormwater fee structure and cut fees based on a property owner’s efforts to mitigate stormwater runoff.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at fabian_lj@mercer.edu and 478-301-2976.

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