LCUB hires attorney in response to Wampler controversy

Author: Brandon L. Jones
Source: News-Herald

Though there may be no lawsuit pressing them now, Lenoir City Utility Board (LCUB) is nevertheless preparing for one.

City Attorney Shannon Littleton, who is also the assistant general manager of the utility board, was deemed by the board at Monday night’s meeting to be essentially too close to the situation to handle potential legal action related to threats from the Wampler family to withdraw their company from LCUB-provided services. According to Family Brands International, LLC President John Edd Wampler, LCUB is charging far-too-high water and sewer rates for two of his family’s businesses — Elm Hill and Wampler’s Sausage Company — and the family is considering moving out of town in general to avoid paying 82 percent higher water rates and 88 percent higher sewer rates.
Out of 19 attorneys, nine of which had cheaper hourly rates, a motion was approved to obtain legal assistance — at a cost of $200 per hour ($400 per hour with an assistant, said board member Tony Aikens) — from C. Coulter “Bud” Gilbert of the legal firm Kennerly, Montgomery & Finley, P.C.  “I feel that we just need to have a legal representative,” said LCUB General Manager Freddie Nelson.
Aikens noted Gilbert has worked with the utility board before, as well as the city — and that he has also stood in opposition of each.  According to Aikens, Gilbert represented Dixie Lee Utilities and then sometime later represented the Solid Waste Committee in suits against the city or LCUB.  “If you’re going to hire somebody,” he said, “hire somebody that doesn’t have a conflict.”  He later questioned why money, if it has to be spent, isn’t spent on finding a solution to the problem, not additional legal advice.

Aikens  also said he wondered why Littleton, being the city attorney, couldn’t represent the board versus “throwing money down the drain” on outside help.  Littleton’s role as LCUB’s second-in-command appeared to be the main conflict.

Board member Eddie Simpson asked what the problem was with postponing the decision to hire legal assistance since the Wamplers currently have only used an attorney (Jim Wright of the Knoxville-based legal firm Butler, Vines & Babb) to acquire documentation and information from LCUB.

According to John Edd Wampler, “First, we are not lawyers and therefore are not familiar with law as it relates to their actions.  Second, we do not have the time to dedicate to this issue while simultaneously having to evaluate all of our other options.

“Apparently they must think that the information they will be providing would prompt a lawsuit?”
Simpson went on to ask Nelson, “Is there anything else we can do here. . . ?”

The only thing that could be done, according to Nelson, is to take the rate increases off LCUB's two largest industrial customers and place it on the city’s commercial and residential customers, something he said he simply did not want to do.

Nelson pointed out the Family Brands companies have several violations against them, such as biochemical oxygen demand (BOD), among other things. As stated in a letter from Littleton to the board back in January, these violations are “the major cause of the $13.5-million sewer plant expansion” and has caused LCUB to violate its “National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit due to the BOD concentrations.”

John Edd Wampler admitted Elm Hill went over the permit allowance.  He said the BODs were at 1,217 pounds with a limit of 600 pounds in July and the company pays $1,000 or $2,000 a month in fines to clear it up when necessary. 

However, he made it clear his family recently purchased a water plant to begin treating its own water by relocating the materials from the plant to their site in Lenoir City, a measure the companies are undergoing while further decisions are made as to the future of the Wamplers in this area, not to mention the money saved treating their own water in the mean time.