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Power struggle in Huntertown

Amid dispute, council chops stipend for utilities board

Huntertown Council members and the town’s utilities board president clashed on several issues Monday, even before the council voted 3-2 not to offer a monthly $100 stipend to utility board members.

The vote came on the heels of lengthy discussions involving benefits and a take-home vehicle for the new utilities superintendent Don Papai, who started Jan. 1.

According to Indiana law, the utilities service board has hiring and firing power of the superintendent position as well as decisions involving salary and compensation, town attorney Dave Hawk said.

But some council members said they did not want to hand over authority to the utility board at this time.

The three-member board was appointed by the Town Council a year ago after residents voted in support of a referendum to create a new board that would have no more than one council member. The previous utilities board included all five council members.

“Just what authorization does the Town Council want to give to the utilities service board?” asked utilities board President Andrew Conner, who was in the audience.

Conner had interviewed and hired Papai, he said.

Conner was appointed in September and a second member, Doug McComb, was appointed two months later. The third seat has yet to be filled.

Several council members did not like the ordinance Hawk had prepared which gave authority to the utilities board on personnel issues regarding the superintendent position.

Based on Papai’s experience, the utilities board wanted to offer 15 days’ annual vacation time instead of the normal five days for a new employee. Papai spent 18 years working for the town of Avilla before becoming a trainer and consultant for Alliance of Indiana Rural Water.

Council members Gary Grant, Sue Gongwer and Jim Fortman said they were not against the offer, but did not like the open-ended agreement and wanted something “more specific” written up.

“We were not in on this offer and I think we should have been,” Grant said.

“I’m not ready to give up complete control to the utilities service board,” he said. “This is not about Papai, we are very excited to get him, but the utilities board has been rocky and unstable in the past year.”

Citing the same reason, all three voted against a pay stipend for utility board members.

“If the situation stabilizes, then I would look at it differently,” Gongwer said.

Fortman said maybe it was time to disband the board or put the matter to the voters.

“When we first discussed this, we said many times that the board members were volunteers and it was not going to cost the taxpayers anything,” Fortman said.

Board president Pat Freck replied that a total of $3,600 a year was an investment in the utilities board and the money would be taken out of the utilities fund, not taxpayer funds.

A majority of the council did approve a take-home vehicle for Papai, who lives in Avilla, with Fortman and Grant voting against the measure.

Papai replaces Tom Gongwer, who was the town’s superintendent for the past 10 years. He is married to council member Sue Gongwer.

There seemed to be quite a few changes in the town during the first month of the year, and there could be more, Freck said.

All five council members’ and the clerk-treasurer’s seats will be up for election this year.

“It’s possible that we could have all new members,” she said, “and since we appoint the utilities service board, that too, could change.”