New board takes over Freeland sewer district with velvet gloves

Voters cleaned house in the November election for the Freeland Water and Sewer District board, but with the installation of a new majority Monday, two new commissioners moved gingerly amid cushioned talk as they took steps to put the district’s house in order.

Marilynn Abrahamson

FREELAND — Voters cleaned house in the November election for the Freeland Water and Sewer District board, but with the installation of a new majority Monday, two new commissioners moved gingerly amid cushioned talk as they took steps to put the district’s house in order.

Lou Malzone was sworn in as a new commissioner and joined his campaign running mate Marilynn Abrahamson on the three-member board. The pair won office in a landslide after raising alarm over the incumbents’ handling of a controversial $40 million sewer expansion project in Freeland, but the tough talk of the campaign trail was gone like water through the pipes at Malzone and Abrahamson’s first meeting.

The new commissioners tried to cultivate a climate of congeniality as they took the reins on two onerous issues: consultant contracts and the district’s finances.

After Abrahamson and Malzone asked District Commissioner Eric Hansen to serve as president of the board — a surprise move — the discussion soon moved to items Abrahamson had added to the agenda.

First up, the transfer of grant money that had been allocated for the proposed $40 million sewer system. Abrahamson said she had learned that funding had been shifted from the sewer construction account to the district’s water operations and maintenance account.

“The commissioners didn’t know anything about it,” she said, adding that a recent transfer of funds amounted to $35,000.

The transfers are basically loans that should be paid back, Abrahamson said, and added that commissioners should be authorizing the transfers. She asked that all future transfers be first approved by commissioners.

Malzone praised the assistance that they had been given by the district’s accountants, and said they had been going over records that date back to 2004.

“Everybody should have confidence that every penny is there,” Malzone said, adding that a resolution covering the $35,000 transfer was “more or less a formality.”

Next came talk of the discovery that the district must pay back more than $500,000 it received from Island County that covered the costs of buying land on the former Trillium property for the sewer treatment project.

District officials received $563,822 in Rural County Economic Development funds from the county to pay for the land, but the state Department of Ecology later gave the district money, in 2010, to buy the property.

County officials have since asked for their money back, along with $2,368 in interest.

District officials noted that the returned funds would still be available for the district’s use on the sewer project, however.

Board members agreed to hold a special workshop next week to discuss the budget and other financial matters.

Last year, the sewer district’s leaders reversed course and abandoned their plan for a $40 million sewer system that would serve homes and businesses along the southern end of Holmes Harbor amid criticism that the project was too large and that residential property owners would unfairly shoulder most of the cost.

At Monday’s meeting, the board agreed to give a citizen’s advisory committee more time to come up with a new proposal. The committee has been working on a scaled-back version of the project, one that would center on Freeland’s downtown commercial core.

Commissioners voted to give the committee an extension until July to come up with a new plan.

On a more politically delicate topic, commissioners also discussed the consultant contract for Chet Ross, the president of the Freeland chamber who has served as a liaison on the sewer project with county, state and federal officials.

Ross attracted much criticism last year by opponents of the $40 million sewer plan, after news reports that Ross had spent grant funding dollars on expensive dinners for himself and fellow consultants.

Commissioners voted unanimously this week to terminate the contract, effective Feb. 15, but politely invited Ross to come up with a new agreement.

“I really value Chet’s service and I don’t want it to be taken it as a slight in any way,” Hansen said.

The two new commissioners said they expected to handle much of the liaison work themselves.

“We’ll be a more hands-on board,” Abrahamson explained.

Abrahamson also said the district appreciated the work that Ross had done in the past to pull together state grants and other funding for Freeland sewers, and that officials wanted to continue to tap his skills.

What was needed, she said, was the greater involvement of other Freeland chamber members.

“We need to have the involvement of the members and there really hasn’t been that kind of activity from the membership of the business community here,” she said.

Malzone said they met with Ross for about two hours — “Two hours and 10 minutes, but I wasn’t watching the clock,” Ross quipped — Monday afternoon in an extensive look back that went over more than seven years of history.

Malzone said a clear communication strategy was needed, and the district must give a better picture of how much outside money will be available, and when.

“So that no one has to look over their shoulder to see if some hammer is going to come down, because the financing isn’t there and we are all stuck with the bill,” Malzone said, “whether the bill will be applied to the commercial core, or any residential area.”

Ross said he was willing to come up with a new, and noted that the chamber would become much more active.

“I’ve got six years invested in this. I don’t want to quit now,” Ross said.

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