Three court rulings and nearly $13,000 in legal costs later, the business relationship between Bull Swamp Water Co. and the Town of North is no more.
There is little agreement on how things got to that point in a dispute dating to 2016.
First Circuit Judge Ed Dickson ruled April 25 that the western Orangeburg County rural water district serving about 1,000 customers was within its legal right to void an agreement with the town under which North provided services including accounts payable, walk-in payment collections and monthly financial reports.
In a counterclaim to a lawsuit filed by Bull Swamp against North Mayor Patty Carson, Carson was seeking payment from the water district for six months from September 2016 until February 2017 at $2,400 a month. Though the town had ceased providing financial information to the water district for July and August of that year, it provided some services and was paid for those months, according to the court order.
Dickson ruled the money for the additional months was not owed because North stopped providing the services, after which the water district sought a court order to take possession of its checkbook and other financial information in the hands of North as a result of a 2014 contract.
“I find that the Defendant and/or the Town of North would be unjustly enriched if they were compensated by BSRW for services that it is not capable or willing to provide,” Dickson wrote in his order.
Carson directed the services under the contract be halted in 2016. She testified that she felt the town was going beyond the requirements for reporting in the contract, according to the court order.
Dickson stated the water district provided adequate notice of termination of the agreement and was within its right to do so after Carson would not turn over the checkbook and financials. The water district then took its case before Dickson, who ruled the town must provide the materials to BSRW.
But that order did not stand.
Second Circuit Judge Jack Early vacated the Dickson order upon a filing by West Columbia attorney Jake Moore Sr. representing Carson as mayor. The decision was based on Carson never being served with a summons in the Bull Swamp lawsuit.
By that time, the checkbook and financials had been turned over to the water district, which paid North for July and August 2016 but rejected the claim that it owed for more months.
“We’re not going to pay you for nothing,” the water district’s attorney Paul Owen of Columbia said. He also expressed disbelief that Carson would withhold services and then not cooperate in turning over to the water district the checkbook and financials needed for it to operate on its own.
As noted by Dickson in his order, that put the district in jeopardy of not being able to meet regulations with the purchase of chemicals needed for water treatment.
“To place 1,000 people in jeopardy by not letting them treat their water is just insane,” Owen said.
‘Town has been vindicated’
Mayor Carson declined to further address reasons for ceasing services for Bull Swamp. Nor would she comment on the judge’s statement that the action put the water district at risk of not being able to meet its regulatory obligations for water treatment.
But the mayor said the town will abide by the judge’s order.
“The court did not give us a monetary judgment against Bull Swamp,” she said. “We believe the town should have been compensated for what Bull Swamp did, however, the court saw fit not to compensate the town.”
Carson said the real issue is Bull Swamp Water Co. taking the matter to court initially.
“Of more importance is that Bull Swamp violated the law by obtaining the original temporary injunction,” Carson said. “We feel that the town has been vindicated by the court’s finding that the original injunction was issued in violation of state law.”
The mayor’s attorney Moore said Carson was justified in seeking the payments and in moving to clear her name and the town’s.
“I do not understand why they were not required to pay for the six months,” Moore said. The contract allowed for cancellation but stipulated that charges would continue for that period.
Moore said the water district stated it would pay for those months.
“They basically promised the town they would pay. They promptly broke the promise,” Moore said. “They violated the contract. They violated what they promised to do.
“I still don’t understand why they were not made to keep their word,” Moore said.
The root of the conflict was North informing Bull Swamp that the water district was receiving services beyond the amount being charged, he said. “North did not stop procedures until Bull Swamp told them to stop.”
Moore said the mayor did not refuse to turn over the district’s checkbook.
“She would not give it to just anybody,” he said, adding that the water district sent a person without verifiable credentials. “We cannot give paperwork to a person we do not know has authority.”
Instead of sending an appropriate party to retrieve the checkbook, “what they did was sue,” Moore said.
“Bull Swamp went to the court and did not bother to tell the judge they had never served anything on the Town of North,” Moore said. “If he (Dickson) had known the truth ... I doubt very seriously he would have signed that order.”
Moore moved to vacate the order and sued Bull Swamp for not paying money for the additional six months.
“They got a court order that was illegal. We want our opportunity to be heard,” he said. “The mayor felt like the town had to be vindicated.”
Moore questioned why the Bull Swamp lawsuit was brought in the name of Carson as mayor and not against the town.
“Why did they sue the mayor and why did they not follow the required procedure?” he said. “It appeared to me as if someone was trying to make a political point.”
Moore said the matter will cost the town about $7,000 in legal fees – “most of it incurred trying to fix the nonsense.”
‘Did not violate any law’
Bull Swamp attorney Owen said the water district went to court initially only to obtain its checkbook and financial records. North would not provide them, he said.
Following Dickson’s order that the checkbook and financials be turned over to Bull Swamp, Owen said he received a letter from North town attorney Chasity Avinger requesting dismissal of the action and payment from the water district for six more months, he said.
Since Bull Swamp by then had its checkbook and financial data, “it seemed a bit redundant and mean to then serve the mayor with the summons and complaint as we thought the matter was essentially closed," Owen said. "Bull Swamp did not violate any law whatsoever in obtaining its relief. At worst, it did not follow procedure in not personally serving Mayor Carson.”
Owen said that before he could dismiss the case, the motion was filed to vacate the Dickson order.
“The vacation of the ex parte order did not change the status of the parties in the action because Bull Swamp was not required to return the checkbook or the financial info or to pay the Town of North for services not rendered,” he said. “Therefore in light of judicial economy, we did not seek to reinstate the order and just proceeded to defend Mayor Carson's counterclaim.”
‘Sit down and work it out’
Bull Swamp Rural Water Co. President Glenn Mack said the entire dispute was unnecessary.
“The last thing I ever want to do is get involved with the court,” Mack said. “Let’s sit down and work it out.”
That did not happen, and the case cost the water district $5,800 in legal fees, though the outcome means BSRW will not be paying up to $14,000 that North said it was owed, Mack said.
He confirmed Carson indicated shortly after taking office in early 2016 that she was not satisfied with the contract, stating the water district was getting more in services than it was paying for.
The BSRW board then voted to provide a six-month notice of cancellation as provided in the contract. The understanding was “that North was fine with that,” Mack said.
But when North ceased services for July and August, the BSRW board voted to no longer honor the contract, he said. BSRW then sought relief via the courts in getting its checkbook and other materials.
The water district was later notified that North was seeking payment for the remainder of the contract, Mack said.
“I thought it was pretty clear cut that we did not owe them,” he said, but it took a court order to establish that.
Bull Swamp customers now can pay their bills in North at R&J Drugs, Mack said. And the water district has hired a person to handle paying of bills and other fiscal matters. She works on Saturdays.