ELIZABETHTON — After laboring for nearly a decade to bring two new water projects on line, Michael Hughes has stepped down from his leadership of the Watauga River Regional Water Authority with the projects 85 percent complete.
Hughes cited stress-related health problems for his resignation in a letter to the water authority’s board of directors. The letter was dated Tuesday
The board voted 4-1 on Tuesday to accept his resignation and to place Bryon Trantham as the interim director. Trantham was recently hired to operate the nearly completed water treatment plant.
Elizabethton Mayor Curt Alexander cast the dissenting vote. “My vote is not against you,” Alexander told Trantham. “I have always supported Michael and when I think of the Watauga River Regional Water Authority I will always think of Michael.”
Hughes wrote in his letter that he had been honored to take on the job of bringing “safe modern water supplies to my home community” but it was with sadness he had to resign.
“This effort has taken an immense amount of my energies, and my health has suffered as a result,” Hughes wrote. “My heart and soul are in these projects, and I believe that for them to succeed to their fullest potential, the director should be able to work at full capacity and with maximum effort. At this point in my life, with my own health and immediate family issues pressing upon me, I believe with all my heart that I need to make a life change.”
Board Chairman Johnny Mills understood Hughes’ reasons. He suffered a massive heart attack during the time he served as chairman.
“This project has been the single most complex, most aggravating thing I have ever done,” Mills said. “This has taken a toll on a lot of people.”
In the letter, Hughes described the period when he was the manager of the Johnson City Environmental Field Office of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation back in 1998. He said Elizabethton and Carter County were struggling with a recent drought and water treatment problems.
He said encouragement from the state and strong leadership from then County Executive Truman Clark and then state Rep. Ralph Cole led to the formation of a regional water authority and he was greatly honored to have been chosen to initiate the effort.
The project eventually became a three-prong effort to improve water problems for Carter Countians. The main project was to build a water treatment plant on Wilbur Lake, which he said many considered impossible. Another project was to bring safe public water to the citizens of Little Milligan and Fish Springs. Both of those projects are 85 percent completed. His third effort was to bring the financially troubled North Elizabethton Water Co-op under the water authority’s umbrella.
Mills said “we would not be here today if it was not for Michael. He is the one who knew the lay of the land, the right buttons to push ... when we complete this, I hope he will stand there and get his picture taken with us.”
Ironically, despite the feelings for the resigning director, the board had to terminate his pay at the end of the current pay period, which was today. Mills said a copy of Hughes’ contract could not be located to determine any severance pay or other benefits that the authority might be obligated to pay him.
The board’s attorney said it was up to Hughes to produce a copy of his employment contract so he could be paid what was owed him.
In other matters, Douglas Unger, consulting engineer for the water treatment plant, said all steps of the bond money for the last phase of financing for the the project have been completed except the last one. That was the bond counsel’s approval of the contacts with the member utility districts and the city of Elizabethton. That is expected to take another 30 to 60 days.
He said completion of the water plant should be six months after the bond issue. The plant can be operated with temporary pumps already approved by the board until the raw water intake is completed. That project, which has run into an unsuitable sandy bottom, will not be complete for some time after the water plant is finished.
The Fish Springs well project is expected to be completed in May. Mills said an informational meeting needs to be set up soon with the future customers so they will have some lead time to get ready for the service.