Last July, an elected official of downstate Arthur questioned why Village President Matthew Bernius wanted the town’s board to meet privately — rather than in an open public meeting — to discuss a consultant’s recommendation related to selling the local water and sewer system.
Even though Bernius began informal conversations in 2014 with Aqua America, a private company interested in buying municipal water systems, village officials at that point had not discussed the idea in public meetings, according to officials interviewed.
“This discussion needs to be private for the time being,” Bernius told the trustee Paul Pearce in a July 2015 email reviewed by the Better Government Association. “I would be more than happy to discuss this with you or anyone else if that would help.”
The email was sent just months after an Arthur resident and political rival of Bernius filed papers for a non-binding ballot issue that would ask residents if the village should go through with a possible sale. Last month, almost 80 percent of Arthur voters rejected the idea. Still, Bernius isn’t ruling out the potential sale, which he said may raise $5.6 million.
This “thing’s been done in secrecy,” said Rob Fustin, who ran against Bernius for village president in 2013. Fustin said he filed the ballot measure last year after he heard about private meetings about selling. “My thinking at that time was there was no open discussion about it. If they’re going to do that, before even considering selling the water, why don’t they ask the public?”
Bernius said the village now is considering hiring an engineering firm to see if the cost of infrastructure improvements exceeds what the town can afford. The village’s initial estimates of needed improvements range from $1.5 million to $3 million.
Infrastructure has “been overlooked for too many years. Water lines need to be fixed. [I get] complaints about having bad water,” Bernius said in an interview.
Trustees have until July to approve a tentative agreement with Aqua America, he said.
A review of village emails from 2015 and this year, obtained through an Illinois Freedom of Information Act request, show Aqua America’s Illinois representatives and Arthur officials engaged in active discussions about promoting the merits of a sale and the company was actively involved in the decision-making process.
Aqua suggested a consultant the town could hire to examine the water system, which it did, according to Bernius.
The consultant, Gerald Hartman, previously represented other government bodies and utilities, including Aqua, in similar purchases. Aqua also offered to pay the Florida-based consultant’s fees if the sale goes through.
The Pennsylvania-based company also funded a video about the possible sale that was linked from the village’s web site before the ballot issue.
The company also provided strategic marketing and public relations advice about the water sale. For instance, before Bernius sent a letter to the public about the potential sale, the village clerk emailed it to an Aqua official to see if he had “any corrections or additions that you’d like to see. You’re welcome to edit and return with highlights or redlines — then we can see what your desired changes are,” the village official wrote.In January, Arthur trustees voted to approve a tentative “asset purchase agreement” with Aqua — more than a month before consultant Hartman recommended selling.