Former Clarksdale Public Utilities general manager Ray Luhring offered his insight regarding a current trio of administrative employees who are on suspension with pay pending an investigation.
CPU general manager Mark Johnson, chief financial officer Steve Reed and director of communications and public relations Chris Campos were all suspended on July 25 with wiretapping issues at the forefront of the controversy.
Luhring worked with Reed and called him a “fine upstanding professional” and disagreed with all three suspensions.
“Steve was actually one of my hires,” Luhring said. “He just stood out in the interviews that we conducted. He came across as a very trustworthy, very straightforward guy, extremely sharp. He just came across as a good guy.
“When we started working together, he and I just kind of clicked. He would do anything that you asked of him and he would research it well. He was honest and, if he thought there was an issue, he would bring it to you. Just a really good guy to work with.”
However, Luhring said some board members could not stay out of the day-to-day operations.
Luhring resigned in March 2017 following a lengthy speech to the CPU board about his many issues. Johnson succeeded Luhring in June 2017.
Luhring said the final straw was when he and Jim Hemphill from The Victor Group Inc. in Starkville conducted interviews for a communications and public relations position, which was new at the time. He said he and Hemphill agreed an African-American woman from Helena-West Helena, Ark., was by far the best candidate, but there were also a couple of local candidates. One, he noted, was a Caucasian male.
“I was actually called before the decision was made by one of the city commissioners and told that I needed to hire this individual,” Luhring said. “Then, when it came out that I wasn’t going to hire him and the decision was made to hire this other person, (CPU board member) George Miller called Jim Hemphill. Jim Hemphill called me on a Sunday and said, ‘Ray, George has called and he’s really upset that you’re not going to do this. If you refuse to hire this local individual, he says he’s already got the votes that he needs and he’s going to take care of you on Tuesday night.’
“I said, ‘What do you mean, take care of me?’ He says, ‘He’s going to fire you, Ray.’ I said, ‘That’s it, I’m done with these people.’ That’s what finally broke the camel’s back.”
Campos, who was hired several months later, currently holds the position.
Hemphill declined to comment and Miller’s only response was, “I’m just one vote out of five. I can’t hire or fire anybody by myself.”
CPU board member Donald Mitchell concurred with Miller’s statement, saying, as far as he knew, Luhring was in good employment status.
“Ray wasn’t fired,” Mitchell said. “He resigned. I’ve never been in a conversation like that (about firing him).”
Luhring, who is currently the superintendent of Falls City Utilities in Falls City, Neb., near his home, said he has never seen a board as dysfunctional as CPU in his 30 years in the utility business. Four of the board members took their seats after Luhring was hired, but the issues did not change for him.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take,” Luhring said. “I think you need to find a board that truly understands their role and knows what their responsibilities are as a board member. That’s set policy and things. It’s not to get involved in the day-to-day operations.
“If you can find board members that are willing to do that and do what’s best for the community and the rate payers and the employees, you just don’t have those problems. I’ve been the general manager at a lot of places and been in charge of the utility at a lot of places. Typically, those are the kind of boards you get. For some reason, in Clarksdale, it just doesn’t seem to work that way.”
Luhring said he enjoyed working for CPU and had a lot of time and energy invested in Clarksdale. He noted he got CPU involved in the Christmas parade and was an active member of the Elks Lodge.
Luhring referred to CPU board attorney David Hunt as a friend on the day of his resignation, but recently expressed mixed feelings.
“I did say that (Hunt was a friend) and David gave me some really good advice and helped me through some tough things as far as getting me familiar with the culture and different things in the South and Clarksdale,” Luhring said. “I was a Midwest boy. He did a really good job there.”
On other issues, however, Luhring said Hunt was a “kind of a stonewall” and made things more difficult than they needed to be.
“In my opinion, David thinks the board has a lot more power than they do,” Luhring said. “I think he was willing to let the board members reach into areas where they really shouldn’t be. Like I said, the day-to-day operations, the board members are supposed to stay out of that, but repeatedly they got involved. David knew they got involved and nothing ever got done. Until they change that, I think you’re going to see the same results.”
Hunt said he never knew Luhring felt that way. He referred to Luhring thanking him for his support and being a friend.
“It is not what I think the power of the commission is — it is what the statutes provide,” Hunt said. “Mississippi Code Section 21-27-17 states the commission shall ‘. . . elect such officers and appoint such employees as may be necessary to operate the system or systems efficiently, and it shall have the entire control and management of such system or systems, together with all property connected or appertaining in any manner to such system or systems. . . . It shall have the right to fix the salaries and term of office of all employees and to direct them in the discharge of their duties. . . .’
“The commission is the client of the commission attorney and the members as a body have the right (and the duty) to exercise these powers. It is not the prerogative of the commission attorney to restrain the Commission from exercising its authority just because the manager or I might think it best. While a better management model might grant the manager more flexibility or authority, the statutes have to be complied with as they exist.”