Former sewer board member Barber speaks out
Former Paradise Sewer Board member Janice Barber listens while current PSB member Terry Caldwell goes over documents at a board meeting earlier this year. (Chuck Bandel/VP-MI)
Valley Press | September 21, 2022 12:00 AM
It is an issue that has in many ways torn apart a small town, pitting neighbor against neighbor in the great Paradise Sewer wars.
No one has been more at the forefront, or least was, than Paradise resident and former Paradise Sewer Board member Janice Barber.
She has remained largely silent in the months since she was removed from the board by other board members who say her own words and actions meant she had submitted her resignation.
And, after months of civic wrangling, current members of the Sewer Board, voted to accept her twice-rescinded resignation, bringing her time on the Paradise board to an abrupt end.
Barber claims she was trying to leave the board on her own, tired of the in-fighting and small-town politicking that was changing the town, possibly forever.
“I tried to quit several times, but the Commissioners (Sanders County) kept calling me, telling me I needed to stay on the board and keep working,” she said. “They (sewer project opponents) managed to stall the process so long that no one did anything. We had grant money back when this was started and could have had the thing done by now”.
In the process, Barber, who said she was anti-sewer in the beginning, engaged in several heated debates with other board members.
“I was anti-sewer,” she said. “I wanted to see what was going on with the whole thing and went to a board meeting. I could see they (opponents) were the problem. In the process I got beat up all around. I tried to get off the board and called the commissioners letting them know that was what I intended to do and they talked me into staying”.
During several meetings toward the end of her time on the PSB, she engaged in well-attended public meetings which often disintegrated into angry, tense exchanges between her and board member Terry Caldwell.
“I did call him a misogynist A-hole and Dewey (board member Dewey Arnold) a drunk because at that time I had just had it with their b.s.” Barber said. “The proponents were looking to find a board which would vote 5-0 against the sewer project and that’s what they got. How can you have a board where everyone on it is against what the board was created to do?”
Recent claims by sewer project opponents that $50,000 is missing and due and payable to the Paradise Water District are false and misleading, she said.
In the early days of the PSB, the Water District “lent” the PSB a contested total of $50,000, which the Water Board says it wants to be paid back to the Water District.
That total is actually more like $15,000, Barber said. And she notes the financial dealings were the work of a Water District board and the PSB who were separate entities but were each staff by the same set board members.
“In the beginning,” she said, “the Sewer Board borrowed and paid back $10,000 to the Water District. The money was for basic start-up expenses. Later in the process, the Water District contracted to do $25,000 for a project feasibility study. The rest of the $50,000 was due to a loan to the Sewer Board in the amount of $15,000, to be repaid when the sewer was up and running and collecting funds for the service”.
That amount, she said, remains in limbo because the project never got going and therefore no funds to repay the $15,000 were ever collected.
Several of the parties involved, Barber said, have records and other documents detailing those financial goings on.
Barber says much of the blame for the project’s at least temporary demise lies on the shoulders of two outspoken sewer foes, Katy French and Lee Ann Overman, both of whom emerged as unofficial leaders of the no sewer movement.
“A lot of this is about the construction of a convenience store,” she claimed. “Katy and her husband have been trying for years to build a recreational vehicle park just outside of town. That would have been in competition with a convenience store Bridger Bischoff wanted to include in his development.”
Bischoff has long wanted to build a multi-unit housing project on land he owns on several acres along the northern edge of Paradise, which is an unincorporated town. Opponents of the project have long contended that Bischoff would be getting a “free” sewer for his proposed development the way it was originally outlined.
Not so, says pro-sewer folks.
“Katy is a very smart person who can and does talk circles around everyone,” Barber said.
Barber also said her last confrontation with Caldwell involved a meeting she helped set up between Bischoff and others connected to the project, angered Caldwell, who accused the small group of holding a secret meeting without consent.
Over the mostly contentious recent days that followed, the two sides battled back and forth, often with the meetings ending in stalemates where nothing else was accomplished. At one point, sheriff deputies were called to remove Barber and former PSB member Don Stamm after one meeting adjourned and Barber and Stamm stayed inside the building.
That, according to French and Overman, was against board rules in that they were having an unauthorized meeting.
That encounter ended peacefully when Barber agreed to leave after telling the deputies there was no PSB business being discussed and that she had rented the meeting site with her own money.
“These people are not being truthful about the funds involved,” Barber alleged. “This project will get done eventually and when it does, everyone will have to pay more than we could have already done this for. They talked and talked the whole time and got what they wanted”.
That may well be a costly move, she said.