Residents of Mayes County's floodplain made a huge show of support at the Floodplain Board meeting Monday. Extra chairs were brought in to accommodate supporters of of Ryan and Bryan Ball.
The board met two weeks ago following a written complaint by Ron Coats saying that Commissioner Ryan Ball and his brother Bryan Ball were in violation of the floodplain ordinance by making changes to their property without the necessary permits.
Since that meeting, rumors have surfaced of personal vendettas between board members and the Ball family, vendettas that could have directly impacted the board's action plan. There were rumors of business connections within the board and outside entities that could have influenced the decision of certain board members. There was speculation that Coats, having sued fire departments in Ball's district, could be fueling this investigation and rumors that board chairman Mike Sisemore hired Coats to make the complaint.
The meeting began with a permit request from flood plain resident Frankie Bates. He submitted a permit request for work on his property, which is two miles west of Locust Grove. The work was essentially cleaning brush out of the creek and sloping the bank. The board reviewed his request and the accompanying pictures, noting it appeared the work has already been done. The board voted to approve issuing Bates a permit.
Next the board took up the matter of Ball’s property alterations.
“There's been some confusion over the motion that was made and some questions asked,” said Sisemore. “So here are some facts to clear things up. It's a fact that we received a written complaint so this board has no choice but to act. It is a fact that we have never ignored a written complaint and it does not matter who files said complaint.”
Sisemore said the scope of the work done on Ryan Ball's property was without the board’s knowledge which was why the assistance of an engineer was requested. Sisemore said it is a fact that the studies listed in the original motion were not of the board's creation, they are studies commonly done by engineers. He said this is not the first time the board has used an engineer. Sisemore asked the other board members if they agreed that his list of facts are true and correct, which they did.
Emergency Management Director Johnny Janzen was called on to provide the board with an update of his findings. Janzen said the information and pictures were sent to an un-biased engineer who sent them to an expert in Dallas, Texas. The expert will review the information then make a written suggestion of what, if any, studies need to be done and what the cost would be. Janzen said the engineers saw no change to the footprint of the floodplain.
“I'm very disappointed. I think personal issues have been brought in and I don't appreciate being involved in them, “ said board member Bucky Franklin.
“If you have a personal vendetta, don't use this board as a venue to deal with it. That's not the purpose of this board.”
“I picked this [ordinance] up, I'm remiss for not having it last week but they don't make a hell of a lot of sense to me,” said Franklin.
“Really, Ryan signed this thing then violated it, sure. But what bugs me is that all county officials, all elected officials, have a ton of these to read and understand and sign. If I were him I would have seen that the Flood Plain Board signed off on it, the secretary cleared it and other commissioners signed it; I would have just signed it. They don't have time to read all this and unless you've been in that situation you don't understand,” said Franklin.
“I'm a property owner and there's a creek that runs through my property just like everyone here. I understand wanting to handle things on your property yourself. But if we don't handle this and it gets turned in to FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), hundreds of people could lose their federally-backed floodplain insurance and commissioners would lose millions in disaster funding,” said Janzen. “Plus, we could find out from the engineer that nothing needs to be done and we got worked up about nothing.”
“What we don't need is this guy [Ron Coats] who was hired by Mike Sisemore, driving around pointing fingers. Sell me a permit and I'll get it fixed,” said Bryan Ball.
Bryan Ball Sr., Ryan and Bryan Ball's father, told the board Bryan bought the property as-is and that if the board would simply issue him a permit, the issue would be resolved in 60 to 90 days.
“We've dissolved into a discussion about changing the ordinance but the topic now is to act on the situation at hand,” said Sisemore.
“Act, not over-react,” said one of the neighbors present, lending her support.
“What happens if we get info back and the study is going to be $100,000, then what do we do? File a suit on Bryan?” said Franklin.
Another board member told Franklin he was out of line, and un-realistic.
“I'm talking now,” said Franklin, raising his voice and attempting to regain control of the floor. “Who's going to pay it? I want to know.”
“What's bothering me is that we just gave Mr. Bates a permit understanding that he'd already done some work and this is the very same thing,” said board member Ron Hilton. “I don't know how to get around this without losing FEMA. I'm just a common guy, but this is bugging me. I think permits need to be issued.”
Flood plain residents chimed in, thanking him for being the voice of reason.
Janzen said that in drafting the ordinance words like ‘excavation’ are used but there is no way of knowing how strictly the government will adhere to the definition, and what definition applies.
“Are they going to hold us to the letter of the law? I don't know. But FEMA doesn't know these people, they don't care,” said Janzen.
In an attempt to resolve the issue, Franklin suggested an entirely new motion be made.
“Really, we need to resolve this, not drag it out for months. A mountain was made out of a molehill here. A big deal was made where it didn't need to be,” said Franklin.
Hilton suggested turning the issue over to the county commissioners for their input but Ryan Ball said that would make the situation even more political than it already is.
“I'm not a voting member, so let me ask you this,” said Janzen. “If Bryan Ball had asked for a permit for this would we have given him one?”
The board agreed they would have.
“So would it be a reasonable request that we issue him a permit now, and let him finish his work,” said Janzen. “I just think we need to handle it just like we would for everyone else,”
Sisemore said the board has differentiated between individuals who knew about the ordinance and individuals who did not.
“You just won't let it go will you, Mike? You've already said that Ryan's property was a non-issue,” said Bryan Ball Sr.
A motion passed to rescind the original motion requiring engineer services and studies.
Deputies from the sheriff's office stepped in asked to calm the crowd.
A motion was made to rescind the original motion requiring engineer services and studies. With a second and unanimous votes the motion was approved but the citizens had more to say.
“From listening to you all, I'd say you don't know any more than I do having lived out there 50 years. How do you decide when you require an engineer? You're opening yourself for a bad situation by picking and choosing,” said one flood plain resident, who lives on a different creek from the Ball family.
“Let's say all this is over and we've resolved everything and finished the projects. Then let's say someone like, I don't know, Ron Coats, drives by and sees the road is flooded and files a complaint. Do we have to get an engineer and start all over?” asked another citizen.
Sisemore said the original motion was discussed prior to the meeting.
“So you didn't discuss it as a board, you came up with it on your own,” the citizen said, to which Sisemore said no, the members did discuss it as a board. “You'll have to pick one or the other.”
Another citizen pointed out Bates was issued a permit with very little discussion, and it appears Ball's situation was the same but was being treated much differently.
Several flood plain residents asked if just anyone can file a complaint and whether consideration would be given to where the individual lives or whether a bias could exist.
The board made and approved a motion to have a planning meeting to consider re-wording the ordinance to avoid future problems.