Twenty years of experience in counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and intelligence can be enough to encourage one to take life easy for awhile—it was certainly enough to get Mike Lewis ready for a comfortable, trouble-free retirement. So when he and his wife, Patricia, moved into a quiet neighborhood in Sandia Park last year, they bought a couple dozen chickens, a handful of dogs and cats, planted a small orchard, and waited for the simple life to begin. Unfortunately, simplicity wasn't what was in store for them.
In fact, the Lewis' worry-free existence only lasted a total of 20 minutes, because upon moving into their new house they were confronted with a rather irritating problem. Over the course of 10 months, this odd inconvenience would snowball until, finally, it would come to a head as a lawsuit. Here's a little background.
Residents in the East Mountains, and in Sandia Park, get their water in one of two ways: They dig a well, or they join a local water co-operative, in which case homes are serviced through pipelines. In the area where the Lewis' live, there are some of both, and around 58 homes that belong to the local water co-op, the Old Sandia Park Service Cooperative, a nonprofit entity that's been in its current form since 1965. Since then, all users have been considered equal in the eyes of the system, in as much as they all paid the same annual rates, they were all granted equal voting rights, and they were all referred to as “members.” Then things started to change.
Starting in 2001, incumbent board members for the co-op's board of directors started to leave, and new board members took their place. Eventually, by 2003, the board consisted entirely of new members. Right around that time, policies started to shift. One of the first changes came in 2004 when the annual fees for users went up, and in an unpredictable way. The year before, in 2003, fees, which are used to cover the cost of the system, totaled $225 a year, where they had stayed since 2001, when they were $188. That figure had remained constant since 1996, and before that the fees were $172. As can be inferred, the rate had gone up slowly over the years, as most things do. In 2004 the rate went up again, to $300 a year for members, but—and here's where things get shaky—a new category for users was also created, or at least referred to that year, a category titled “courtesy users,” and these folks were required to pay $600 a year for the same service they had always been provided, some for over 40 years.
The difference between “members” and “courtesy users” as the board explained it lay in how people were initially connected to the system. Members, upon joining, paid an initial sum and signed over their water rights to the co-op, who then, in exchange for yearly fees, maintained the system. Courtesy users, however, had an opportunity to join when a water line was already running near or through their property. In this case, they were allowed to sign on to the system and use the local water line. No new members have joined since 1973—and, since then, everyone's been treated equally.
The change in classification caused problems, because everyone on the system had always been referred to as members, and all had thought of themselves as members, and no one had ever heard of “courtesy users.” Furthermore, the board of directors neglected to send out explanations to folks in the community, only going so far as to send out statements to everyone declaring how much they needed to pay that year, failing to mention that not everyone was paying the same rate. Therefore, some people received statements titled “Dear Member,” while others received statements titled “Dear Courtesy User.” Most people found the situation to be a little strange but continued to pay their bills.
Then, on move-in day last March, a board member approached Mr. Lewis to explain to him that he wasn't a member, but a courtesy user, and that his water could be shut off at any time, subject to the board's discretion. This concerned Lewis because one of the selling points of the house was that it had a membership to a water co-op, and the seller, who had lived in the house for 25 years, had always been treated as a member. In fact, the seller, Chris Weis, was present at this particular moment and says that he told the board member that he was a member, at which point he was told that he was wrong. That's where the snowball started.
To make a long story short, Lewis continued to pay his rates as though he was a member, after repeated failed attempts to get documentation from the board proving that he was not one. The board refused to cash his checks, and last month they gave him 24 hours notice that they were going to shut off his water, without a court order or any attempt at arbitration. They left this notice with the knowledge that Lewis' attorney had left town for an extended period of time just the night before.
So on the morning of Feb. 23 the board cut off Lewis' water, going so far as to not only turn his valve off, but to actually dig into the ground and sever his water line. Carl Houseman, the board member who physically cut off Lewis' line, was also accompanied by two deputies, apparently worried that Lewis, with his extensive training and military experience—he served in Vietnam—might harm him.
Lewis, who is 100 percent disabled, and his wife, who is partially disabled and a breast cancer survivor who now works as a high school teacher, also worked for over 10 years as missionaries and pastors around the country. They primarily lived on Indian reservations where they would work with different faiths, establish churches, and coordinate international exchange programs between different native tribes worldwide. Because they both had suppressed immune systems, and because their chickens, which could only survive a number of days without water, were in jeopardy, along with their other animals, the Lewis' went to court.
According to Mr. Lewis, the court reprimanded the co-op, and ordered them to repair the damages they had wreaked on Lewis' water line. They immediately fixed his line, but weeks later still have not filled in the holes incurred through their work, which cover over 50 feet of land. Currently, a lawsuit is underway that will require the board to prove who is and who isn't a member, among other things. By the time of the court date, which is expected to come in six to 12 months, Lewis believes that many more neighbors will join in the lawsuit. Currently, nine more families have agreed to join.
The Alibi tried without success to get the board's take on this controversy. Two board members, Carl Houseman and Lynne Nicholson, as well as the co-op's attorney, Mel B. O'Reilly, all declined to comment for this story because the lawsuit has not yet been settled.
Someone who was willing to speak up, however, is Michael Moran, another area resident who has been classified as a courtesy user. Moran, who has lived in his home for eight years, considered himself a member, and was always regarded as a member by the co-op, until last spring. When he received a letter one day that referred to him as a courtesy user, and which stated that he could lose his water at any time under the board's discretion, he wrote a letter asking for clarification. In his letter he asked the board to reconsider their actions and to provide evidence as to different homes' classifications. He also asked that if indeed he was not a member, to please be added as such. According to Moran, his request was denied and no mention was made to providing evidence or documentation. “My biggest concern is that one day courtesy users could pay the board, and the next day they could get disconnected without any warning,” says Moran.
Lewis and Moran are also both concerned about other changes that the board is making to the co-op's bylaws. This January, for instance, the board doubled the number of members from five to 10, the legitimacy of which is questionable, both argue. Because the number of board members is now so high, and declared “courtesy users” can no longer vote, the board makes up a large percentage of the members of the co-op, which means that they can change bylaws without the consent of other outside members. This means that the co-op is, essentially, under the complete control of the board.
Lewis and Moran are also worried about what the board is doing financially. They say that in 2003, members voted to purchase extra tanks for the system, as well as fix a faulty water line. Now, in 2005, the tanks have been purchased but not hooked up to the system, the faulty line hasn't been touched, and, instead, new water lines have been put in that feed into the board members' homes.
As far as whether those who have been declared as courtesy users truly are such, that matter will be left to the courts. At this point, the board has yet to provide documentation that backs up their claims. Additionally, there is some evidence that may prove that Lewis really is a member. The fact that his water line ends with him, for instance, leaves one perplexed as to why else a line would exist on his property if it wasn't already going to a different home.
As to what Lewis wants? To be left in peace, he says. “We've spent most of our lives fighting injustice in one way or the other, whether we were pastors or law enforcement or whatever, and believe me, there's a lot of injustice in the world. And suddenly, you're faced with this injustice against yourself, and you're forced to fight,” he says, “I've paid a good price both to my country and my communities for what I've done, and I'm not just going to stand by and get run over when I just want to retire and rest.”
Maybe when this whole thing is settled, he'll finally be able to.