Water Authority accused of bullying

The Water Authority has been accused of adoption bullying tactics to silence a customer that is questioning his water bill in court in what could be a landmark case.

Australian Attorney John Masters appeared in court Friday seeking an interim order that his water not be cut off pending the outcomes of his legal case against the Water Authority (see Compass 16 March).

But when the judge declared she didn’t have power to issue such an order prior to the trial, the authority almost immediately dispatched a technician to cut Mr. Masters’ water supply off.

The authority had also refused Mr. Masters’ offer to pay the disputed money – roughly $1,300 – to the court pending the outcome of the case.

Mr. Masters was cut off about 40 minutes after the hearing adjourned, despite the judge having asked the authority’s lawyer that Mr. Masters be given sufficient time after court to pay the bill. A notice left hanging on the door of the attorney’s George Town abode said the service had been cut off at 4.49pm.

Mr. Masters, a crown counsel in the attorney general’s chambers, said repeated calls to the authority to pay the bill between 4pm and the authority’s advertised closing time of 5pm went unanswered, as did emails to the authority.

Calls and emails to the authority’s senior management were also ignored throughout the weekend, leaving Mr. Master’s and his family without water until Monday. The lawyer is now accusing the authority of adopting ‘bully-boy’ tactics.

‘They are a statutory authority; this isn’t about payment of money for them, this is about them seeking revenge for me taking them to court,’ Mr. Masters told the Caymanian Compass Monday morning as he waited outside the authority to pay the bill – under protest – and have his water reconnected.

‘The family is devastated,’ he said of the experience. ‘My son that does community work couldn’t do it because he couldn’t shower after it. He couldn’t do his sporting activity. My wife was in tears because she just couldn’t believe that a service that is supposed to be for the people could turn on the people in the way they have.

‘She actually describes them as cruel and evil. It is absolutely amazing,’ he said.

Mr. Masters contrasted the 40 minutes it took the authority to cut him off with the eight hours he was told it would take to reconnect him when he paid the disputed account Monday morning.

He said the situation could have been avoided if the authority’s attorney, George Keightly, had been ready to deal with the matter at 10am Friday morning.

‘I consented to let them start in the afternoon and I was repaid by having my water disconnected,’ he said. ‘It’s absolutely unheard of.’

Water Authority Director Gelia Frederick-van Genderen declined an invitation from the Caymanian Compass to comment on the authority’s actions and hinted at legal action against the newspaper, claiming that ‘certain information that has been provided to the press … is of a materially misleading and incorrect nature.’

However, Mrs. Frederick-van Genderen turned down a Compass request to clarify what information it was she was referring to so that it could be corrected.

Her comments come after the authority on Friday failed in a bid to have a gag order imposed, preventing any media reports on the case. Asking for the order, Mr. Keightly said the case raises ‘a myriad of matters of public interest.’

He asked Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale not to grant an injunction preventing Mr. Masters from being disconnected until the end of the trial, arguing it would send the message that if you feel you have been overcharged you can demand a hearing and not have water cut off until the hearing has been determined.

‘It could lend itself to chaos on this island,’ Mr. Keightly said. ‘The Water Authority would go bust in a matter of months because everybody would stop paying.’

While Mr. Masters said he could not discuss the merits of his case before the court, he said there is more at stake than just the $1,300 from the two contested bills.

‘The situation at the moment is that you either pay up any amount they ask for or you get disconnected. They know that people have to pay up because people can’t live without water,’ he said.

Describing it as an important test case, he said ‘I’m only on the island for a short amount of time. I can leave and go back to another part of the world where they don’t have these sorts of problems. The poor people of Cayman have to live with this forever and something must be done.’

According to court documents, Mr. Masters’ claim centres on bills of $665 and $703 for the months of September and October 2008.

After the October bill, Mr. Masters’ water meter was sent off-island for testing and a new one was installed. While tests found the original meter to be working properly, his monthly bills have dropped with the new meter, to as low as $73 in December up to just under $350 in January.

Mr. Masters’ case against Cayman’s predominant water provider comes after the Caymanian Compass’s report on a Prospect man’s ordeal with a $2,325 one-month water bill prompted a barrage of complaints from other disgruntled authority customers.

The case is scheduled for trial on 24 April. Mr. Masters is representing himself in the matter.

Compass reporter Carol Winker contributed to this report.