By John Schaffner

Six Atlanta taxpayers won a legal battle with the city of Atlanta and its Department of Watershed Management (DWM) recently that supposedly guarantees the city will not shut off a resident’s water if a dispute has been filed over a customer’s bill.

While the order from Fulton Superior Court Judge Marvin Arrington rules in favor of the six plaintiffs, it provides them with no specific monetary relief nor does it stipulate any specific penalties or actions against DWM if the department continues to turn off water to residences after an appeal has been filed.

The Oct. 2 court order clearly states the city and DWM are “enjoined from terminating the water and/or water service” of any residential customer based solely on the “customer’s failure to pay a water bill assessment, advance payment, or charge” if the “customer’s account is in dispute or if an appeal is pending.”

However, the court order clearly states the city may terminate service if a customer fails to pay a bill that has not been disputed or appealed or who has exhausted any right to appeal to the city’s Water and Sewer Appeals Board.

Judge Arrington also ordered DWM to maintain a dedicated telephone number “for at least the next three calendar months [through December 2009]” to provide customers whose accounts are in dispute “an opportunity to speak with a specially trained [DWM] employee … who has authority to address the customer’s dispute by offering the customer, if appropriate, a full or partial adjustment to the customer’s account.”

If no one is available at DWM to take a customer’s call, the order requires that the department respond to the customer’s message within one business day.

The court order further provides that, if a customer does not feel the dispute has been properly resolved, that customer has the right to request a meeting with DWM staff, which must be scheduled within 30 days of the request.

Judge Arrington ordered that the court will oversee the implementation of the order by reviewing monthly status reports identifying the total number of disputes and appeals pending at the beginning of each month and remaining pending as of the first of the following month.

The plaintiffs and the city agreed to the court order in a good faith effort to expedite the processing of pending water/sewer billing disputes and appeals. Therefore, the court will not hold DWM in contempt for minor violations of the deadlines set forth in the order.

It may be a court order without strong teeth, but after months of waiting it can be claimed as a victory by the plaintiffs John Benator, Lori Ebert, Kristen Edwards, Nannette Fisher, J.D. Godbout and Lisa Webb and their legal representatives, the Parsons Law Group of Atlanta.