JWC attorney threatens to sue councilwoman over water criticisms

WINNSBORO – Bertha Goins is used to being in hot water with the Jenkinsville Water Company.

A frequent critic of the organization, the Fairfield County Council vice-chair has called out the JWC on a variety of issues, ranging from finances to transparency.

Goins has also publicly stated she thinks the JWC should be absorbed by a recently formed joint Fairfield County-Town of Winnsboro water authority.

And recently, in interviews in The Voice and The State about JWC’s water woes, she’s taken aim at Jenkinsville water quality.

A JWC attorney is fighting back, challenging her assertions that there’s sediment in the water and issuing a cease and desist order to block Goins from further criticizing the water company.

On March 28, T. Jeff Goodwyn, an attorney with the Goodwyn Law Firm, which represents the JWC, issued the cease and desist letter threatening to sue Goins.

“If you continue to make such false and defamatory statements, I have been instructed to take all legal steps to enforce my client’s rights including filing suit against you, for injunctive relief, slander and defamation seeking all damages allowed by law,” the letter states.

At Monday night’s Fairfield County Council meeting, Goins said the letter is an attempt at intimidation. Speaking via speakerphone, Goins was defiant and doubled down on her criticisms of the JWC.

“I’m going to send a copy of this letter to many people, but I’m going to first send it to the attorney bar association to find out if this is an ethics violation,” Goins said. “Is this a freedom of speech violation to stifle my rights or is it a personal threat?”

Goins went on to say her husband has been ill for two months, and questioned whether Jenkinsville water quality might be to blame. As for the cease and desist letter, she said it only emboldens her.

“I want to thank you because you’ve given me a megaphone,” she said.

Jeff Schafer, a Fairfield County resident speaking during public input at Monday evening’s Council meeting, also questioned the logic of threatening litigation.

“He [Board chairman Greg Ginyard] is an elected official and our elected officials [the JWC board] have a monopoly on the town of Jenkinsville,“ Schafer said. “We all have a constitutional right to free speech.”

Jay Bender, an attorney with the S.C. Press Association, said it’s it illegal to take public bodies like the Jenkinsville Water Company to task over issues of public importance.

“You can criticize a governmental body all you want without being subject to liability,” Bender said.

The JWC has routinely claimed it’s not a public body despite being formed by an act of the state legislature and receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from the local, state and federal governments.

In a 2010 opinion, S.C. Attorney General asserted that the JWC is a public body. In recent court filings, the Jenkinsivlle Water Authority has claimed that it’s not a public body.

“They’ve been confused for years up there,” Bender said.

The JWC pushback comes following dual investigative reports in The Voice and The State newspapers.

According to public records obtained by The Voice, the JWC was cited three times in a five-year period by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

In a letter to its members, the JWC disputed media reports about water quality, saying that Jenkinsville water is among the best in the state.

The letter also pushed back on the recently created joint Fairfield County, Town of Winnsboro water authority.

It accuses government officials of trying to jack up water rates by 100% to 150%, and says further that Jenkinsville will never join the authority.

“JWC has no interest in being absorbed by a bigger water system,“ the letter says. “When smaller water companies are taken over by a larger water system, that historically results in rate increases between 100% and 150%. We are committed to not letting this happen to JWC members.”

County and town officials have never stated any desire to absorb the JWC. The authority’s stated purpose is to enhance infrastructure at the I-77 mega site as a means to attract more major industry.

As for water rates, growing the water authority would actually cause them to decrease, Goins said.

“That is a foolish thing that anybody could say,” Goins said. “The more people involved, the lesser the cost and the better the benefits.”

Story was updated 4/10/19 at 2:49 p.m.