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Former water superintendent will not get jail time for Sebring contamination case

Jim Bates will pay a $500 fine, complete community service and go on probation

SEBRING, Ohio (WKBN) - A former Sebring water official who investigators say failed to let customers know about lead in their water in a timely manner will not have to go to jail, a judge ruled Friday.

It's been a better part of two years since anyone was seriously worried about the water in Sebring. In January of 2016, tests showed lead in seven out of 40 samples leading into people's homes.

On Friday in a Sebring courtroom, former water commissioner James Bates became the only person so far to be sentenced for what went wrong.

Bates showed up in Sebring Court Friday afternoon, prepared to accept the plea deal of the Ohio Attorney General's Office.

"The defendant will pay a fine of $500, court costs within 60 days of sentencing," said Assistant Attorney General Ken Egbert.

Bates also will serve 200 hours of community service and two years of probation. He will not go to jail.

Bates was originally charged with three counts -- two of which were dropped -- and he pleaded no contest to noncompliance to drinking water notification. Basically, he failed to let people know about the potential lead problem in a timely manner.

The delay led to Bates' removal from the position.

"So certainly, there was no malicious effort here on the part of Mr. Bates or anyone to harm anyone in Sebring or keep notification from them," said Bates' attorney, John Juhasz.

"To have it be unsafe and we've been consuming it this long, that's scary," a resident said in 2016.

Not long after Flint, Michigan's water issues became public, notices were issued about the possibility of lead in Sebring's water. The schools closed and bottled water was passed out.

Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials later claimed the Village of Sebring knew about the lead five months earlier.

In court on Friday, a lawyer for the Ohio Attorney General's Environmental Enforcement section admitted no major health issues ever occurred.

"There didn't turn out to be a substantial public health risk based on subsequent testing that occurred, several rounds," Egbert said.

Bates said little during the hearing, answering questions from Judge Patrica Cosgrove with either a "yes" or a "no."

There was, however, an exchange between the judge, Bates and his attorney over Bates' right to speak.

When Judge Cosgrove asked if Bates had anything to say, he told her, "I probably shouldn't."

His trial was supposed to begin on Monday but with the plea deal and sentencing on Friday, that will no longer happen.

Since the lead water crisis, Sebring has upgraded their equipment and new stricter guidelines have been implemented to alert customers of water abnormalities.

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