Letter to the Editor: They’re Caught In A 1960’s Time Warp

Los Alamos

If you’re paying attention to the ongoing battle over the utilities charter amendment, Question 2 on the upcoming ballot, you may wonder at the fervor of those who oppose the amendment. All are former members of the utilities board (Wismer calls them Utilities Board Alumni, or UBA), or former managers of the utilities department. 

Three Charter Review Committees (1994-1995, 2010-2012, 2013) recognized problems including accountability and liability, ambiguous language, the need for a process of dispute resolution between the council and a too-independent utilities board, and the lack of consistency with state law. Each committee recommended changes to the charter. The council adopted most of the recommendations of the committees and added a few more of their own.

The UBA, current board members, and present and former utilities managers were consulted by each committee and the council and overwhelmingly and consistently opposed every change – insisting in the face of every indication to the contrary that the charter is just fine as is.  What’s going on here?

In their zeal to protect the utilities revenues from raids by elected officials, the authors of the charter went a little too far. They wove an impermeable cocoon of independence that has shielded the utilities department and its board from outside influences positive and negative, and that has resulted in their co-evolution into a clubby, stagnant little klatsch within the county government. It’s a structure that impedes change, ignores good business practices, and that encourages the utilities board to make decisions with near-total disregard for their impact on the public. Witness the tone-deaf, poorly-considered proposal to place wells in residential areas in White Rock, and the failure to raise electric and water rates soon enough to replace deteriorating infrastructure, so that now the reserves are being depleted  and even higher increases are needed. 

In their short-sighted dedication to keeping rates low, the board and the department are allowing the residential utilities infrastructure to turn to mush – contrary to the charter they claim to revere, which requires rates be set to provide for maintaining infrastructure. Some Councilors over the years have recognized these problems, but the flaws in the charter and the intransigence of the utilities board have always thwarted efforts to address them. 

For more than 50 years, new appointees to the utilities board have absorbed the myths of the 1960’s: that the utilities department must be protected from the elected council that will inevitably raid the utilities revenues for use in the general fund. They cite isolated incidents in other communities that had none of the protections we have built into the proposed amendment. They learn that above all, the utilities board must resist influence from the council or the county administrator. 

As members age off the board, they become Utility Board Alumni, and when Change rears its ugly head, the UBA provide political support to the board and the department. Thus the UBA seem to see themselves as Keepers of the Flame, Defenders of the Utilities. Their righteous outrage serves as the public shield that protects the utilities department from being operated in a businesslike way. The whole utilities operation is stuck in a 1960’s time warp – because the charter went too far.

The taxpayers and the ratepayers deserve better than this. You deserve a utilities system that is run according to modern business practices – which include reliable infrastructure and accountability to the public. The amendment to the charter, Question 2, will help to achieve this transition. Vote FOR Question 2.