by Pam Zubeck
Here's how a possible ballot measure to make the Colorado Springs Utilities Board an elected board would change how the board operates:
———————————-ORIGINAL POST, JAN. 16, 6:47 P.M.—————————————————
In a surprise move, Colorado Springs Utilities Board President Scott Hente and member Jan Martin today proposed that City Council refer a measure to the April 2 city election ballot that would create a seven-member, voter-elected Utilities Board.
The Council now doubles as the board, but Hente and Martin are proposing that voters be allowed to select members.
The measure comes amid debate over who should control Utilities. Mayor Steve Bach has indicated intense interest in calling the shots over the city's water, wastewater, electric and gas operations. Others argue Utilities is simply too complicated for the average Council member to oversee, although under the Council's control, Utilities has achieved some of the highest reliability rates for delivery of service in the country while keeping rates below those of most comparable cities.
Councilor Bernie Herpin argued that making the board elected wouldn't guarantee the board has any more experience in utility matters than the Council. If appointed, he noted, they would be more apt to meet certain qualifications, including knowledge in financial and other matters.
Hente countered that many corporate boards don't possess knowledge of the companies they oversee. "At GMC, it's not a bunch of car guys," he said. "At Xcel [Energy], it's not a bunch of energy people." But, he added, an elected board would be reflective of the community's interests.
"What you want is somebody who represents the interest and long-term strategic value of the owners, and the owners in this case are the residents," he said.
Councilor Merv Bennett strongly opposed mounting a ballot measure so soon, although several recommendations dating back nearly a decade have called for Utilities to be governed by a different kind of board and not Council.
"I’m really struggling with this," Bennett said to Hente. "I have the utmost respect for you and Jan and I hope you know that. It bothers me in that six months ago I was asked to work with Jan to identify where we might want to go with governance. I was asked to interview firms in Washington, D.C., that might help us with that. I did that. Now I hear with a week’s notice that the two of you have decided the direction we want to go. There’s multiple models for governance. I’m committed we need a different model for governance. This seems very premature. It was done without the benefit of the whole board’s engagement. Having this discussion without a broader perspective is very, very difficult to me."
Councilor Tim Leigh, who also is strongly affiliated with the mayor, said Council should begin a 12-month process that ultimately would lead to a ballot measure.
Providing something of a prediction for the outcome of the April election, which some say will result in a majority of Council members being in the mayor's corner on everything, Councilor Val Snider said, "I don’t have confidence we’re going to have a City Council in April that will look at this in an objective way. I‘m ready to go forward."
Hente will bring the measure to the Council for debate on Tuesday about whether it will be placed on the April ballot. It will be among five proposed measures under consideration that day, including one that would make the city attorney post an elected position; a measure to allow more leeway in spending trails, open space and parks money on parks maintenance; a measure to remove the mayor's contract authority over Utilities; and a measure that would increase Council pay from $6,250 a year to $38,400 per year.
Public comment will be received during that discussion, but a couple of people on hand at today's Utilities Board meeting weighed in.
City Hall-watcher Walter Lawson said the Hente-Martin idea is nothing new. "This issue you bring up has been discussed many many times," he said. "It’s not a brief look at it. We’ve been over this and over this again and again."
Scott Harvey, who is primarily concerned about environmental matters, suggested campaign contributions for Utilities Board candidates be placed in one pot and then divided equally to eliminate campaigns dominated by special interest money, such as the fossil fuels industry. "I think we should create a system where money is taken out of the equation," he said.