Utilities Commission Under Attack
6/13/15 -Editorial by Renee Wilkins
With all the grenades flying at the Utilities Commission, I’d suggest they put on their flak jackets and helmets, just to be safe. For years city officials have been finagling ways to undermine this particular commission. What sets it apart is that it watches over the $48 Million Utilities budget – the city’s cash cow.
The initial move to legally get rid of the Utilities Commission happened in 2011. During the 2012 election, a ballot measure was included asking voters to approve the removal of the Utilities Commission from the City Charter. By removing it from the Charter and placing it in an ordinance, the Governing Body could vote to dissolve the Utilities Commission. Unaware of these implications, citizens voted for it. That change has waited like an undetonated bomb.
After a tumultuous year in 2014 with heavy discussion and debate over water rights, water rates and water line replacements, the City Manager circumvented the Utilities Commission in December, taking an item directly to the Governing Body. One commissioner raised concerns about this, and it was sent back to the Utilities Commission to review. It was no surprise a few months later when a city councilor, upset by the Commission’s support of the water rate freeze, said he didn’t even know why we have a Utilities Commission. And during the recent budget review, the Commission had a skirmish with city staff when they questioned the legitimacy of the Pilot Property Tax, G&A Fund, and Franchise Fee, which siphon money from the Utilities Fund into the General Fund.
Now Mayor Hull has suddenly emailed City Councilors notifying them he will be filling four Utilities Commissioner positions in strict accordance with the existing ordinance and will no longer accept anyone without water experience. While the email appears to simply state his intended compliance with the ordinance, its effect could end up being a very crafty way of neutering or even eliminating the Commission. It’s most immediate impact is to cause the cancellation of the Commission’s meeting in July - due to his creation of a lack of a quorum. Without a quorum, the Commission cannot hold meetings. This could mean no water availability approvals for developments…unless ordinance changes are implemented to give the Governing Body more power.
Further, it’s a bit moronic to demand water experience of the Utilities Commission and not the Governing Body; the Commission can only give recommendations on most issues, leaving the final decisions to the Governing Body. Using this logic, the Mayor should be concerned about the Planning and Zoning Commission, since they are the most powerful of our 9 commissions, yet require no experience to serve. Then again, the Planning and Zoning Commission doesn’t watchdog a $48 Million budget.
A trend is emerging in which dissenting voices are not tolerated at city hall. The guardians of the cash cow are under attack, and we need them now more than ever. Concerned citizens with a background in water need to step up now to help protect the future of the Utilities Commission and Utilities Fund.