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First of a series
During the Los Alamos County Council’s July 8 public hearing on tiered water rates, Board of Public Utilities Chair Timothy Neal took several unprecedented actions.
First, contrary to established protocol and the board’s direction, Neal insisted on speaking before Deputy Utilities Manager for Finance and Administration Robert Westervelt presented the staff report. He also spoke after the presentation.
But that decision pales in comparison to Neal’s other actions that evening.
Neal spoke for approximately seven minutes during the council hearing. Of those seven minutes, Neal spent only one minute presenting the board’s position. His remarks were largely devoted to undermining the board’s position.
Board, staff and County Attorney Rebecca Ehler had all argued against that stance at the June 25 meeting, where Neal signaled his intention.
At that meeting, Neal asked the board if they wanted to “go on the record” to the effect that the purpose of the tiered water rates was to assign costs.
When the board tried to ascertain why he was asking for that, he replied that “I think it just clarifies the logic that you folks used.”
Several people pointed out that every staff report and presentation had stressed that the purpose of the tiered structure was to fairly assign costs, and that board members supporting the proposal had clearly stated that was their intent.
During the council meeting, Neal stated briefly that the board supported a tiered rate as a means of assigning costs, but that the board had never “formalized” that position.
After that June 25 conversation circled around that issue for several minutes, board member David Powell asked, “Tim, I know that you were against this. At the council meeting, are you willing to represent the board on this issue?”
Neal replied, “I’m going to speak on behalf of issues, not as a private citizen but as a board member. I’m not prepared to support the argument that you’re counting on Bob (Westervelt) to give.
“In fact, I plan to speak against that and present data from other utilities around the country to show that this argument is incorrect.”
The Los Alamos County Orientation Manual for Boards and Commissions states that “The Chair will report the decision/recommendation of the majority of the board or commission. A significant minority position may be reported if a majority of the board or commission directs the Chair to include the minority position in the report.”
Powell stated that Neal could not, as chair, argue against the board’s position before council. He also stated that if there was new data, it had to be presented to the board and voted on. Vice Chair Chris Ortega pointed out that Neal was free to present that information as a private citizen.
Neal modified his position and said he would allow Powell to speak on behalf of the board after he himself had spoken against their position. Powell replied, “Unless the board appoints you as its representative to speak in a certain way, you have to speak as a private citizen.”
Neal asserted, “I am allowed to make a recommendation to council as the board chairman.”
Later in the argument, Neal switched tactics. “I am ready to support the board. I’m going to speak in support of the new board,” he stated. Three of the current board members were due to leave the board shortly.
“This defies any protocol I have ever experienced on the board,” Powell replied. “How can you speak for the new board when they haven’t adopted a position?”
Neal then switched to, “Apparently I’m allowed to offer a minority position.” Ortega said he could do that if he presented it after the board’s position was presented. Neal insisted that he should go first.
At that point, County Attorney Rebecca Ehler stepped in.
“You can’t operate as the chair of the board and not be representing the board, and you need to defer to the board,” Ehler said. “You need to defer to the board’s positions and then come up with the minority.”
Neal then stated that he would do that, as long as he got to do both. The board challenged Neal’s ability to present the board’s position accurately. Neal adamantly stated several time that he would present the board’s position and clearly state that his position was a minority one.
During the July 8 council meeting, Neal did neither. He instead made an argument that he had first introduced at the June 25 meeting (not during public hearings), that Rio Rancho and Albuquerque had both seen a three-percent reduction in consumption after adopting a tiered water rate and that based on that information, the proposed rate structure was flawed.
During the June 25 meeting, Westervelt acknowledged that the new rate structure could potentially result in decreased usage, but that such an impact could not be quantified at this time. He pointed out that both Albuquerque and Rio Rancho had implemented “drastic” rate increases. Former DPU Manager John Arrowsmith added that Albuquerque had also implemented some “pretty serious conservation measures.”
Westervelt also noted that DPU had implemented two rate increases in the last seven years, and that production had only increased in spite of that.
Westervelt pointed out that the “minority position” Neal was proposing was “drastically different” than the one he had presented in public hearings, in which he argued that the third tier should start at 22,000 gallons instead of 18,000.
“That is under the guise of new information which the board never talked about,” Neal responded.
“I don’t believe we should go to council and say this rate structure is seriously flawed and we need to completely revamp it,” Westervelt replied. “I think that would be diverging from the board’s position.”
“But it would not be going beyond the duty of the chair,” Neal said. “That’s what I’ve been told, to say there’s been new information and there may be an issue.”
“The duty of the chair is to reflect the board’s decision,” Powell countered.
Despite that debate, Neal introduced the information concerning Albuquerque and Rio Rancho during the council hearing, and argued that the new structure would result in a four or five percent decrease in consumption. He gave no data to back that up.
Neal asked council to delay a decision about the new rate structure until the new board could revisit it. He attempted to negate the impact of the revenue loss the delay would cause, despite the fact that Westervelt had stated in the special meeting that a delay of three months would result in a 40-percent loss of projected revenue.
Rather than clearly stating that he was presenting a minority opinion, Neal prefaced his remarks by saying he wanted to speak about “implementation.” It was not until Councilor David Izraelevitz interrupted him to ask whether he was speaking as that chair of the utility board or as a private citizen that he responded,
“I’m speaking as the chair of the new utility board, because that is the board that’s going to have to deal with this. I’m running a scenario they’re going to have to struggle with.”
Izraelevitz tried again.
“So you’ve just proposed action by council. Were you directed by the board to do this, or is this your personal opinion,” Izraelevitz said.
“I was directed by the board to support the proposal you have,” Neal said. “I now am speaking in terms of the implementation of the decision, which is not the original board’s province, but which falls into the purview of the new board.”
After Neal’s remarks, Council Chair Geoff Rodgers stated, “I think it’s fair to say that what was just shared was not from formal action of the utility board.”