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During my career as an engineering manager for electric utilities, I often motivated the troops with the results of a national survey. Respondents were asked to rank the factors most important to their lives from a long list.
The results were, in order: air, water, food and electricity. The devastating aftermath of hurricane Sandy is another illustration of the importance of electricity to people’s health and safety.
Here in Los Alamos, our Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is directly responsible for two out of four of these most important factors.
Operating our utilities is similar to running our town; it involves all the strategic elements of planning, maintenance, emergency response, informed purchases, public safety, and reliable performance of both equipment and workers. We expect our water, gas and electric power to be there, present and future, and we expect it restored immediately, if lost. It is a responsibility that must always be taken seriously.
Utility management provides the technical and administrative skills to execute their mission. The Utility Board provides oversight and provides sufficient funding to perform the mission through rates that are fair to all served. In addition, Board oversight must be strategic, to ensure management is planning for long range needs and infrastructure maintenance.
Our current Charter recognizes the special status of our Utility Board, and describes in some detail its operation. It gives the Board the independence to focus on its mission, with council approval for critical decisions, such as bond issues and rates.
Recently, changes to the County Charter have been proposed to provide direct involvement of council to remove members of the Utility Board. We might reflect on what this is intended to accomplish, and whether it will make our utilities better.
The board has staggered membership terms such that a new board member appointment is required each year; a term is five years, providing the opportunity for continuity of oversight of strategic goals. The board members are appointed by Council.
Most utilities have three levels of control: private utilities have management, board, and a regulatory agency which represents ratepayers; public utilities have management, board, and direct elections of the board by ratepayers. In Los Alamos we are a little different; we have management and the chartered responsibilities of board and council, with elected council and appointed board.
The key to success for the LADPU in my opinion is twofold: effective and knowledgeable management with board oversight; and strong, open communication between the board and the council including feedback on performance and strategic plans. As noted above, the ultimate responsibility for providing the factors critical to life is shared by management, board and council and all must be dedicated to this mission.
The appointment of the best utilities manager and the best board members should be the council focus to ensure utility department mission success, and then follow-up by continuing open communications as each group executes their responsibilities. This responsibility is already provided for in the current Charter.
The answer to my question above concerning the proposed Charter change to provide board member removal appears to be that it will have no practical effect on making our utilities better. It may introduce an environment of uncertainty that could affect board performance. A better direction might be to establish guidelines for qualifications for board members, or to develop training materials that will help board members rapidly understand the DPU mission, and the importance of communications in interfacing with both council and ratepayers. This direction does not involve a charter change.
As a member of the Charter Review Committee, I felt it necessary to achieve consensus on the structure of the Charter changes we sent to council to consider putting up for vote. Council decided to make the issue of Board member removal a stand- alone question.
If it comes to vote, this particular change should be considered very carefully in light of the foregoing perspectives .
Ralph Phelps is a former Los Alamos County Councilor.