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Are you aware that a group of volunteer citizens govern a county enterprise that generates more than $60 million in annual revenues, responsible for assets that cost more than $280 million to acquire and would probably cost $400-500 million to replace? That’s the role of the Los Alamos Board of Public Utilities as defined in County Charter Article V.
We’re fortunate to have some very capable and dedicated people on the board today. Their responsibilities are significant and require time and commitment in return for nothing more than the pleasure of serving the community.
Stepping back and looking at the organizational structure of the enterprise as defined in Charter Article V, one realizes that the board exercises broad authority with very little accountability to the county council or the voters. With respect and gratitude for today’s board members, the Los Alamos citizens need to consider whether this organizational structure best serves the community going forward.
Under Article V, board members who are appointed cannot be removed by the county council for poor performance. So, if a board member were to make decisions that result in financial penalties to the county, losses to the utility enterprise, or were to engage in unprofessional and unacceptable behavior such as sexual harassment or illegal drug use, there would be no mechanism for removal.
Other than the county attorney who reports to the county council, the Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is the only county enterprise that does not report to the county administrator. The board and its appointed manager are rarely obligated by the charter to communicate with council except for an annual budget submission and on other limited occasions. In practice, and especially in recent months, there has been considerable communication between council and the board. But that is because the people involved have voluntarily chosen to increase communication, not because they are required to do so by the charter. And if county council were to object to a board proposal, the charter is silent on how disputes would be resolved.
In essence, Charter Article V as written results in a group of appointed board members overseeing an extremely valuable county asset tied to an essential county service, with minimum involvement of the county’s elected officials or citizens. If that idea makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
Over the past several years the county council has formed two separate committees to evaluate this situation, presumably because some councilors have realized that although Article V does not give the council the authority to direct the county’s utility business, New Mexico law mandates that the county and its taxpayers are technically liable for mistakes or missteps made by the board and the DPU. So under the status quo the board has the authority to act and the county has the responsibility for those actions.
Despite this significant incompatibility between the charter and state law, both committees saw some merit in the idea of a dedicated team focused on the county’s complicated utilities business, making policy recommendations and overseeing operations. Neither committee recommended disbanding the board or moving the DPU under the county administrator, even though many public utilities are structured that way.
But there are problems with the current structure. We need to resolve the question of who is ultimately in charge; about who makes the final decision if the council and the board can’t agree; about who approves a disputed budget, strategic plan, or key personnel decision. And, there should be provisions for removal of unproductive board members. Both citizen committees that reviewed the matter concluded that the ultimate responsibility lies with the elected county council.
The board recently voted to accept two elements of the DPU Charter Review Committee’s recommendations but rejected most of the proposed changes. Some claim that the current approach has worked for the past 45 years and that it will continue to work in the future. They argue that the acknowledged ambiguities can be managed if a problem ever develops that is serious enough to warrant hard resolution.
The board, by majority vote, rejected what seemed to many of us as very benign recommendations aimed at increasing communication between the council, the board, County Administrators Office, and the DPU. The board opposed mechanisms to promote dialogue like a requirement for quarterly updates on significant utilities issues, a living strategic plan, and a formal review of the operations of the board every five years.
The board majority argued that these things aren’t appropriate for the charter, but have offered to consider these ideas for their own internal procedures. By contrast, the DPU Charter Review Committee believes that having these simple requirements in the charter creates transparency and accountability that is necessary given the complicated organizational structure.
The provisions of the county charter don’t exist to serve the board or the management of the DPU. They exist to serve the citizens of Los Alamos County and to promote open, responsive local government.
While respecting the contributions of Board of Public Utilities members, two successive citizens committees have concluded that the charter should create a structure that promotes good government, rather than relying on personalities and good will to address the acknowledged systemic flaws that exist today.