BPU gives itself high ratings

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Board conducts first self-evaluation.

By Arin McKenna

The Board of Public Utilities gave itself high marks on its first self-evaluation during a special meeting on Friday. A yearly self-evaluation is part of the new Policies and Procedures Manual adopted on May 21 of this year.

Most of the questions were routine checks, such as, “Is there an annual board calendar?” or “Do all board members participate in a formal orientation?”

On a scale of one to five, the lowest score was a three on the question of “Does the board give clear directions to management on the mission and goals of the organization?”

The board felt that the mission and goals were too driven by Department of Public Utilities staff, and that the board itself should have more discussion regarding those and provide more direction to the department.

“Our responsibility is to set direction,” Board Chair Timothy Neal said. “I don’t think we have talked among ourselves about how we want the department to move… I think we should have a consensus about where we want to move.”

DPU Manager Tim Glasco pointed out that the missions and goals developed during the department’s annual strategic planning session “reflect discussions and directions from previous boards, which every board subsequent has had opportunities to change, modify.”

Three of the five board members were appointed just before this year’s strategic planning session.

The board gave itself a five on the question of “Does the board understand its obligation to see the organization acts in the best interests of DPU customer and citizens of the county?”

On the follow up question of “Does the board act with diligence and objectivity on behalf of DPU customers and the County?” the board gave itself a four.

“I guess what troubles me is the undo weight being placed on what I would call political things, and that run a whole broad spectrum,” Board member Stephen McLin said. “But one in particular has really got my attention recently, and that’s the carbon neutral policy. I honestly don’t think that’s in the best interest of our rate paying customers.”

Board Chair Timothy Neal commented that “One of the problems with this is the word ‘and,’ which puts the ratepayers and the citizens on equal platforms. Depending on the issue, they may not be equal.”

During public comment, resident Mark Jones provided his own definition of the relationship between the two.

“There was some discussion about whether the board was accountable to the citizens. The utilities are owned by the county, which I take to be by the citizens. That’s where your accountability lies,” Jones said. “I think there’s confusion because there’s great overlap between the ownership and the ratepayers. You have an obligation to your customers, but you’re not accountable to them. You’re accountable to the owners.”

Jones also weighed in on another issue the board gave itself a four on: “Does the board have a system for receiving and monitoring information about the DPU’s organizational performance?”

Vice Chair David Powell in particular referred to a long list of reports that BPU receives, but also listed other indices they may need to monitor, such as the state of the sewer system or more financial reporting. The board also felt there was room for improvement in evaluating financial reports.

McLin also suggested more reporting on situations such as the chromium plume from Los Alamos National Laboratory, which could eventually impact three wells.

Jones asked the board to conduct a study on options for shifting to more renewable energy to address the long-term impacts of climate change and regulations being formulated to address it.

It was not clear what score the board gave itself on several questions relating to communication and advocacy.

“On this whole section on communication and advocacy, I’m not sure we’re doing all that well,” board memberPaul Frederickson said.

There was some self-reflection on questions of “Does the board represent the community interests it serves?” and “Does the board seek input and involve its stakeholders in policy considerations and decisions?”

Glasco noted that DPU is receiving comments from customers with home photovoltaic systems who feel that “the board is not taking into account the needs and desires of the citizens in that particular segment of the community” in regards to a change in the rate structure for them.

McLin raised the issue about how the board handled citizen input when they proposed drilling wells in White Rock.

“The board tried everything they could to silence this input from people in White Rock who were going to be impacted by this.,” McLin said. “At one meeting, two hours explaining the option, then people had two minutes a person to respond.”

Powell suggested the board look at ways to get a broader cross-section of the community on the board.

As to whether the board communicates effectively with the county council, Board Chair Timothy Neal stated that Council Chair Geoff Rodgers has made two comments publicly that relations with the board have never been so good.

Glasco suggested the board put a policy in place to assure that one member of the board is always present at a weekly meeting with council leadership.

The session wrapped up with some discussion about how the format for the self-evaluation had worked. Board members were asked to think about how the evaluation could be improved.

“We should also invite our stakeholders: members of the staff, members of the county staff, members of the council to submit areas that we are not addressing,” Powell said.

Powell will present a summary of the issues raised at the next board meeting. BPU plans to hold another special meeting early in December to discuss those. Neal suggested the board should consider taking action only on items receiving a three or lower.