Current shared utilities leadership protects us

-A A +A

A principal argument to justify the proposed restructuring of county utilities is to increase its “accountability,” to its customers, all of us, by fundamentally altering the relationship between the Board of Public Utilities (BPU), the Department of Public Utilities and the County Council. Increased “accountability” was rejected by voters in 1966, has proven unnecessary since, and carries great risks. Voters who value their utility service and their pocketbooks should reject it again. This is about control, not accountability.
The first proposed county charter (basically, our constitution) was rejected in 1966 largely because citizens feared that a political body, the county council, with direct control of utilities could pad their revenues via the back-door path of requiring substantial sums to be transferred from utilities to general county coffers, with resulting higher utility rates or inadequate operating and capital reserves. They also were concerned politicians would tinker with rates and services to favor special interests.
A completely independent utility presents challenges, too. The compromise embraced by voters in 1968 was the present semi-independent system. It is a work of genius that has served us well for 46 years.
Under our present Charter Article V, all major actions involving utilities require approval of both the Board of Public Utilities and the council. These include utilities department budgets, rates, bond issues (borrowing), major purchases and contracts, and all personnel actions involving the utilities manager — hiring, firing (which has never happened), performance appraisals and salary adjustments.
Proponents of the proposed restructuring raise the boogeyman of a renegade BPU (which has also never happened). Yet, under the present system, council could simply not concur with dubious BPU actions, protecting us.
Our present charter also protects us citizens from undue politically-motivated influence in utilities. This is common in communities where utilities are directly controlled by the political body. It has been attempted here.
The restructuring proposed via Question 2 is not really about accountability but about control. While the argument is made that the proposed new Article V would not be dramatically different than the current, it is indeed fundamentally different in that council would have unilateral control. The protection from politics in the current Article V would be removed. Council could exert complete control either by unilaterally acting on matters which now require BPU concurrence or by firing BPU members and replacing them with compliant council loyalists.
Vote “no” on Question 2.

Robert Gibson is a former member of County Council, Board of Public Utilities and 1994-95 Charter Review Committee.