For the past several months, Colorado Springs Utilities has been conducting public meetings and discussions about a vital issue: Who should guide the municipally owned enterprise in the future?
Currently, Colorado Springs City Council walks a few blocks to the utilities boardroom to meet as the board of directors for the four-service utility.
Civic organizations and economic development groups have weighed in on the prospect of a new board with the responsibility of managing CSU’s future and setting its goals — and how to select that board.
Some people believe the complexities of the energy industry require the expertise of a hand-selected board — chosen specifically by the mayor, city council or a combination of both. They claim it’s too difficult a job to trust to just anyone who might want to campaign for a position.
But others, including the vast majority of residents polled during a CSU-sponsored telephone survey, want the public to decide who sits on the board.
That’s the best option: Allow the ratepayers to vote on how CSU should be governed. And possibly provide compensation in the Springs could attract better candidates.
After all, residents already vote on board members when they vote for council. And while most utility boards are appointed, elected boards aren’t unprecedented. For instance, voters choose the board for Sacramento’s municipal utility district. The California capital’s utility board has seven members, elected for staggered four-year terms.
The board can set rates, after a public hearing, and chooses the president, who serves at its discretion and leaves most personnel decisions to the administration. It can appoint an attorney and can approve customer and supplier contracts.
If the model works well in other cities, why not here? Having residents vote on the governance issue removes any chance that CSU will be controlled by special interests; it allows people to choose who is best-suited for the role; it allows experts to decide the future and direction of the city-owned utility.
Some argue that an elected board can’t have the expertise of members hand-picked by the mayor and council. There’s an easy answer for that: Have the candidates debate the issues, discuss their expertise and explain why they want to serve.
A public vote removes any whisper of political favoritism and ends the option to stack the board with people who will act on behalf of special interests.
Colorado Springs Utilities is a major city asset. Thanks to its careful and cautious leadership, rates have stayed relatively low and CSU has been able to plan for future water and electric needs.
The Springs is projected to see rapid growth during the next 20 years — more than 300,000 new residents are expected to make the city their home. That means the utility board will play an increasingly relevant role in marshaling resources for water, electricity and natural gas. As water becomes increasingly scarce in the arid West, a nimble, progressive board will be an absolute necessity.
CSU needs a board that is concerned about what’s best for the city utilities and the environment. One way to guarantee that is through municipal elections, where voters hold the board responsible for its actions.
An appointed board is responsive solely to council and the mayor. That translates to less ratepayer control because changing direction would take more than just a regular voting cycle.
The people of Colorado Springs have spoken. Their message is clear: Choose an elected board for CSU.