City Council? Utility Board? What an absurd concept! So let’s get ourselves an entirely new board structure, right? We can have a separate elected board or we can have the mayor appoint an “expert” board, chock full of “well-qualified” folks who can best direct policy for our billion-dollar municipal colossus. By doing so, we’ll relieve council of the onerous burden of directing Colorado Springs Utilities, and allow them to direct their energies toward city government.
It’s an argument that appears to make sense, until it doesn’t.
Five years ago, influenced by a million-dollar campaign funded by a few powerful local businesspeople, Colorado Springs voters agreed to change the city’s form of government. After almost 90 years, the council-manager form of government was replaced by a “strong mayor” system.
It was a substantial change, but a not a radical one. A popularly elected mayor directly accountable to the voters became the city’s CEO, replacing the council-hired city manager. City government became more accountable, not less. Council became the city’s legislative body, and retained its policy-making role as Utility Board.
After a notably rocky beginning, the new form of government has settled down. Once common, council-mayor clashes ended, as both arms of city government learned the art of amiable compromise.
Urged on by individuals and organizations that want to strip council of its utility board responsibilities, council considered the issue for a year and a half, hiring experts, commissioning polls and receiving ratepayer input. On Wednesday, councilmembers voted 8-1 to continue as the utility board, declining to put measures creating a new governance structure on the April 2017 ballot.
It was the right decision.
Three new governance alternatives were presented to Council; an appointed board, a separate elected board and a hybrid board with both elected and appointed members.All three are flawed.
An elected board would create two overlapping city governments, since many of city council’s responsibilities are entangled with CSU operations. Who decides upon rates, upon use of eminent domain, upon acquisition of water rights, on water rationing, on the fate of the Drake Power Plant? What about economic development incentives or CSU contributions to nonprofits? And what about shared or possibly shared responsibilities, such as attorney services, staff and public communications?
An appointed board would present even more problems. It would be structurally unresponsive, insulated from voters and ratepayers. Such a structure appears to have little support, save from Colorado Springs Forward, a group that formed in response to the early dysfunction of the strong mayor form of government.
CSF’s concern with municipal government was then well founded, but the ship has long since righted itself. Mayor John Suthers and Councilors Andy Pico, Merv Bennett and Jill Gaebler are effective and collaborative leaders of the nine-member city council/utility board.
And here’s a simple question: What’s the problem? This whole dispute is an invented crisis, an attempt by a tiny cabal of powerful folks to get their way. In fact, the long, fruitful partnership between CSU managers and city council has brought abundant, reasonably priced water to our naturally parched high desert city, as well as affordable and reliable gas, electric and wastewater service.
Sure, mistakes have been made. In hindsight, it’s clear that CSU should have built new generating capacity rather than spending $200 million to install pollution control, technology at Drake — but the arguments for doing so made sense at the time. No organization is infallible, regardless of board membership.
Finally, let’s consider the “expert” argument. According to CSF spokesman Phil Lane, the utility business is too complex for mere elected officials to master — we need an expert board.
No we don’t, because of the extraordinary depth of our talent pool. Military retirees, many of whom have been eager to serve on council, typically have experience in managing large organizations with nine- and ten-figure budgets. Can you seriously contend that a person who, for example, managed a billion-dollar nuclear missile maintenance/upgrade project is too dumb to understand a stodgy utility?
We need an agile, intelligent and diverse board, one unshakably dedicated to the well being of this city. We need sage elders and young Turks, liberals and conservatives, noisy activists and quiet contributors. We need folks from the scientific, military, nonprofit and business communities.
We need, in short, pretty much what we’ve got.
So let’s leave it alone.
— John Hazlehurst