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Water board restricts public comment to a trickle

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If you’re a fan of the pageant of democracy, as I am, you can’t do much better than Act I of the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board’s monthly meeting.

After a ritual prologue (moment of silence, Pledge of Allegiance), the water utility’s board throws open the floor for public comment. Anyone who wants to can sign up for two minutes of precious time before the folks who oversee New Mexico’s largest municipal water agency.

It’s a rush of representative democracy, packed into the first half hour or less of the meeting, and it’s always fun to watch. But then, once the agency’s board gets down to the important business of rate ordinances, budgets, drought planning and managing the region’s water contamination problems, no further public comment is allowed.

Other public bodies – the Albuquerque City Council, the Bernalillo County Commission, most New Mexico state legislative committees – are far less stingy with the opportunities they provide the public to comment during their deliberations. The results can be clumsy and time consuming and sometimes unpleasant, but democracy is not supposed to be easy.

With just 120 seconds at the podium (there’s a staff member with a timer and bell), the water board’s constraints demand exquisite performances, taut little dramas as citizens try to get their points across.

“I don’t have long here,” explained Jim McKay as he spoke at the board’s June 19 meeting. “I’ll make it quick.”

McKay and his colleagues from the group Citizen Action have been fixtures of late. They make monthly pleas, two minutes at a time, for more action on the Kirtland Air Force Base fuel spill, which has contaminated southeast Albuquerque groundwater and threatens nearby drinking water wells.

For the June meeting, McKay brought maps.

Engineer Joe Wexsler, of the Agua es Vida Action Team, has been on a crusade recently regarding the loss of water to reservoir evaporation, and AVAT members have long taken to the podium to share their concerns about Albuquerque water quality.

And then there is the tag team of Michael Jensen and Elaine Hebard, a pair of citizen activists focused on the agency’s budget and water conservation policies. The pair have repeatedly raised questions about the adequacy of water rates, given the rising costs of coping with Albuquerque’s aging water and sewer infrastructure and declining revenue as a result of our conservation successes.

The water utility board is an example of representative democracy, but of an odd sort. Born in controversy in 2003, the agency is a spin-off from what was once a city department. It is now governed jointly by a board primarily consisting of Albuquerque city councilors and Bernalillo county commissioners.

As a result of that structure, according to Bernalillo County commissioner and former water board member Wayne Johnson, you have an agency run by people whose primary responsibility lies elsewhere – the city, in the case of councilors and the county in the case of commissioners.

Before he was replaced on the agency’s board in January, Johnson was one of the rare board members to actually vote against a major staff recommendation – a plan for water rate increases to take effect in 2015 and 2017.

Johnson’s complaint was not the rate increase itself, but the lack of accountability associated with the approach – elected officials voting in 2012 on something that would affect ratepayers three years later. When the rates actually rise in 2015, there’s no public conversation about it, because it’s already a done deal. “That provides you with very little accountability for members of the board,” Johnson said in a recent interview.

Johnson’s “no” vote and the reasoning behind it, along with the board’s stingy approach to listening to the public at its meetings, is an example of a broader problem with the way the agency is governed.

The board does not lack for professional advice, with top notch managers who prepare budgets and water management plans that generally get high marks and almost always win unanimous approval from the board. “They are a pretty good staff,” Johnson said. It also has a nine-member Customer Advisory Committee that meets regularly to provide independent input. The problem comes when a member of the public disagrees with the results, and is looking for a way to voice that disagreement directly to the decision makers.

I can’t help but wonder whether there might be better ways for the Albuquerque city councilors and Bernalillo County commissioners who sit on the water utility board to hear from the people who use the water, pay the bills and worry about our community’s future. Our governance is well served by a more robust public conversation than the current rules allow.

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