Two key items on the agenda – formal passage of an already approved 5 percent rate hike and approval of the utility’s fiscal 2018 budget – turned into a confusing circus that saw one board member exit the meeting early, essentially changing the rate-hike vote from no to yes, and another slipping in an amendment that ends a six-year moratorium on the controversial though scientifically supported practice of adding fluoride to the municipal water supply.
That amendment was done in such a way that it is a clear violation of the New Mexico Open Meetings Act and therefore void, and the board deserves credit for apparently reaching that obvious conclusion and announcing that the fluoride issue will be back on the agenda for the June 21 meeting.
Now the board should follow through and allow public comment before voting to use public money to put it into our drinking water. But back to the circus.
The 5 percent rate hike, which a prior board pre-approved in 2013 as part of its fiscal 2014 budget process, will raise a typical single-family residential customer’s bill by about $2.75 a month/$33 a year. The water authority says it will pay for water and sewer system upgrades and maintenance.
Despite that pre-approval, the board deadlocked 3-3 with little discussion on the rate hike. County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins and City Councilors Klarissa Peña and Trudy Jones voted for the increase; City Councilor Pat Davis and County Commissioners Wayne Johnson and Debbie O’Malley voted against. Albuquerque Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry was a no-show – unfortunate, given the close vote and that the hike and budget were on the agenda.
After the tie, Mark Sanchez, the utility’s executive director, pointed out other agenda items were based on approval of the rate increase – indicating staff at least thought it was simply pro forma. Faced with that train wreck, the board agreed to table action on the rate hike until later in the meeting. By the time the hike resurfaced, O’Malley had ducked out, reportedly for a neighborhood meeting. The rate hike passed, 3-2.
When it came time to vote on the FY 2018 budget, Johnson tacked on the surprise amendment to return to fluoridating the system’s potable water – at a cost of $260,000 for new infrastructure and an annual operation and maintenance cost of $270,000. (The board stopped fluoridation in 2011.)
Fluoridation of public water supplies has been controversial for years, with proponents saying it’s the most efficient way of preventing tooth decay and enhancing oral health for entire communities, and opponents saying it does little to prevent tooth decay, causes health problems and violates individual rights. The Journal Editorial Board has supported fluoridation for years. It also supports the rate increase and investment in infrastructure and maintenance.
But the end results don’t begin to justify the shenanigans.
O’Malley’s early departure afforded her the opportunity to increase water/sewer rates without voting to do so, and Johnson’s shutting the public out on fluoridation flies in the face of the Open Meetings Act. The board, comprised primarily of city and county officials, discussed fluoridation at a properly noticed meeting in May 2016, where seven residents weighed in for, 10 against and the board voted to continue the moratorium. On Wednesday – with no pesky members of the public to listen to – members voted 3-2 to return to fluoridation. Peter St. Cyr, executive director of the New Mexico Foundation for Open Government, says this “is why people don’t trust public officials. … Looking at the meeting agenda, there is no reasonable expectation that … the fluoride program would be added at the last minute. This is a good example why state law requires the public to be notified about the specific list of issues that will be discussed and transacted during public hearings.”
When the board reconvenes in June, let’s hope members don’t let bad government bog down good policy again.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.