Two Utilities Board members stunned their colleagues and Mayor Steve Bach on Wednesday when they proposed an April ballot measure asking voters to create an elected board to oversee Colorado Springs Utilities.
Under the existing governance structure, the City Council doubles as the Utilities Board and is responsible for the billion-dollar-plus city enterprise.
The proposed charter change by Chairman Scott Hente and board member Jan Martin calls for replacing the council with a seven-member independent board that would be elected as early as June. Board members would serve four-year terms and be limited to three consecutive terms. The proposal also calls for a super-majority vote of Colorado Springs voters to sell Utilities or any of its assets.
“We’ve been accused in the past of ignoring recommendations that have come to us with regards to changes in governance. Maybe it’s time to finally put this to bed,” said Hente, who also serves as council president.
“I believe that an independent board provides a prudent balance of power between the legislative and the executive branches of government,” Hente added.
The proposed ballot measure will be up for further discussion Tuesday, when the council decides whether to refer four other issues to the April ballot. Tuesday is the deadline for council to do so, officials have said.
On Wednesday, Utilities board members called Hente and Martin’s proposal “premature” and “extremely last minute.”
“It seems done without the benefit of the whole board’s involvement and engagement and without the discussion of everybody,” board member Merv Bennett said.
“This is a utility that belongs to the city. Having this discussion without a broader perspective is very, very difficult to me. And Scott, it feels like with you going out of office, we’re trying to do something as you’re going out the door. I’m not saying that’s what your intention was, but that perception certainly came to my mind,” Bennett said.
Hente, who is term-limited and will be out of office in about three months, apologized for bringing the proposal forward so late and said neither he nor Martin were trying to dictate anything to the board.
“If I could wind back the clock, I would’ve brought this earlier,” Hente said. “It was not my intention to spring this on you at the last minute. I just thought the time was right to try to do something now.”
Bach, who was not at the meeting, said he was surprised by the proposal.
“While this idea may be worth debate, the community should complete a thorough discussion of all alternatives before this most important decision is made,” Bach said in a statement.
“This is yet another last minute, piecemeal, proposed change to the City Charter on the eve of Mr. Hente being term limited and leaving City Council,” the mayor added. “I’m disappointed that Mr. Hente would attempt this power play as he leaves office, and hope the City Council will turn this back next Tuesday and the other piecemeal charter changes it is entertaining — which represent bad policy and are not in the best interests of our fellow citizens.”
Bennett told Hente and Martin that he agreed the city needed to deal with the governance of Utilities.
But “I think it would be a serious mistake to do this prematurely,” he said.
Board member Tim Leigh agreed.
“It feels like it’s being sprung on us,” he said. “This particular conversation, in my mind, is at least a 12-month-long legitimate conversation brought to the right table.”
Only board member Val Snider said he was ready to move forward.
“Yes, we could take 12 months and study it,” Snider said. “I don’t have confidence that we’re going to have a City Council in April that’s going to look at this in an objective way, so I’m willing to go forward with it now and let the community decide if they want an elected board that is independent or stay right now with the status quo.”
Board member Brandy Williams said the timing was “extremely last minute” but that she would prefer to talk about the proposal with the entire board present.
Board members Lisa Czelatdko and Angela Dougan were absent Wednesday.
OTHER BALLOT PROPOSALS
The City Council will decide Tuesday whether to refer four other measures to the April ballot. They are:
• Making the city attorney an elected position
• Giving the council a pay raise
• Negating the mayor’s authority to sign Colorado Springs Utilities’ contracts
• Modifying the TOPS tax to allow the city to spend a bigger portion on maintenance