Voters could end 2-decade debate over Utilities governance

January 18, 2013
photo - A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, toward the hopper that will transport the fuel into the power plant.   Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette file
A loader moves coal outside Colorado Springs Utilities' Drake Power Plant in Colorado Springs Thursday, Sept. 11, 2008, toward the hopper that will transport the fuel into the power plant. Photo by CHRISTIAN MURDOCK/The Gazette file 

After five studies over two decades, voters may finally have a say on the governance of Colorado Springs Utilities.

Since 1993, five groups have recommended replacing the City Council with an independent board to oversee the four-service, city-owned utility.

Each time, the recommendation was shelved.

But now, just days before the deadline to refer a measure to the April ballot, two veteran council members — Scott Hente and Jan Martin — want to put the question to bed and let voters decide.

“Over the years, just as we are saying today, Utilities is an A-plus company. Their rates are low. Their reliability is high. All the things that we’re saying today have been the same over the years. But I don’t think there was this sense that there was an important need to change,” Martin, council president pro tem, said Friday.

“What’s different today? A new form of government,” she said.

Translation: Mayor Steve Bach.

Since Bach took office in June 2011 as the city’s first so-called “strong mayor” under a new form of government at City Hall, Utilities has been under increased scrutiny.

A lot is at stake.

The mayor wants Utilities to ferret out operational inefficiencies to help pay for the city’s growing list of stormwater needs, which a task force recently estimated at $687 million.

The coal-fired Martin Drake Power Plant and a new, homegrown scrubber technology that Utilities is bankrolling and installing at the aging facility downtown also hang in the balance. The mayor has advocated putting a pause on installing the NeuStream scrubbers while the city conducts a decommissioning study of Drake.

Discussions about selling the entire electric system also are taking place.

The mayor is a non-voting member of the Utilities Board, which gives him little say over the utility. But six of nine council seats are up for grabs in April. While Bach denies accusations that he has assembled a slate of candidates, some worry the next council will include a majority of members who will — without question — roll out Bach’s objectives.

City Councilman Val Snider, who supports putting a governance question about Utilities on the April ballot, expressed that concern at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“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,” he said.

When asked to elaborate Friday, Snider said: “There’s a slew of candidates with a strong developer backing, which is not the common Colorado Springs resident.”

Martin said she and Hente “tried to take the individual out of the thought process” when developing their proposal and focus on what was best for the next generation of Utilities.

Still, she acknowledged that Bach played a factor.

“The frustrations of the mayor over the last year that have been in the press begin to take a toll on an organization. If we continue on the same road, that toll will impact Colorado Springs Utilities in a negative way,” she said.

When asked to respond, Bach re-issued a statement from Wednesday in which he said the idea of creating an independent board to oversee Utilities “may be worth debate” but that all the alternatives needed to be thoroughly discussed by the community.

The council will decide Tuesday whether or not to refer the proposed charter change to the ballot. The proposal 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.

Similar recommendations have been made, though none included an elected board.

Martin and Hente said they proposed an elected board to give citizens, who own the utility, a bigger say in decision-making.

“When you appoint a board, it’s inherently political and I think we would put our faith in the voters over politicians appointing the board,” Martin said.

Hente said he remembers former Vice Mayor Larry Small making the case for an elected board if a governance change was approved by voters.

“It really struck a note with me because what he said was, ‘Colorado Springs Utilities is owned by the citizens and customers. They should have the right to be able to decide who their board is,’” Hente said.

Hente, who is term-limited and leaving office in April, said it’s time for voters to weigh in.

“How many more times do we need to study it, and how many more times do we need to come up with the same answer?” Hente asked.

The governance issue was studied by a consultant in 1993 and a charter review committee in 2005. The Utilities Policy Advisory Committee made separate recommendations on governance twice, first in 2007 and then again in February 2012. In 2009, a subcommittee of the Sustainable Funding Committee also looked at governance.

Gary Casimir, who served on the 2005 charter review committee, said the group spent several weeks studying Utilities’ governance.

“We knew then that something had to be done because face it, you have this big industry, and council was not really fully equipped to handle it,” Casimir said.

“Ted Eastburn was on the committee, too — God rest his soul — and Ted said when he was elected to council, it took him three years to get up to speed on Utilities, and Ted was no dummy,” Casimir said, referring to the former councilman, who died in 2010.

In an email, Utilities CEO Jerry Forte said it takes a lot of time “to properly set policy and govern such a large and important community organization” and that an independent board would allow members to focus on utility matters.

“We believe we can continue to fulfill our mission of providing safe, reliable, competitively-priced utility services, no matter which governance structure is used. We are here to serve the community,” he said, adding that a discussion about governance is possible because Utilities is community-owned.

Contact Daniel Chacón: 476-1623

Twitter @danieljchacon

Facebook Daniel Chacon

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