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Colorado Springs Utilities could get new bosses

March 23, 2016 Updated: March 24, 2016 at 11:01 am

Imagine running the nation's 41st biggest city while also overseeing a $1 billion company with $4 billion in assets. 

Such dual tasks would overwhelm most people, but nine locals now serve simultaneously as the Colorado Springs Utilities board and the City Council.

Some of them like it that way. But other members, along with Mayor John Suthers, Colorado Springs Forward, the Regional Business Alliance and Council of Neighbors and Organizations, say Utilities needs a new governance model.

Voters are expected to decide in April 2017. In the meantime, the same nine people whose responsibilities could be shrunk have been hard at work for years, studying survey results, board models, and what qualities, skills, authority and responsibilities board members should have, among many, many more factors being reviewed.

In a Utilities Governance Committee meeting Wednesday, member Don Knight said being on the board is "not an entry-level position. We are eliminating the 'Under 40s.'"

"That's ridiculous," countered member Jill Gaebler, the council's president pro tem.

"If you're 39 and 364 days, we might consider you," Knight joked.

Hannah Parsons, the RBA's chief community development officer, wasn't joking though.

"I'm 39 and wondering if that makes me ineligible," Parsons said.

Board Chairman Andres Pico and member Merv Bennett, council president, agreed that the job isn't entry level but disagreed with setting an age limit.

That issue was minor, though, compared with the results of a new Magellan Strategies survey of Utilities customers.

Most respondents didn't know how Utilities is governed now. But when presented with several alternatives on how to empanel a board, only 12 percent wanted City Council to stay in that role.

The strongest support, 65 percent, was for letting voters directly elect the board members. That's what they do now by electing the City Council. The survey results show, however, that they'd like to elect the Utilities board specifically.

Respondents also, by 70 percent, disapproved of having board members appointed by the council, the mayor or both.

They were split on whether to have a hybrid board, with some members elected, some appointed by the council and some appointed by the mayor. Half didn't like that model, but 40 percent approved of it.

This was the second survey to signal a distinct lack of knowledge among citizens about how Utilities is run. An education effort will be undertaken, with forums, town halls, customer group meetings and all kinds of other gatherings, before alternative governance models are chosen for public response, the board agreed.

The Public Education, Outreach and Dialogue subcommittee has been researching elected and appointed boards and their qualifications in peer organizations nationwide, said Sherri Newell, chief communications officer for Utilities.

"To date, we have not been able to find a hybrid board," Newell reported. "So we could be breaking new ground again, and lots of people are watching."

The committee voted 7-1 to continue its work on governance, with member Helen Collins dissenting. Keith King was absent.

"I don't like the fact that board members could be elected, because whoever has the most money supporting (them) usually gets on the board," Collins said. "It looks like a political mess. I think this board has been more engaged than any board since I've lived in the Springs."

Knight said the current board has done excellent work but also is "standing on the shoulders of giants," such as the boards that pushed forward for the Southern Delivery System and the Neumann System scrubbers at the Marin Drake Power Plant.

Dave Munger, president and CEO of CONO, commended the board "for being this far-sighted and this capable of putting the public's interest ahead of your own."

Utilities needs a board that can operate like that of a Fortune 500 company, composed of people with different backgrounds who can provide strategic direction and advice, Munger said.

He and others stressed that they aren't dissatisfied with the current board.

But as the city grows and its issues multiply, the council's job becomes more demanding, Parsons noted. And the Utilities board must be prepared to meet increasingly complex energy and water issues.

" ... recent City Council meetings show there's a lot going on, and it's not going to slow down," she said. "Things will get complicated and cumbersome. How do we optimize the City Council to meet the needs of the community ,,,"

"We need to complete the (committee's study) process on what the best governance would be 20 years from now," said member Larry Bagley. Members will review five studies on governance and perform other subcommittee tasks before the governance committee meets again from 8 a.m. to noon April 27 on the fifth floor of the Plaza of the Rockies South Tower at 121 S. Tejon St.

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