Worth less if free?

An item near the end of the agenda for the April 25 Town Council meeting announced the beginning of the selection process for appointing members to various town committees. But a vote earlier in the evening may have left some prospective committee members wondering, Why bother?

Midway through the meeting, the council reconsidered its previous vote approving amendments to the water, sewer and boundary agreement for 2011. The initial vote took place late at night at a long meeting earlier this year, and council member Laurin Easthom thought the issue had not been considered thoroughly. The amendments would enable OWASA to secure permanent access to its current allocation of 5 million gallons a day from Jordan Lake to be used in an emergency. OWASA’s board recommended approving the amendments, but at the April 25 council meeting, council voted it down, 7-2, over concern about what constituted an emergency and under what non-emergency conditions OWASA could tap into Jordan Lake.

Once again, council voted against an advisory committee or board recommendation. We’ve watched that scenario play out with the planning board, the sustainability committee, the long-term visioning committee and others. The council appoints five of OWASA’s nine board seats, giving council the power to stack the board to win a majority vote. If the board members don’t vote the way council likes, council can replace them.

Fortunately, the council members voters have seated aren’t all of one mind. We would like to think that any board member who wins approval from a diverse council was chosen because he or she had expertise respected by people of differing views. So why not trust their judgment?

The volunteers who serve on advisory board and committee meetings slog through tedious and sometimes contentious meetings to come up with recommendations because they genuinely care about the decisions our town leaders make. The volunteer advisers put thought and creativity and their expertise into coming up with advice to make our town function efficiently and cost-effectively into the future. So why not give their recommendations more weight?

The water issue in particular ignites passions on both sides. All the more reason to listen to the experts serving on advisory boards and committees. Maybe if they called themselves consultants and charged a hefty fee they’d garner more respect from council.
– Nancy Oates

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  1. Nancy, I disagree with your analysis of the situation.

    First, OWASA is recommending loosening the definition of what constitutes an emergency in order to get at the 5 million gallons a day (not 500 MG/d) Lake Jordan allocation. I haven’t heard any of the local governments or folks challenging the change suggest that OWASA should not have access to the Lake Jordan allocation for emergencies as out-lined in the 2001 agreement.

    Second, I was at the OWASA board meetings when the modification came forward. There was very little discussion – none of which was substantive – before what was characterized as a minor change by the Chair of the Board slid through.

    Third, the change requested is at odds with OWASA’s own projections and plans crafted since 2001, including the 2010 Long-range Water Plan. That shift to using the allocation to buffer growth deserves a closer inspection. Since growth policy is, rightfully, outside of OWASA’s purview the evaluation needs to happen within the elected bodies.

    Fourth, once you attend a few hundred advisory board meetings you get a sense of the dynamics involved in approving or recommending a particular approach. Depending on the committee, staff can have a very strong influence on the outcome. Given that, I’m still biased towards accepting the input of our citizens for the reasons you outlined. Even so, due diligence is required by the Council. Besides that, residents already have a bit of an issue with the level of preparation and thought going into some of the Council’s decisions. Suggesting a knee-jerk acceptance of every advisory board recommendation doesn’t make sense.

  2. Nancy Oates

     /  May 4, 2011

    Thanks for catching my error on the amount. I’ll go back into the story and change it.

  3. George C

     /  May 5, 2011

    I’ve served a cumulative total of more than 25 years on Town advisory boards (Transportation, Planning, Community Design, Visioning Task Force, and several others). While I appreciate that the Council gives careful consideration to our recommendations I never expect that they will always do what we recommend. Advisory boards usually see an issue from only one or a limited perspective – Council has to see the whole picture. Nonetheless, I would say that Council follows the recommendations of its advisory boards much more often than not. And in the 12 years I’ve been on advisory boards I cannot recall a member being removed for anything other than poor attendance, and that was after the advisory board requested that they do so. Furthermore, the Council never voted against a recommendation of the Visioning Task Force because we never made any recommendations – we were unable to accommodate the strong differences in opinions of our members in a timely enough manner to get recommendations to Council. I think the Council has learned from that experience and their strategy for doing a new Comprehensive Plan is based on a much wider level of citizen participation.

  4. Terri Buckner

     /  May 5, 2011

    Advisory boards give advice; they don’t make decisions. Having served on several advisory boards, I know very well the frustration of slogging through a topic only to have council ignore the committee’s recommendations and do something totally different. But in the case of the Jordan Lake recommendation, I think the council should be praised for acknowledging that they too quickly and without deliberation accepted the initial recommendation.

    In the OWASA Long Range Water Supply Plan which was submitted along with the request for modifying the interlocal agreement, there is a significant policy change:

    “If sufficient water is available from other sources, it is recommended in the future that OWASA purchase water before declaring a Water Supply Shortage in order to minimize the inconvenience and potential hardship of additional use restrictions and rate surcharges on OWASA customers and to moderate the financial effects on OWASA. ”

    I know the financial burden that too much conservation put on OWASA finances, but adopting a policy of purchasing from other utilities rather than pushing the local community toward greater conservation is a bad policy, and one that is dependent on the Jordan Lake allocation. By reconsidering the vote in favor of modifying the interlocal agreement, the Carrboro Aldermen and the Chapel Hill Council have said to OWASA that we will live within our ecological footprint. I hope they will join Dan Coleman from Carrboro (http://blogs.newsobserver.com/orangechat/coleman-seeks-water-dialogue) in exploring what all this means to future development in southern Orange County and our ability to live within our local (clean) water supplies. I also hope it means that the elected officials will acknowledge that the OWASA fee-for-service model may need to be supplemented during periods of extreme drought.

  5. George, I disagree with you on the constitution of the new Comprehensive Plan group. There is no member on that new board from the SVTF who represents those differing opinions. A shame that the broadest range of important lessons learned trying to hammer out a framework will not be brought to the table.

  6. George C

     /  May 6, 2011

    The recently appointed committee is, as I understand it, being charged to set the process but I have heard it suggested that the second part of the plan, the input side, will include a wide and varied composition of citizens. I was pleased that the initiating committee included many new (to me) faces and some readily recognizable ones as well. You and I have both spent years making our views known – it’s time to allow some new ones to be heard as well.

  7. George, while it’s true that we’ve both spent a lot of effort working various issues I don’t think that means we should be excluded from future contributions. As far as this committee, you would think that Council would want representatives from the SVTF who intimately understood why that early process got “stuck” in order to create a process that is both inclusive and vital.

    Right now it appears the input on that previous process will be decidedly one-sided – how does that best serve broad community interest? My concern is that this group be steered towards a process which dictates the end result – the core problem we had with the SVTF.

  8. George C

     /  May 6, 2011

    Will, I’m not saying that our voices shouldn’t be heard. I fully expect that they will be as the process moves forward. But I believe that when you put folks who have been involved with an issue for some time on the same committee as folks that haven’t, the “newbies” might feel intimidated. I know that I heard from several folks on the Visioning Task Force that they were somewhat intimidated because others could readily reel off data and facts related to the issue at hand while they were still trying to figure out some of the definitions or acronyms that we so often throw around (e.g. what’s a LUMO?)

    I suspect that you haven’t been out of school so long that you’ve forgotten the nerd who sat in front of the class and was always asking the teacher questions to show how much he/she knew. The other students would often sit quietly by not because they didn’t know the material or weren’t good students but because they were afraid that if they did ask a question that the others knew it might make them appear foolish. I saw some of this happening on the Visioning Task Force and therefore I think letting some new folks into the discussions will be a healthy thing to do.

  9. As you well know, I’ve worked hard to open up the discussion to as many folks as possible – to the extent of asking Council to actively recruit folks who might not normally participate.

    But that is a different issue than what I described before.

    The first phase of this plan is to create a process for executing the second phase – renewal of the Comprehensive Plan and filling in the gaps. It is quite possible to create a process that opens up our options in moving forward. It is also possible, and given my experience on the SVTF, to create a process which shuts down input that doesn’t align with a desired outcome. In other words, the seeds of any eventual outcome are being planted now.

    In creating a new process, one that will overcome the difficulties experienced by the SVTF, you would think Council would want to understand the whole range of responses. I’m arguing that the Mayor – who appears to have hand-picked these folks from behind closed doors – decided to exclude input from folks like Amy, Madeline, Del, Wes or myself who thought that the SVTF process derailed. Again, if the new process is supposed to be designed to incorporate the widest possible participation, starting out by excluding informed perspectives that might create an outcome which doesn’t match the Mayor’s vision isn’t a good start.

    Now it could be that the new initiating committee will figure out where the potholes the SVTF hit along the way. Still, where is the range of perspectives. Why appoint a member of the SVTF who lobbied hard in support of a failing process and not appoint a member who proposed a way out of the mess?