Objections to Ballot Question 2 – To Repeal and Replace Article V on Utilities

A group of nonpartisan citizens consisting of former County Councilors, former and current members of the Board of Public Utilities and former Utilities Managers object to the repeal and replacement of County Charter Article V – Utilities.  This document summarizes their objections, and was provided to the County for the Voter Information Brochure.

“Objections to the Proposed Changes” in Ballot Question #2

Question 2 would fundamentally change the semi-independent relationship between the general County government and County Utilities. That governance model has resulted in generally reliable utilities service at competitive rates since the County Charter was initially adopted 46 years ago. Question 2 would repeal and entirely replace Article V of the Charter, which governs County Utilities. Under the existing Article V, Utilities has been able to continually adapt to an evolving utility industry and world. There must be a compelling reason to change such a successful system. No claim is made that service would be improved or costs reduced. Instead, there would be risks to both.

LA’s Department of Public Utilities (DPU) is a publicly-owned utility business. It operates like a business on behalf of its owners and customers – all citizens of Los Alamos – under the policy direction and operational oversight of the Board of Public Utilities (BPU). Its present semi-independent relationship to the general county government largely insulates Utilities and all of us consumers from political influence by county councils. Councils already must approve all major actions of BPU, protecting against any possible irresponsible actions by the BPU. Question 2, if approved, would destroy this check-and-balance relationship.

While proponents assert Question 2 would increase “accountability” of BPU, in fact it would only increase control by county councils. There are no examples in the past half century where utility customers or the county were harmed by inadequate “accountability.” There have been attempts by councils or individual councilors to gain consideration for special interests or extract increased money from utilities for general county spending – requiring higher utility rates or imperiling proper operation of the utilities system. Meddling and back-door taxes are common in communities where public utilities are subject to political control. In some cases, utility funds have been raided, leaving inadequate reserves when infrastructure needed to be replaced or repaired.

This increased political control would be exerted in either of two ways. First, in the guise of “dispute resolution” a council could unilaterally impose its resolution to any disagreement with BPU. Or, it could arbitrarily (“without cause,” in legal parlance) fire any or all members of the BPU and replace them with compliant lackeys.

When one side can ultimately impose its will, the character of negotiation changes entirely. Negotiation is inherent in any checks-and-balances governance system. By defining specific formal negotiation processes, Question 2 would actually limit negotiation options and undoubtedly protract decision-making.

The quality of BPU members could be reduced. Selecting good people is the most important task of any supervising entity. Councils have chosen excellent BPU members. Most serve long enough to amass considerable expertise in the complex utilities business. There have been no bad apples. The effect of Question 2 on potential applicants for BPU is unclear, but it cannot be positive; it has the potential to discourage competent applicants. Question 2 would also tie council hands by forcing it to fill any BPU vacancy within sixty days, regardless of the quality of applicants. There have been times when vacancies have been left open until truly suitable community members volunteered.

In turn, BPU has chosen, with Council concurrence, excellent utilities managers who have also served long tenures. Dedication, stability, and professionalism at the top (both BPU and utilities managers) have made for a solid Department of Public Utilities (DPU) that has served us well.

Just as negotiation mechanisms are not a charter issue, neither is “improved communication.” Nothing is proposed in Question 2 that is not already in place or easily implemented by more flexible ordinance, policy, practice, or common sense.

The first charter proposed for LA County was rejected in 1966 largely because of citizen fears of excessive political control of utilities. Our current semi-autonomous system enabled the charter to be adopted in 1968. It is a work of genius then that has served us well since. Any needed minor improvements should be done by specific amendment – as with our Federal and State Constitutions – not wholesale repeal and replacement of Article V to fundamentally change a system that works. Benefits of approving Question 2 are obscure and largely hypothetical; risks to our utilities service and the rates we pay are much greater and very real.