Time to vote on Utilities governance

Bring together almost any group of prominent community leaders these days, and inevitably the subject turns to Colorado Springs Utilities — in particular, the future of Martin Drake Power Plant.

On one extreme, there are the environmentalists, who are more determined to force the issue of closure after the May 5 fire that temporarily shut down Drake. On the other side are business executives, especially those from larger companies and entities, who believe that as long as Drake can operate within regulations for emissions, the cost savings for ratepayers should warrant keeping the plant open as long as possible.

Utilities staffers have been meeting with groups and individuals across the community, taking input for the Utilities Board (aka City Council) to consider in determining its position on Drake and the possible timing for making long-term decisions.

Later this month, the Utilities Board will set a timeline for reaching those decisions, likely to come about a year from now, during the third quarter of 2015. One choice is not to change course from the current strategy. Lest we forget, a similar process culminated in 2012 with the Utilities Board — helped by all kinds of public and business input — concluding Drake should continue in operation for at least 20 more years.

Now, of course, the emotions have heightened on all sides. But we’re hearing one common agreement — everyone is concerned about the group of nine elected leaders responsible for acting on behalf of Colorado Springs’ best interests.

Because of City Council’s rapid turnover, with more to come next April when the three at-large positions will be on the ballot (and Jan Martin is term-limited), that lack of experience could become an even more obvious weakness. By Q3 of 2015, we’ll have no more than two councilors who have served since 2011 (and that’s if Merv Bennett and Val Snider seek and win re-election) plus at least seven who have served from a few months to just more than two years.

Even in the past, when City Council typically had a more stable nucleus of long-standing members, we’d hear periodically that perhaps the governance of Utilities should move away from City Council also comprising the Utilities Board.

Everyone is concerned about the group of nine elected leaders responsible for acting on behalf of Colorado Springs.

Now, with such a mix of fractious newcomers and particularly a glaring shortage of councilors who have run a business, the indigestion has grown to much higher levels. In one group discussion this week, numerous business and civic leaders indicated they don’t think the current City Council/Utilities Board is properly equipped to make such pivotal, monumental decisions for the $1.3 billion enterprise.

Here’s our suggestion: While acting as the Utilities Board to set the timetable for determining Drake’s future, City Council should agree — this month — to put an issue on the April 2015 city election ballot allowing voters to pass judgment on CSU’s governance.

There’s no time to put it off and make it part of a sweeping City Charter review. This has to happen now.

Council wouldn’t have to be shut out. Even those with deep concerns about the group’s overall expertise would likely go along with having two or three councilors on the Utilities Board, plus a clear majority of members with proven expertise.

Put it on the ballot next April, and city voters could have a say in how Utilities is governed at such an important time. Why not give everyone that choice? nCSBJ