EPWU/PSB is not a private company and it is more than just a utility. We El Pasoans have asked them to manage land and stormwater as well as water and sewage. We understand that there are tough political decisions to be made about water scarcity and conservation, urban sprawl and groundwater. In other words, they are not just responsible to us for delivering a product that is safe and clean, but helping us with far greater issues of conservation and sustainability - issues that are political. Debate, doubt, discussion and dissent must be out in the open and must include the public. This is not a bad thing but a healthy thing. It is, of course, detrimental to those who like to use power without accountability.
First, kudos to El Paso Times reporter, Aaron Martinez for his article in this morning's paper about the PSB policy to limit the access of PSB members to the media and public. In the printed paper the article was entitled "PSB seeks media-access limit". Online it is PSB debates rules on how board members can address the public, media. Online is also this poll which accompanies the story: Do you agree with a PSB proposal to limit how board members interact with the public and media? So far, 75% of respondents believe that such a policy to limit access would hinder the public's right to know. Please take a moment to see the story online and take the poll. I'm part of the 75%.
To be clear, here is the policy that was invoked/discussed behind closed doors, away from the public yesterday but which will now be put on the November PSB agenda for open discussion:
What John Balliew said as reported by this story stunned me the most: "...if you are speaking as a Public Service Board member, you should speak through the chair, president or vice president." Why? "This rule is just to make sure we give a clear and unified message to our customers. The purpose of a board like this, an appointed board, is to operate the water, wastewater and stormwater systems in the best interest of the citizens of El Paso. Hopefully, it would be done in a unified voice."
Balliew denied that the executive session discussion of the policy was influenced by any recent events. That's just not true. It was put on the executive session agenda because of recent stories about the UTEP Reclaimed Water project by the Inc. and by elpasonaturally in which dissent was voiced by board member, Dr. Richard Bonart. The doubt raised by Bonart led to the Board's decision last month not to fund without significant caveats the pet project of conflicted board chair, Richard Schoephoerster. As elpasonaturally has shown with open records requests, the UTEP project which had no cost benefit was being justified with grandiose claims about educating thousands. Educating about what? A technology headed for the shelf where outdated and obsolete things are stacked to collect dust.
EPWU Economist Torres stated the line of official BS the best:
"I think the real value of this project is not in the financials it is in the intangible opportunity this project has. UTEP is celebrating their 100 year anniversary and this is a great way for EPWU to be showcased as a partner in the community providing an innovative supply of water that other communities don't have. There is no monetary measure of this, however it is something that will bring positive news for EPWU as UTEP will be promoting their 100 anniversary and the information will reach alumni and individuals all over the world."
The very recent event of a project conceived, nurtured and promoted far from the public view and then rejected WAS the reason for the communications policy to be placed on the executive session agenda. Invoking that policy only further revealed what that policy is all about: silencing debate and dissent.
Imagine if such a policy existed with the City of El Paso. Nobody could interact with the media except the Mayor, City Manager and a press officer. Once a vote is taken in Council, then a City Council representative must refer questions from the public and media to these three people. Imagine trying to have such a policy! It is good that city representatives continue to debate, discuss and dissent openly in and out of Council meetings.
PSB members were chosen by the members of City Council who were elected by us, the people of El Paso. They need not be in lockstep with any "official" voice. They should for the sake of the public good continue to debate, discuss and dissent openly. In fact, when policies are so dictatorial and employed to limit access to the public and the press and to silence discussion and debate, then board members have little choice but to use the tool of the media to be heard. They have a fiduciary responsiblity to do so.
EPWU/PSB is not a private company and it is more than just a utility. We El Pasoans have asked them to manage land and stormwater as well as water and sewage. We understand that there are tough political decisions to be made about water scarcity and conservation, urban sprawl and groundwater. In other words, the PSB is not just responsible to us for delivering a product that is safe and clean, but helping us with far greater issues of conservation and sustainability - issues that are political. Debate, doubt, discussion and dissent must be out in the open and must include the public. This is not a bad thing but a healthy thing. It is, of course, detrimental to those who like to use power without accountability.
What should have been discussed behind closed doors in executive session yesterday was the resignation of the supercilious Schoephoerster and those in the EPWU legal department who are shielding him from open records requests.