By Joe Tash
Santa Fe Irrigation District directors voted at their meeting on Thursday, Jan. 17, to clarify rules regarding when and how directors can place items on the board’s meeting agenda for consideration.
The issue came up last month when newly elected director Greg Gruzdowich tried to put three items on the board’s agenda, including a potential rollback of a 6 percent rate increase that took effect Jan. 1. Instead, after consulting with board president Michael Hogan, district general manager Michael Bardin put an item on the December agenda to discuss how directors can place items on the agenda.
While discussion of the rate increase was not officially on the board’s December agenda, Gruzdowich did propose calling a special meeting to discuss the issue, but his motion was voted down 3-2 by the board.
On Thursday, Bardin brought back language for a proposed amendment to the district’s administrative code that would provide more specific guidelines for placing items on the agenda.
Bardin said the previous language was vague, and that it could be costly and inefficient for staff to spend time on agenda items proposed by individual board members, rather than a consensus of the full five-member board.
Under the new language, approved by the board on a 4-0 vote, with director John Ingalls abstaining, any director may submit a written request to put an item on the agenda for initial discussion, but a board majority must authorize a “significant expenditure of staff time or other resources.” Such requests must be submitted at least two weeks before a meeting for items to be included on the agenda.
Gruzdowich said he understood concerns about conserving staff time, but was concerned that individual directors could find themselves stymied in the ability to bring items up for a vote of the full board. Potential agenda items could be “caught in a bureaucratic cycle, like Groundhog Day, it never changes,” he said, referring to a film starring Bill Murray in which the main character keeps waking up on the same day.
Director Andy Menshek said the board shouldn’t overload staff, and must conduct the district’s business in a “coordinated manner.” However, he said directors should have the ability to bring matters before the full board. “I will support you in bringing items for fruitful discussion,” he said.
Gruzdowich also questioned district staff on whether he should have been allowed to put the three items on last month’s agenda under the policies in place at that time. Along with the rate increase, Gruzdowich wanted to discuss directors’ health benefits and potential consolidation with other water districts on the December agenda.
District general counsel Paula de Sousa conceded that “potentially” Gruzdowich’s items should have been placed on the agenda, but under district policies the request could have been handled in a number of different ways.
Bardin said he felt the situation was handled properly, because the district had spent a year working on the rate increase proposal, which was approved by the board at its November meeting. He also noted that the board did consider — and reject — Gruzdowich’s proposal to hold a special meeting to consider rolling back the rate increase.
During the “directors’ comments” portion of the meeting, Gruzdowich also took issue with media portrayals of the combined rate increases imposed by the district in recent years.
Over the past six years, the district has raised rates on its customers by 74 percent, including this year’s 6 percent increase.
Gruzdowich said the total impact on water district customers should include the compounding effect of the series of six annual rate increases, and by that measure, rates have actually gone up 99.7 percent.
“Our bills have doubled, that’s how the math works when you compound the percentages,” he said. “We at least need to be accurate in describing the impact of rates on ratepayers.”
Gruzdowich said the district should make a “clarifying” statement to the media, so that the correct information about rates is reported to the public.
Bardin and Hogan said every local water district would have to use the same method to report its rates, otherwise rates could not be compared across the region.
While he agreed to review the information that has been provided to the media regarding district rate increases, Bardin said, “I’m comfortable with the information we’ve provided to the media, I’m not inclined to make a clarification.”