Durango City Council will meet with the three members of the city’s Utilities Commission on Tuesday to discuss if the advisory board should remain in place and, if so, what councilors expect from it.
“We’ve hit a rocky road for a year or so ... Should we just get off the highway? Or what are we going to do?” said City Councilor Dick White, liaison to the commission.
The commission’s tense relationship with city leaders became public during a debate about the future of the sewer plant in Santa Rita Park.
Former chairman Chris Wilbur stepped down and publicly questioned whether city leaders had fully explored all options for moving the plant out of the park and building in a new location. Other utilities commissioners raised similar questions.
From White’s perspective, if the commission had been given more information about possible sewer plant sites earlier, as the board members requested, it could have avoided some of the conflict.
“It was a collective effort. Collectively, we should have done better,” he said.
Despite the tension, White feels confident councilors made the right decision to leave the sewer plant in Santa Rita Park because it would have cost millions more to move it, he said.
However, the commission exists to advise the council on the expansion of water and sewage treatment facilities, among other issues, according to the city website.
In the past, commissioners have advised city councilors on water rates, purchasing water storage in Lake Nighthorse, and the annual capital improvements budget, said Wilbur, who served for 14 years.
“The meetings were really very interesting and lively, but friendly and civil,” he said.
In recent years, it seemed like the commission’s opinions have not been appreciated, he said.
“We didn’t feel like we were being heard or valued in any way,” he said.
After Wilbur stepped down, board members Bob Wolff and Ryan Huggins left the commission. Wolff stepped down to avoid a conflict of interest because he serves on the board that will approve the city’s loan for the sewer plant. Huggins declined to comment.
Chairman John Ballew and members Kara Hellige and Dick Reitz remain, although Reitz’s current term expires this month
If the council decides to keep the commission in place, it will require some effort to move forward after the tension, Ballew said.
“Some members pushed harder than they should have, and some members of staff pushed back,” he said.
White said recently the commission has made important contributions, including helping to reduce the water and sewer rate increases by suggesting some projects that could be deferred.
If the commission continues, he said, the council needs to decide the scope of the advice it receives from the body.
“We can’t change what’s happened. How can we set up a structure that will work effectively in future?” White asked rhetorically.
Because of Tuesday’s planned discussion, the city did not advertise the vacancies on the board when they put out the call to fill the other citizen advisory positions, City Manager Ron LeBlanc said. The open advisory board positions were advertised in The Durango Herald and on the city’s website.
“Until council provides direction, it did not seem appropriate to advertise,” he said.