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Water planning group stuck in a rut

The so-called Community Water Supply Planning Group (CWSPG) met for the second time last week (Wednesday), and again failed to accomplish much beyond caustic quibbling and near-constant quotes of mistrust. By meeting’s end, in fact, the group barely managed approval of what constitutes an affirmative vote.

According to the meeting agenda, the hired facilitator, Maro Zagoras, of Desired Outcomes Inc. (Fort Collins), was to initiate discussions on her specific role, hopeful meeting outcomes, the day’s agenda and equally important, determining a group name and establishing immediate and future ground rules. That was to begin at precisely 4:30 p.m.

First, however, Zagoras chose to “train” or educate the panel on proper conduct and procedures necessary in reaching vital decisions relevant to the group’s final charge, which the group itself must ultimately define.

Before she began, however, Archuleta County Commissioner John Ranson abruptly asked if he could read a statement he’d prepared, which the entire Board of County Commissioners (BoCC) had unanimously approved. Without hesitation, Zagoras granted him the floor.

Ranson opened by first mentioning a 2007 discovery of a “flawed financial system” that “placed the county near bankruptcy.” He described the volunteer financial task force that helped create a credible, long-term strategy for managing county finances, even in light of the apparent “lack of concern or sense of urgency” among county staff.

He then suggested that the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) only has a positive cash flow because of its ability to secure loans “in a difficult environment,” while its staff apparently suffers a similar lack of concern or sense of urgency to that of the county in 2007.

Interestingly, he failed to mention the millions of dollars in grants and low- or no-interest loans the district has attained in recent years, or the fact that historic PAWSD audits have consistently indicated a district in good financial health.

While alluding to a “pre-audit presentation” by Certified Public Accountant Karla Clark of Clark, White & Associates Inc. at the last PAWSD board meeting, he neglected to include Clark’s comments, which stated that PAWSD has done a good job of taking advantage of low-interest loans and grant funding to stay abreast of infrastructure needs. Too, he never mentioned Clark’s remarks suggesting that other districts not as successful in obtaining reasonable financing would have few resources other than increasing service fees to manage required facilities improvements.

Nonetheless, Ranson insisted that PAWSD cannot repay its debts with current cash flow, and that PAWSD should, “not add any additional debt until such time as this committee (CWSPG) designs a clear, well-structured plan to manage the financial situation at PAWSD.”

Though the CWSPG has yet to clearly define its true aim — much less name itself, or designate an official group spokesperson — determining the best means of managing PAWSD finances has never been considered its ultimate goal by the 29 additional participants now seated on the panel. Rather, answering whether PAWSD should plan for future water needs and, if so, how, are apparently the questions that drew most volunteers to sit on the CWSPG panel to begin with.

Certainly, any future water storage plans will involve detailed financing, in which informed district constituents should play a vital role. However, PAWSD is a complex special district funded by several convoluted enterprise funds, the management of which can’t be taken lightly.

In the meantime, as Ranson completed his oration last Wednesday, Zagoras quickly shut him down, stating that the group faced several “psychological and procedural” questions before delving into more advanced issues.

“We’re not going to jump into this issue of whether or not the debt service at this time, we don’t even have our psychological procedural guidelines for this group set up,” Zagoras exclaimed. “What I did hear in here that would work on that, when we get to it in a second, is the super majority in the decision making method ...”

As part of Ranson’s statement, he added that the CWSPG should utilize a two-thirds majority while affirming or denying matters brought to a vote, and he recommended that Al Bledsoe join the committee immediately. As a BoCC consultant, Bledsoe was among those serving on the county financial task force in 2007.

Following Zagoras’ refusal to talk PAWSD finances — and a 30-minute “training session” on policies and procedures — a lengthy discussion ensued, regarding the type of majority needed to affirm a successful vote.

“You guys walked in here with a high level of mistrust, of each other or maybe PAWSD,” Zagoras began. “So, what PAWSD is doing is saying, we’re turning all this over to you guys. There’s not going to be any agreements that are made before this meeting about how this is going to be run, who’s going to make a decision, how. All that will be asked of you (the group). You have full ownership of this.”

Eventually, the panel decided on a three-quarters majority to affirm votes, then denied Bledsoe’s participation on the panel, due to his inability to regularly attend meetings after September.

With that, dialogue turned to an even longer debate over the panel matrix and whether others should be invited to join the group, or whether some should be excused. A few members felt those not already in attendance were simply not interested, while others insisted certain segments of the community might need representation, even if they’re unable to attend meetings.

In time, panelist Ray Finney offered, “One thing, since this matrix is going around ever so slowly and wasn’t filled in advance, maybe we could read off the matrix and have people raise their hand of what they really think they are. We just had a PAWSD board election and two people supported by the builders and some people in the real estate community won in a landslide. So, there is a vested interest in this community. The real trick is, we just need to show our cards.

“My feeling is, I am a Realtor, but I’m not going to blame the economy on PAWSD. The economy is screwed up, we’re going to have to work our way through it. But we do have to figure out the financial note of where PAWSD is, and we’re going to have to figure out the future water needs of Archuleta County.

“So, those are the two issues in my mind that are most important.”

With that, former San Juan Water Conservancy District board member Fred Ebeling asked PAWSD Special Projects Manager Sheila Berger, “Sheila, how were the people here chosen? Did they volunteer and you said, OK you’re on?”

At the onset, Berger was instrumental in soliciting community interest in serving on the panel.

“There were two ways,” she replied to Ebeling. “One was, it was advertised, whoever was interested and could commit to this process, and, really, anybody was welcome. Also, we put together a list of probably 30 to 35 different organizations and agencies and then invited them to send somebody if they wanted to. So, it was kind of a dual invitation.”

As the seemingly endless volley continued, panelist George Khoury suddenly revealed his frustration with the process. “You know, who cares? You just spent an hour explaining the process, the open mind, the educate, don’t commit to a rigid agenda — blah, blah, blah — so you can actually educate yourself and arrive at a reasonable decision. So, what the heck does it matter who’s here? It’s just getting so tedious.”

When a firm conclusion on the matrix and a number of other topics seemed out of reach, the matter of majority vote resurfaced.

In response, Zagoras said, “I find it interesting, I work with groups all the time all over the state. We can’t even come to some kind of decision-making method in this group. That tells me that psychologically and procedurally there’s just so much mistrust or something that’s going on ... you don’t trust each other, guys.”

By meeting’s end, the group chose to amend its earlier decision and run with a two-thirds majority. Then, after three-and-a-half hours, it chose to meet again at 5 p.m., July 14, at the community center.

chuck@pagosasun.com