Sunday, October 17, 2010

Animals, Boards, Commissions, and Communications

I was pleasantly surprised Friday to find that once again, the city website has the agenda packet online and usable. Last meetings packet is also still up. Progress. Thanks Alicia and the staff that helped you get this done. It's appreciated. 

A quick scan of the packet shows a couple of items that really interest me. They are revising the Animal Services Board ordinance, and they are discussing city boards and commissions again, hopefully so we can have the first review in the near future.

We've known for a while that the Animal Services Board ordinance, 2.3800, and the ASB Bylaws were in need of revision. At the minimum, they were out of sync with each other. There questions about how well it tracked Texas Health and Safety code chapter 823, which governs animal shelter advisory commissions, which is one of the major functions of the ASB. There were questions about whether health director and animal services director should be voting members. The Bylaws were last approved in 2000, while the Ordinance was last updated in 2007.

A workshop was held by the ASB on March 10th 2010 to address these issues. I was invited to that workshop (which was, of course, an open meeting) to help with the discussion. It was requested that City Legal have a representative at the meeting, but none were present. The meeting lasted a couple hours, and at the end, they had a good revised set of documents the hoped were ready to go before City Council. Just needed legal review and possibly some tweaking before becoming an ordinance.

That was 7 months ago. Tuesday a new ordinance is finally on the agenda. Unfortunately, this is a mostly new ordinance to replace the one we currently have. First off, it changes the name to Animal Shelter Advisory Commission (although the new 2.3810 still uses “members of the animal service board”.) Then it reduces the number of members from 9 to 5*, all of which now have to be involved in some animal related business or activity. No plain citizen or property owners are on the board. It requires 2 veterinarians even though we've had trouble getting even one to serve. It limits the scope of the commission to just the animal shelter, ignoring the larger question of animal welfare throughout the city.

I have a number of problems with this. First, why did it take 7months for this to come before council. As far as I knew, outside of some minor tweaking, the only open question was whether or not the staff members on the board should be voting members. The proposed ordinance doesn't make it any clearer. Next, this is a very major change to the duties and the responsibilities of the board/commission members. Staff, in their briefing to council in the agenda packet, states that the ASB has "historically been called upon to provide advice beyond  the scope of the law authorizing their creation and duties." If they are referring to the Health Code, section 823, then that might be the case. The ASB was not created by section 823, but to be in compliance with section 823. It was created by a city ordinance that gives them the animal shelter advisory role as just one of its duties. A review of several other Texas cities animal commissions finds that several of them use their commission for general animal issue advice. Lubbock specifically requires their ASAC to "advise on the city's animal services program." Midland requires their Animal Control Advisory Commission to "advise on animal control issues referred by council." This pattern is common.

The proposed ordinance changes the make up of this board/commission significantly. Any change this large should be addressed as part of the board and commission review process that has still to get off the ground. At the minimum, it should be done during a joint session.

This brings us to a problem that goes to the fundamental reason we have boards and commissions. Boards and commissions work for the City Council, not city staff. They are appointed and removed by Council. They are accountable to Council. They are subject to Council guidance and limitations. They are supposed to be the expert advisers to Council, and in many cases they are councils representatives. They are an extension of City Council into many areas because there just aren't enough council people to be everywhere. They are not just auxiliary, unpaid staff.

Unfortunately, our boards and commissions are being used and treated like low level staff. They are isolated from council, their boss, by staff. With the exception of statutory appeal boards like the planning commission and the zoning board of adjustments, you never hear about a boards input on an item before council. Many board members, especially on the animal services board, don't know who appointed them. Start and end dates for their term in office are often unclear. Boards have almost no contact with the council, and are often left to fend for themselves on critical issues. What guidance they get doesn't come directly from council. Instead, it's filtered through several layers of staff. Some times staff does a great job of getting the word down to boards. More often than not, it's like the old game of telephone where the message to the boards bears little resemblance to the guidance from the council.

Boards and commissions need to have good, unfiltered lines of communication with the city council. Their recommendations should be heard unedited by the council. Staff needs to be in the loop, and the staff representative needs to make sure that the council is given staffs input on the issues. The city legal department need to be in the loop to make sure that the city stays in compliance with the law, but that is no reason to delay input to the council by half a year. If nothing else, all board decisions should be presented to the city council for discussion as a draft work in process. Even if staff has concerns, and needs to do further research the council should always know when a board votes to send something forward. That's just basic communication.

The board and commission review process the council adopted last spring will help address these problems. I think it is very premature to do a major restructuring of a state required commission before the council has done a fair review of that commission using the process they approved.

*Made a mistake on the number earlier. Was caught by a sharp eyed reader.  Sorry for the error.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

More on the Hickory Article

There was whole slew of rebuttals from city representatives and other interested parties, suggesting that I misrepresented the facts in regard to the Hickory project and WCID a few weeks ago, so I just want to clarify a few things. The Standard Times will not allow me to give a response, claiming they "don't get into back and forth rebuttals"…
First of all, I never said that WCID used 25,000 acre feet directly from Twin Buttes. I said they use twice as much water as the city of San Angelo. That would include both waste water and water taken directly from the reservoirs. I based that on a claim they made at a hearing in Washington DC that “normal” usage would be 22,000 acre feet but that they would really need 20-30% more than that to make up for evaporation. (And to address Ted’s aside, recycling waste water doesn’t necessarily mean that we would have to drink it - we could use it on golf courses, city parks, and lawns the way many communities in other arid regions do for instance…)
So, those were the numbers I was working with, even though some had suggested to me that the district actually used much more. How the water usage is actually monitored is still unclear to me since TCEQ told me that the city utilities director just tells them over the phone when they are going to release water into the canal and how much. If some one would like to provide some records on this matter that would be great. I’m just trying to get that information to the surface. 20,000 acre feet of water would cover the entire 10,000 acre district in 2 feet of water. My point was, and is, I’m not sure that this is the kind of farming that our arid region can reasonably support in our water starved world, and this is certainly quite a lot more water than most irrigating operations in this area even use. I have been told that wells are also used within the district as well, which would add additional acre feet to that estimation of annual water usage.
Tom Massey, the attorney that has represented the city in their lawsuits, said that there would be no Twin Buttes if not for WCID. I’m not an attorney, I could be wrong, but I do not think that is an accurate statement. The dam was built for flood control. Everything I wrote in my article concerning the conception of this project with the Bureau of Reclamation came from the Bureau of Reclamation’s own documentation. A Department of the Interior’s report states, and I add my emphasis: “The project provides for the integrated operation of Twin Buttes Reservoir with the existing Nasworthy Reservoir to meet the municipal water requirements of San Angelo; and permits irrigation of the project lands, provides flood protection, recreation, and fish and wildlife benefits… The Bureau of Reclamation initiated investigations for developing an irrigation plan for using Concho River water in excess of the municipal and industrial needs of the area. The reservoir would yield sufficient water to meet all foreseeable municipal requirements … with irrigation releases made from Twin Buttes Reservoir only when the water in storage exceeds 50,000 acre-feet.” Those are the Bureau of Reclamation’s words, they certainly seem to suggest that the irrigation districts needs are secondary to the city's, and those are the words I used as the basis for that part of my article.
What Massey has said about the Hickory wells only supports the concern I have expressed over the Hickory project. “We have the deepest wells …we’re not going to run out.” I never said we would run out. I did say we may begin to see shallow wells dry up with municipal pumping in the deeper areas. What about the people who live above the aquifer and get their water from shallow wells who can’t afford to drill deeper? San Angelo will be the largest user of Hickory water, yet will not have to abide by the same rules as others who have used the Aquifer for years. The permitting language states that the Conservation Board may review, revise, recall, cancel, reallocate or change, in whole or part, any permits with wells contributing to a cumulative net water-level decline. But the settlement agreement exempts San Angelo from this rule. It also states that San Angelo cannot sell any of the water from the Hickory or from our surface waters, which seems to interfere with the city’s plans to become a regional water supplier. On these issues I see the potential for future litigation.
The availability rates were changed DRASTICALLY by the state as of this year, as our city manager noted in his article. Rather than just supply a newly formulated chain of data that seems to be subject to change whenever the political agendas change, I was interested in giving readers a picture of the history behind the Hickory aquifer project that would illustrate the concerns of the people living above and relying upon the Hickory, the purpose of the Conservation District, and their reaction to being sued by a distant municipality who claimed the Conservation District had no right to regulate them. All of the information I supplied in that regard came directly from the Hickory Underground Water Conservation District’s documents.
As for the cost of the Hickory project I did say that the 120 million was to build the pipeline, and that was a mistake. But, Hutch Musallam of Carollo Engineers, the firm working with the city on the project stated in the Standard Times: “The first phase is estimated to cost $120 million...” That statement does seem to imply that there will be additional funds needed to complete the project. And not one of the dissenters has addressed how much it would cost to maintain this project, to pump, treat, and monitor the radioactive water.
The irrigation district has falsely stated on their web-sight that I am a member of the Concho River Conservancy Group, an alliance suing the city, which I have NEVER been involved in. If I supported that effort, you can be sure I would have spoken out about it long ago. I think that issue could, and should, be resolved out of court. If not, as I understand it, the city could be spending many more millions (of our tax dollars) defending themselves in the Supreme Court. I do not believe ANYONE should irrigate farmland from our rivers. The resources are too scarce. I have some ideas on a solution that I think would be agreeable to all parties in that situation, if only both sides would be willing to listen and consider that a change is due. Now is the time for co-operation. More on that later.
I live on the Concho River down stream from San Angelo. I have seen it reduced to hot puddles of mud. I was told by members of the Conservancy group that the WCID had refused to release the names of the members in their irrigation district or provide reliable information regarding their water usage. I did attempt to confirm that via e-mail on 3 occasions and never received a response. Perhaps I should have made additional efforts, but I am not a professional journalist, I am a mother of four, and considered instead to write my article based information that could be obtained through documents available to any one online, day or night, from the Bureau of Reclamation, The Hickory Underground Water Conservation District, the WCID’s web-sight, the City of San Angelo, public record related to House Resolution 4910, and the Standard Times.
I think there are valid concerns that a conflict of interest could exist between the WCID and members of the city staff. A release of the names of the farmers in this irrigation district and records of the amounts of water that each member has used from Twin Buttes and the city treatment plant for the past 10 years should clear all that up.
My interest in this subject is a matter of just governance, fiscal responsibility, and the environmental integrity of our riparian area. I am firm believer in Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, which states that: "A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise." Whether we get our water from the tap, a well, a river, or a rooftop, we will all have to begin thinking and acting holistically, and partner together to conserve and protect this precious resource.