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Water Commission wants more information about WPT4 construction

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 by Michael Kanin

The members of the Water and Wastewater Commission last week called on the Austin Water Utility to keep their body more plugged in to the vetting process for the Water Treatment Plant 4 project. Their request covers information about other board meetings where the facility might be discussed as well as a host of publicly available information such as memos and the utility’s regular email about the plant’s construction.


The commission’s action came after the board decided not to vote on a proposal from Commissioners Mickey Fishbeck and Sarah Faust that would have mandated monthly reports from the staff behind the project. Instead, it elected to go with the less formal request, which will result in regular communications from the utility about its appearances before other boards and commissions and some form of report, which will see a dry run at the commission’s next meeting.


Indeed, all parties seemed to see the process as repetitive. Still, there was a clear desire for more information on the part of most of the commission. Fishbeck summed it up this way: “It’s a large construction project, there’s a lot of community interest in it, and I’m concerned that we don’t get information on a regular basis.”


She had specific concerns about the proposed Jollyville Transmission line portion of the project. “In regards to the transmission line,” she said, “I really don’t want to find out about it watching the news or reading it in the paper.”


Board Chairman Mario Espinoza echoed her worries. “Some of the issues are that…some of the media are reporting (on some information) and we’re not in the loop.”


Faust, who also brought up the scope of the project and its extended timeframe, took issue with what she termed as “hard to follow” backup. She further suggested that someone at the utility give the commission some kind of notice about what plant issues had come up at other meetings.


“I would be very happy with just a piece of paper with a date of the meeting that took place and a link,” she said.


For Vice Chair Gwen Webb, the lack of information was impeding the role of the commission. “This is a volunteer board, and it is to oversee and to provide advice for the water utility,” she said. “It would be nice if we knew about the issues before reading about them or seeing them on the news.”


Utility Director Greg Meszaros agreed that much of what the commission asked for was reasonable. He drew a line, however, when it came to too much direct contact between that body and city staff. “I would be troubled if the proposal is that commissioners would routinely be sending emails to staff,” he said. “I think it’s very important that the City Manager maintains (his) city charter authority to run the city, direct the staff, manage the staff—and that the boards and commissions stay in their role to advise the Council.”


Despite the discussion, Espinoza told In Fact Daily that he felt as though his commission wasn’t under-informed when it came to the water treatment plant. “Sometimes…information may not flow to us as directly as we’d like,” he said, “but as far as being under-informed or uninformed, absolutely not.”


He did, however, offer a small caveat. “I think it probably has to do more with your level of participation in the full process…and there are obviously some commissioners that are more involved than others, and have a stronger interest in the project. So there may be a need for them to have more information—and that’s information that we should get to them.”


Fishbeck echoed the concerns of several of her colleagues. “I think that the water treatment plant project is a very, very large project and it’s our responsibility to have some oversight of that. So I just wanted to be sure that we have some more information.”

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