PAWSD Changes Direction, Part One
Bill Hudson | 5/13/10
For the past five years — the length of time I’ve been writing about the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District for the Daily Post — the PAWSD board of directors and PAWSD staff have conducted their monthly and special meetings seated around a four-foot by eight-foot table, with about half of the participants sitting with their backs to the audience — hidden from view by large, high-backed chairs and blocking the audience’s view of meeting participants on the other side of the table.

Your might say the meetings were conducted in a manner that accorded the public a poor view of the proceedings.

On May 4, the residents and property owners within the PAWSD district went to the polls and elected two new board members, in a landslide election: Allan Bunch, owner of the Malt Shoppe restaurant, and Roy Vega, owner of Vega Insurance.  Bunch and Vega ran on a platform that questioned current PAWSD policies — particularly the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir and its funding mechanisms, along with the high level of debt the district has incurred in recent years.

At the first meeting attended by Bunch and Vega, on Tuesday this week, May 11, the PAWSD board changed direction — starting in a very physical way. 

The meeting began with the board members and staff seated around the meeting table, some with their backs to the audience as usual.  As president pro tem Steve Hartvigsen kicked off the 6:30pm regular meeting, Allan Bunch announced that he’d like to sit facing the audience, and he relocated his high-backed chair to the opposite side of the table.  That left staff members Gene Tauges and Gregg Mayo still sitting with their backs to the audience.

Roy Vega then suggested that the board consider permanently changing the arrangement of the room so that the directors all sat facing the public, and that a separate table be installed to allow staff to sit facing the board and audience at a 90 degrees.  In the meantime, he suggested, the staff could sit in the audience so the public had a clear view of the directors.

Within a few minutes, the audience — which included about a dozen members of the public — had its first unobscured view of the PAWSD board in at least five years.  Continued...
pawsd board pagosa springs new direction
The PAWSD board facing in a new direction.  At the table, from left, president Steve Hartvigsen, district manager Carrie Weiss, Roy Vega, Allan Bunch, Windsor Chacey and Bob Huff.
That, however, was practically the only part of the meeting that proceeded quickly — perhaps because the other changes to the PAWSD board on Tuesday night were philosophical and procedural — and a change in philosophy always requires a lot of discussion, it seems. Those changes of direction resulted in one of the longest board meetings I have attended in Pagosa Springs — a meeting that lasted until 11:00pm.  (I remember hearing about a County Planning Commission meeting that lasted until 1:00am, a few weeks before the County commissioners asked that entire board to resign.  I believe Daily Post writer Glenn Walsh had attended that meeting, bless his little heart.)

Those changes of direction also brought tears to the eyes of at least one PAWSD staff member, before the seemingly endless meeting was adjourned.

Following the re-arrangement of the chairs, the meeting then proceeded with its election of officers — a process that, on most boards, takes less than five minutes.  45 minutes later, the officers of the PAWSD board had still not been chosen.

Election of the board president had happened quickly, with Steve Hartvigsen elected unanimously by the other four members. 

Then Roy Vega nominated Allan Bunch as vice president.

That nomination threw the meeting into a tizzy, much to my surprise.  It seems that the previous PAWSD officers had consisted of a president (Karen Wessels), a secretary/treasurer (Windsor Chacey) and three “vice presidents” (Hartvigsen, Bob Huff and Harold Slavinski.)  Huff and Chacey immediately objected to Vega’s nomination of a single member to be vice president; they wanted to stick to the tradition of having three vice presidents.

I think it’s fairly typical, on government boards, for newly elected members to sit back as observers and stay fairly neutral for a few meetings — to “learn the ropes” so to speak.  New director Roy Vega was obviously not taking that approach.  From the first moments of the meeting agenda, he gave appearance of a new crew member trying to get a hold on the Titanic’s steering wheel as it plowed steadily toward the iceberg.  By the end of the meeting, it appeared that both Vega and Bunch had forged a tentative understanding with the three incumbent board members, and that the iceberg might — over the coming months and years — be avoided.

Vega’s nomination of a single vice president led to an examination of the board’s By-Laws, which had recently been re-approved by the previous PAWSD board — following an examination by the water district’s legal firm, Denver-based Collins Cockrel and Cole.  As Vega pointed out, the approved By-Laws stated on one page that the board could have multiple vice presidents, but on the following page seemed to define a single person as the vice president.

After a lengthy discussion, it was decided that the By-Laws were inconsistent on several points and needed to be revised for consistency.

An audience member like myself was left wondering how much the district was paying Collins, Cockrel and Cole to approve obviously inconsistent By-Laws.

The next discussion centered on whether the board should pay Collins Cockrel and Cole to revise the By-Laws that the firm had so recently approved.  Vega suggested that By-Laws were not rocket science and that the board itself could convene a subcommittee to fix the document inconsistencies.

My subjective experience of the PAWSD board, over the past five years, was of a board that relied almost exclusively on the PAWSD staff and the lawyers at Collins Cockrel and Cole to recommend actions on nearly every decision — decisions that were, essentially, rubber-stamped by the board.  Research by Daily Post writer Glenn Walsh, into board decisions over the past three years, revealed only one single board decision that was not unanimous — and that issue was then brought up again at the following meeting, and approved unanimously.

That tendency was noted by new director Vega at the Tuesday meeting — with the suggestion that the previous board had been, for many years, abrogating its decision-making duties by relying too heavily on staff and attorney recommendations.

Huff and Chacey defended the board’s dependency on staff and attorneys, as deriving from a “very complex district” with very complicated fiscal requirements.

I’ve written regularly about a half dozen local government boards, and while I will agree that the water district has some complicated financial arrangements, I see the water district as one with a rather straight forward mandate: to provide clean drinking water and sewer treatment services. 

You might compare that mandate to the Town of Pagosa Springs, for example, which provides its sewer treatment services using basically one employee — albeit a hard-working one — who is also single-handedly responsible for the municipal geothermal heating system.  The Town also provides street maintenance, parks, recreation, trails, historical preservation, tourism promotion, visitor services, community planning, building and development services, code enforcement, and police protection — among other services. 

The County provides an even more complex mix of services.

PAWSD provides clean water and sewer treatment — yet has, I believe, the largest budget of any government entity in the county, save perhaps the school district.  A good portion of that budget, it seems, has gone to pay attorneys.

Read Part Two...

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