Sanitary district policy reversal was a good idea

Dec 19, 2016

It has been said the true measure of an individual or an organization are actions taken when nobody is watching.

Using that benchmark, the Junaluska Sanitary District governing board initially had some explaining to do in how it handled the public's business. But the board members redeemed themselves by quickly backtracking once they realized the hornet's nest they stirred when making a major policy change without seeking public input.

At its regular October meeting, the five-member board concluded that the best way to curtail the number of unpaid water bills was to change who would be ultimately held responsible. A policy went into effect about a week later requiring landlords to cover bills left by renters who skip out. The policy didn't apply retroactively, but would apply to future customers within the district living in rentals.

The change was substantial, and property owners and managers say they should have been informed in advance. Many who spoke out against the policy at a December meeting suggested alternatives that could have been considered.

While the board didn't show much interest in public opinion early on, they took notice when a dozen or so water users came to the meeting to raise concern. That night, the board suspended that portion of the new policy and opted to revisit the issue in January — a step that could have been avoided altogether had there been better communication.

The whole idea of our form of government is to elect people who represent us. To do that, they need to interact with their constituents. This lesson is one the Junaluska Sanitary board took to heart, and hopefully is one that won't be soon forgotten.

In all truthfulness, there has been little public interaction — or even interest — in the inner workings of the Junaluska Sanitary District. The district provides water and sewer services in the central part of the county, and has two of its largest consumers of water — Haywood Regional Medical Center and Haywood Community College.

There haven't been contested elections in the district for years, even after a 2010 revelation that more than $200,000 had been embezzled from the district. (The money was repaid, and the perpetrator spent no time in jail.)

The district has taken on a project to extend sewer services along N.C. 209. The county is kicking in $300,000 for the project, and a $1.9 million Golden Leaf grant was secured.

The recent dustup over the ill-fated customer policy change illustrated some underlying weaknesses within the district. For instance, requests for the minutes of recent meetings seemed to surprise the staff. Initial requests were deflected until an official appointment was made with the general manager who would provide the hard copy for review, and that couldn't happen until next week. Limited resources, the failure to even get an email system until recently and a staff shortage to make copies were all cited as reasons.

Eventually the minutes were provided in email form in a timely manner, but the issue seemed to illustrate that the Junaluska Sanitary District is a bit behind the times when it comes to modern forms of communication.

When in comes to grant funds, accountability is paramount. If an organization can't easily provide minutes to meetings held more than two months ago, it begs the question: how well-equipped is it to handle a multi-million dollar project?

Perhaps the elected leaders simply needed to know that people do care about the important work they are doing. More importantly, however, it would be nice for the board members to remember that actions taken — even when nobody is watching — are the true measure of character.