Op/Ed

Editorial: Tri-Town Water board skips crucial part of the story

ANGELO LYNN

It’s rarely the right call to withhold information from the public about operational shortcomings of a public service. Within a public body, when residents could be affected the best course of action is to be fully transparent.

That is not, however, how the Tri-Town Water District Board has initially handled a recent incident in which some ratepayers were under-billed for a period of two years. While the water district board sent a letter to ratepayers in Bridport, Shoreham and Addison acknowledging the billing errors, they did not acknowledge how much money was involved, how many ratepayers were under-billed, what long-term impact, if any, the shortfall may have on operations, or what precautions have been taken to prevent a recurrence.

On the contrary, the letter put a good face on what could be a significant issue. While acknowledging a “large number of customers were woefully undercharged,” the letter dismissed any potential harm. “The negative financial impact to Tri-Town has been minimal and is fully managed by the current administration. Thus, there is no need for concern as to the financial viability of the Tri-Town operations going forward,” the letter said.

In questioning Tri-Town Board Chair Darwin Pratt on more of the details, Pratt told Addison Independent reporter Andy Kirkaldy that he had been instructed by the board not to discuss details, including, Kirkaldy wrote in a story on Page 3A, “the number of customers who were undercharged, where they were located, how large the district’s financial shortfall was, and the nature of the investigation.”

Members of the Tri-Town board are elected in a public vote on town ballots, along with other town offices, and one would think they are subject to open meeting laws, even though they represent a public utility. In any case, reasonable questions that better inform the public about issues affecting them should be answered.

To Pratt and the board’s credit, they assure that no customers will be financially harmed by the under-billing. And, as Pratt said, “the employee was terminated, so the board feels we should say ‘no comment’ on the issues. It’s been taken care of.”

That may be. But in a public operation it’s not enough to provide an answer when explanations are also due.

At issue is the public’s trust in the water district’s operations, and that trust needs to be gained with transparency in a public way. Again, the board tries to be open when Pratt added in his comments to the Independent that Tri-Town residents who had questions could follow up by calling the district or sending them an email.

But that misses the point. Private conversations don’t build community trust. Being open and transparent means doing so in a public way — not in a phone call, email, or in the back room. Nor should this be an issue. If the board is able to prevent financial harm to ratepayers, why not let them know what happened?

It should be a straightforward story: A mistake was made, here’s what happened, it’s corrected and we’re moving forward. End of story: As long as the crucial part — here’s what happened — is included.

Angelo Lynn

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