Petition calls for city council to take over Alta Utilities

Friday, July 9, 2021

A petition in Alta is seeking to eliminate Alta Municipal Utilities as an independent organization and bring the local utility under control of the city council.

The petition calls for the duties of the utility board of trustees to instead be assumed by the council, and the position of utility superintendent to be eliminated and replaced by hiring a city administrator. According to petitioners, the action would create “one governing body”, and “operate the city more effectively and efficiently for its citizens.”

Mayor Kevin Walsh said he does not support such action. Although it was not on the agenda for this week’s meeting, Walsh addressed the petition with a brief statement. He said he had served as a member of the utility board for 15 years, eventually chairing it, and felt that the utility had never operated with anything but the best interests of the community in mind.

However, the mayor and council members agreed that the communication between the council and utility board needs to be improved - with Walsh suggesting that the entities could consider sharing equipment and possibly labor.

The mayor felt the council and utility board could meet jointly on a regular basis. Other city departments including the library, park board and fire department report directly to the council monthly, which helps to keep all involved and informed, he said.

An example of miscommunication came before the council at the same meeting this week.

The Utilities Board had arranged for four security cameras to be added to the City Hall building after a recent incident with payments stolen from an outside dropbox. While the council had talked about security, the cameras were installed without contacting the council or the city clerk, and then the utilities department submitted a request for the city council to pay half the cost of the equipment, which totaled about $2,400.

City officials said that the utilities supervisor had been heard telling people that if the city didn’t pay half, the city would not be allowed access to the security footage.

Council members described the attitude as “blackmail,” and “unprofessional.” While the cost was not an issue, they felt they should have been contacted before a decision to install cameras was made. “It doesn’t feel like a partnership,” one member said.

One council member questioned why the utilities board doesn’t answer to the council, when the council appoints its members.

“That’s why the citizens need some answers,” and chose to petition, another replied.

Asked about the situation, city attorney Gary Armstrong said he felt that better cooperation between the two groups would be “common sense.”

The petition complains that citizens of Alta “have no say or voice” in what the utility board or utility superintendent do, as opposed to the council, where voters can put people in or out of office.

It contends that almost all the work on the utility’s part is done by hiring private contractors, while it could be done with existing equipment and labor between the street department and utility, saving expense on work like removing dead ash trees. It claims that the current utility supervisor has created a “bidding war” on salaries, with high pay for employees putting a burden on residents.

The petition calls for the issue to be put on the general election ballot in November.

City officials did not indicate whether there would be additional discussion on the petition in the future.