Changes may be on tap for rural water

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – At least two state lawmakers will introduce bills this year making rural water associations more transparent and accountable to the public.
State Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, said he’ll dust off his failed bill from 2010 that would have placed rural water associations under the state Open Meetings and Open Records law. And state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, will introduce a new bill to place them under the regulatory authority of the Mississippi Public Service Commission.
Other Northeast Mississippi legislators contacted said they either will support such efforts or will consider them with an open mind.
“I think the public deserves to know what the quality of their water is and the financial status of every rural water system,” said state Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, who chairs the Accountability, Efficiency and Transparency Committee.
The interest comes after allegations surfaced in September about wrongdoing at North Lee County Water Association and widespread customer complaints about being denied access to that association’s board meetings and records.
North Lee, like hundreds of other rural water associations in the state, was established as a private nonprofit entity accountable to member customers but not to the public. And though the associations must follow state and federal laws governing water quality and business filings, they have absolute control over utility rates and meeting access.
That could change if one or both of the proposed bills pass.
“I have a very close relationship with rural water systems, and there certainly are more good ones than bad ones, but the fact of the matter is water is a precious utility,” Holland said. “There has to be someone to say, ‘These are the rules,’ and I don’t know how many other examples we need other than North Lee.”
Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley said he’d welcome increased authority over rural water associations. His position comes as no surprise after his repeated calls for more regulation and transparency in the wake of the North Lee fiasco.
Presley’s office can investigate claims against utilities but has little control over their operations or their fees.
“Steve’s bill would give us jurisdiction over the rates so we could hold them accountable for how money is spent,” Presley said. “Any ambiguity in the law ought to be removed and regulatory authority ought to be for the PSC to make sure every dime is being spent correctly and rates are not unfair to consumers.”
But Mississippi Rural Water Association Chief Executive Officer Kirby Mayfield has said such measures are unnecessary. In a previous interview, Mayfield said it’s unfair to let a few mismanaged organizations set the tone for the entire state.
Other lawmakers share that opinion, including state Sen. Nickey Browning, D-Pontotoc, who worried about saddling good water associations with extra regulation. But he said he’d keep an open mind about any proposed legislation.
Several senators and representatives said they expect to see the issue thoroughly debated during the current session; many said they believe a bill of some sort will pass in part due to the issue’s high-profile status.
Said state Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory: “Generally speaking, open records and open meetings are almost second nature. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some legislation passed.”
State Rep. Brian Aldridge, R-Tupelo, said it will be a topic of concern for lawmakers representing parts of Lee County, who regularly meet to discuss local issues. Freshman state Rep. Randy Boyd, R-Mantachie, said it holds particular interest to him because he has heard complaints about rural water associations.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com