OUR OPINION: Water association oversight needed

By NEMS Daily Journal

Three Lee County legislators have made reasonable suggestions to improve the accountability of rural water associations – ideas rising from internal upheaval and the reconstituting of the North Lee County Water Association in 2011 after serious internal mismanagement surfaced.
Two Republicans and a Democrat representing Lee County have suggested ways to increase transparency, open records, open meetings and effective regulation of all water associations, not just North Lee.
A full discussion is warranted in the Legislature.
These are the ideas so far:
* Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, proposes placing all rural water associations under the state’s open meetings and open records laws. The associations, even though they may technically be private nonprofits, serve the public and function as public utilities and sometimes receive public funds. Their books and meetings should be open.
* Sen. Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, supports open meetings and records and open water quality test results for every rural water system. Collins chairs the Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency Committee.
* Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, says placing water systems under the oversight of the Mississippi Public Service Commission is the way to go. It is a reasonable proposal, and some officials think the commission already has ultimate say.
Kirby Mayfield, CEO of the Mississippi Rural Water Association, thinks talk of regulation is unnecessary, but the North Lee fiasco and emerging complaints about other systems suggest otherwise.
The issue, in principle, is about reliable public service in the provision of clean, safe water, reliably delivered to every customer.
The issue is non-partisan. People in both parties in the Capitol favor discussions, and they need to go forward in all the pertinent committees and, as legislation develops, on the floor.
Hearings almost surely will be held, and among the witnesses should be customers in North Lee and other systems whose experience with water quality and service has been abysmal for an extended time.
The special interests whose testimony should be heeded in this situation are the customers – not suppliers, associations or lobbyists.
It is certainly arguable that micro-management of water associations is not necessary.
A guarantee of access to meetings, discussions and votes by boards of directors of associations, plus records transparency, and compliance with bylaws probably would suffice in most cases.
North Lee devolved into internal chaos over an extended time. Had association members been made aware of decisions and been given due public notice of every board meeting some of the problems could have been avoided.
Good legislation can make that guarantee statewide.