EMILY LE COZ: Open rural water associations to the public

By Emily Le Coz/NEMS Daily Journal

It’s been a rough few weeks for the North Lee County Water Association, which since Sept. 30 has faced scrutiny over a litany of allegations about misconduct, falsified records and dirty water.
Yet at the heart of the issue is the fact state law allows this organization – and others like it – to monopolize a public asset while conducting business behind closed doors.
Not that problems don’t occur inside public agencies, because they do. But it’s harder to hide them when, at any moment, any citizen can shine a flashlight on your business.
Not so with the hundreds of privately held utilities operating in the state. Like North Lee, they are exempt from the state’s Open Records and Open Meetings laws. They are beholden to their customers, but not the public, not the press, not the people.
This creates an atmosphere of privacy that, while it might be fine for a bubble gum company, doesn’t fly when it comes to the only water provider for the 4,400 customers who depend on it.
They deserve clean water, transparent board leadership and the ability to attend any meeting and access any document they wish (barring personnel records, which often contain sensitive information like Social Security numbers and the like.) These are the same rights afforded to customers of government-run public utilities.
Mississippi ought to level the playing field. Any organization that holds sole ownership over a vital resource, like water, should operate out in the open. The law should mandate it.
But until that happens – if it ever happens – water association boards statewide ought to act as though it’s already required. They should hold open meetings where the public is invited to watch and ask questions. And they should provide timely access to their records.
It doesn’t mean people will show up at every meeting. No one may show up at all.
And records might gather dust in a drawer for decades with nary a request to see them. But the very expectation that someone could pop in without notice or ask to see last month’s collections report would foster a culture of good business conduct.
It’d eliminate the perception among many that the utilities upon which they depend belong only to the few.
This isn’t to say all rural water associations operate in a shroud of secrecy or that all board members shirk public scrutiny. I’m sure there exist excellent nonprofit utilities with clean water and spotless records.
But I’ve heard from too many customers from too many water associations this month who feel shut out from their rural utilities and want help. It’s not just North Lee. Apparently, it’s a statewide problem.
emily.lecoz@journalinc.com