OUR OPINION: Try again in 2013 on rural water bills

By NEMS Daily Journal

Guaranteed transparency and accountability by all rural water associations in Mississippi died on legislative deadline this week when committee chairs did not call the bills for consideration by adjournment Tuesday, the last day for passing bills out of committee in the originating chamber.
The bills were filed by Lee County legislators partially in response to the internal, alleged (and long hidden) chaos in the North Lee County Water Association, leading to an ongoing multi-agency investigation, resignation of its former board, terminations and a reconstituting of the board, with open elections and updated bylaws.
Legislation to place rural water associations statewide under the Open Meetings Act was filed in the House by Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, and in the Senate by Nancy Collins, R-Tupelo, but both bills died, as did a proposal by Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, to place the rural water associations under the regulatory authority of the Public Service Commission.
The Mississippi Rural Water Association, which has powerful ties to many rural water associations, all of which serve a public utility’s function but are legally private entities, lobbied hard against the open meetings, transparency and regulatory legislation.
The association proved to be a better lobbyist than supporters of the legislation, but we remain convinced that all water associations would be better served if required by law to have open meetings, records and fall under official regulatory oversight.
It is correct, as Sen. Collins said, that “not all water associations (are) having problems,” but that she sought to ensure “that standards are in place …. This was just to ensure every association operates in a transparent way.”
Allegations of misconduct first surfaced in 2011 in stories by the Daily Journal, including instances of association employees doing work on private property and of improper testing of water.
House Public Utilities Chair Jim Beckett, R-Bruce, said this week he is not necessarily against requiring more regulations of the associations or of requiring more public accessibility, but said he did not detect a strong desire in the Legislature to tackle the issue this session.
He is obviously correct, given this year’s outcome, but the issue should be revisited in 2013 because the principles of transparency, openness and accountability are paramount.
Next time, attempts to assure transparency and accountability need more visible and vocal support, especially from customers/members of the rural water associations whose service could disintegrate with internal issues like those experienced in North Lee.
Good legislation can make that transparency and accountability a statewide guarantee.