Board rejects water system charter change
By Gordon Dritschilo
Staff Writer | December 05,2012
The Board of Aldermen decided Monday night that it did not want to take away any of the Public Works commissioner’s authority over the city water system.
Alderman Gary Donahue had proposed a charter change dividing authority between the commissioner and the board under some circumstances. A motion to send the proposal to the Charter and Ordinance Committee failed, with nobody other than Donahue speaking in favor of the change.
The charter gives the commissioner sole authority over “general management and supervision” of the water system. Donahue proposed adding to that “except where such management and supervision rights could potentially have unintended health consequences” and then giving joint authority to the commissioner and the board.
Donahue said he did not realize how decisions were made before the recent controversy over a proposed change in disinfectants from chlorine to chloramine. Public opposition to chloramine, fueled by claims of negative health effects, prompted the board to put a $5.5 million bond for a new filtration system on the November ballot. The bond failed.
Had it passed, though, it still would have been up to Public Works Commissioner Evan Pilachowski whether to build the new filter or change disinfectants, though Pilachowski said he would abide by the results of the vote.
“I think that’s way too much power and way too much control on one man’s shoulders,” Donahue said. “In practice, since the commissioner of public works works for the mayor, it is the mayor who controls our water supply.”
Donahue said he did not think most day-to-day decisions had much potential for impact, but that changing the chemical composition of the water did. He also said he was not married to the exact language, which he came up with on his own, but that he thought the city at least needed to have the discussion at the committee level. He moved to refer the issue to Charter and Ordinance.
Alderman William Notte said he was usually willing to send issues to committee, but saw no point in this one.
“This issue is firmly tied to chloramines and it really strikes me as sour-grapes and foot-dragging,” he said.
Notte said he heard a lot of anti-chloramine arguments that were emotionally driven and not based in good science and that he feared what that would imply should Donahue’s proposal pass.
“We did not serve this city well by having, essentially, a commission of witch doctors going on superstition to tie the commissioner’s hands,” he said.
Notte noted that the commissioner is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the board, and that the voters have the chance to voice their displeasure with the mayor and board.
Alderman Sean Sargeant noted that control is currently in the hands of experts licensed by the state.
“To take it out of their hands and place it in a political body is not correct,” he said.
Alderman Christopher Robinson said he voted to put the chloramine issue on the ballot thinking that would be the end of it.
“Here it is again,” he said. “I think there are important issues the city needs to tackle and this is not one of them.”
However, Robinson said he made a point of always voting to send an issue to committee and that he would do so here, even though he was ultimately opposed to the proposal.
Robinson was the only alderman who joined Donahue in voting for the referral though, with all others voting against except Alderman Jon Kiernan, who was absent.