By Bill Gosselin
When I was appointed as a director to the Bristol County Water Authority by the Warren Town Council in 2007, I was given a policy and procedures manual. I thought that this would be an appropriate time to list a few items pertaining to the conduct of the board of directors:
The job: The success or failure of the BCWA rests largely on the shoulders of the people’s representatives on the board. Conscientious board members can render better service if they know their duties, are aware of their responsibilities, and are ever-mindful of the best methods of carrying out their trust.
Determining policy: The people elect town councils. The councils, in turn, appoint board members. In determining policy, board members do their best to represent their constituents. The executive director and the board must work as a team in a spirit of mutual confidence.
Board and chairman’s responsibilities: The ability to resolve diverse interests is important; for every policy decision the chairman and board make contains a seed of conflict which may undermine the popularity of these officials. The fact that a BCWA function has traditionally been performed in a certain way is no justification for exempting it from critical examination. The environment is constantly changing, requiring new responses. This means that the chairman and board are often placed in the uncomfortable position of choosing between the past and the future — the past being known and understood; the future being unknown and sometimes unwanted.
There will be times when the chairman and board must attempt to change public opinion and to convince citizens that a more difficult course of action may be better suited to long-range objectives. For example, at a time when public opinion may seem to be demanding lower water rates and decreased spending, the chairman and board may determine that community problems demand new services or capital improvements and increased expenditures.
Under such conditions, the chairman and board have a responsibility to call to the attention of the public the necessity for providing the new services and capital improvements. Exercising public leadership is a difficult responsibility. It requires critical examination of traditional ways, receptiveness to new ideas and willingness to face controversy and criticism. Public leadership, joined with the power of the board to make policy decisions, must be exercised with intelligence, caution, and self-restraint, but it must be exercised, becasue lack of leadership today will only bring greater problems for the BCWA in the future.
Budget consideration: A most important power of the board is consideration of the BCWA budget. The budget document is presented to the board by the executive director, who is responsible for its preparation. Before passage, the public must be given an opportunity to express their views. Following detailed discussion, the board makes the final decision on the budget and takes responsibility for it. As the controlling agency in raising revenues, borrowing money and determining expenditure, the board is restrained by state constitution, state statutes, enabling legislation and public reactions.
What board members must know: Board members must be able to determine three criterion to carry out properly the duties of office: What needs to be accomplished, what the public wants accomplished and what, in broad policy, is the best way to accomplish the task. The answers to these three questions are not necessarily always in harmony. Some things may needed doing and technically can be accomplished easily, but the public may not want them.
Public relations: Public relations is not only a function of management but also a necessary and important activity of the board in providing political leadership. As has been pointed out earlier, the chairman plays an important role as a political leader, but the chairman cannot take the stump alone to win popular support for the BCWA program. The board as a whole must assume this responsibility or the community will suffer. Political leadership means taking responsibility for educating the citizens about the BCWA program. The board is in a position to get more facts than the citizens. This means that if a proposed policy is considered to be good, it is the board member’s duty to take a stand on it and to do everything possible to secure its adoption. It is true that a member may be able to ensure reappointment by constantly keeping an ear to the ground and supporting only that which is popular, but this will not necessarily make a good representative. A board member should be responsive to but not afraid of his or her constituency.
The following are my own words and thoughts:
Soon after the last election, I spoke with Ken Marshall from Bristol and congratulated him on being elected to our General Assembly. He was excited about having an opportunity to do all that he can at the state level on behalf of the Bristol County Water Authority. Last month we interviewed for General Counsel and a series of questions was asked of each candidate, one being: What challenges do you see in the future for the Bristol County Water Authority?. The overwhelming response was this: Failing infrastructure, a declining revenue base, especially business-declining revenue due to conservation, and the one that surprised me — lack of support from our local and state officials.
These answers are not unique to just us. Elected officials speak out on behalf of their constituents, who are being forced to pay higher utility bills including heat, electricity, telephone, Internet and cable services, not to mention gasoline for their automobiles. How can they possibly afford a rate increase for the water that they use today, tomorrow and for generations to come after us? No plan is perfect, no plan is without criticism. Who will take the bold step forward and trust all nine of us now, when we need your trust the most?
Mr. Gosselin is vice chairman of the Bristol County Water Authority Board of Directors.