My turn: GDPUD is unraveling

Lon Uso

The more I look and investigate what is going on at GDPUD the more I see an organization that is unraveling. I don’t want this to piece to be seen as only an indictment of the board majority or the previous board because that may not be helpful but as a guide in the principles of true leadership and perhaps a road map to find ways to bring the board, staff and the constituents, many who are rate payers, back together.

Whether you like or dislike the three in the majority or the two in the minority you should agree that they all believe that they are right and that they are doing this for the welfare of their community.

History is clear that in these types of organizations, boards and management get comfortable with each other over a long period of time and this can lead to some unintended consequences. The board develops so much confidence in management that oversight can suffer and you end up with a situation where all the Is and Ts are not dotted and crossed. Furthermore, the board may start to feel that it can’t properly function without this manager and this becomes a strong negotiating tool for pay and benefits from a smart manager. Even though the operation might run well, it won’t be as efficient and the rate payers will suffer. For that reason, it is good to get new blood with new perspectives in from time to time.

Otherwise, the pendulum will swing and an opposition group will gain momentum ultimately dislodging the board and bringing into power people that get elected by overpromising solutions to some real and some perceived problems.

In the case of GDPUD, for me, a real problem was the general manager’s pay and benefits. Perhaps there was room to renegotiate with some other employees in a cooperative process but unilateral pay cuts will often dislodge some of the more qualified staff that don’t have close ties to the community. This is not necessarily a productive outcome.

Promising to balance the budget without raising rates is common in these types of political campaigns. It is amazing how many people will vote for this “doomed to failure” promise. If you own your own business, imagine what you would do if your customers told you that they would never buy from you again if you ever raised your prices. If you are an employee, imagine how quickly you would send out your résumé if your boss told you he would never again give you a raise.

The cost of delivering water, like any other commodity, goes up regularly. The cost of electricity to run the pumps, the cost of chemicals to treat your water, the cost of office supplies, etc. goes up so the cost of providing clean, healthy water has to go up. The honest promise to make is that you will be a good watchdog for every penny spent to keep costs down while running a professional, safe and well-managed organization.
We were also told that an expensive new plant that was mandated by the state did not really have to be built. I knew that was nonsense but was sure that the new board would come to that reality, on its own, fairly quickly. Unfortunately in an attempt to save a couple of bucks, this plant has now been delayed to the point where I predict huge cost overruns as construction costs go up every month. They managed to “step over dollars to pick up pennies” while furthering the conflict in the organization. This will cost us all millions more.

After two years in power and the decimation of the staff, we will still have a substantial deficit in the budget, about $250,000. That ain’t chickenfeed. There will be excuses blaming the previous board but that ship has sailed. They are now aware that they will have to substantially raise rates. Will they put it off till after the election or be honest about it now?

Most governing boards for these types of agencies run on some basic, tried and true principles. One of the most important is the hierarchy of the organization. The board sets policy and the budget. The general manager executes those items. He hires, fires and directs staff, operates within the board’s budget and answers only to the board. The board hires the GM and is responsible for overseeing and evaluating his performance.

This all falls apart when individual boardmembers micromanage the staff, giving them orders undermining the GM’s authority. This causes confusion and disharmony within the organization. It is the most basic principle of leadership that giving someone responsibility for a job without the authority to do it is the most unethical action that a leader can take.

The board needs to hire a well qualified GM with enough water experience to communicate with the technical staff, with enough management experience to run a professional operation and with the ability to communicate necessary issues to the board.

The board then needs to communicate their concerns to the GM, never direct staff, meet with staff only with the permission and involvement of the GM. Staff works for the GM, the GM works for the board. The board must trust the GM but verify his performance.

This model works; what is going on at GDPUD does not.

Dr. Lon Uso is a resident of Cool and former mayor of the city of San Juan Capistrano.

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