Pittsburgh residents filled City Council chambers Tuesday night to hear recommendations on how to restructure the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and provide feedback. The meeting was convened by the mayoral panel tasked with directing the authority’s reorganization.
Panel member Jared Cohon began by recognizing the significant progress PWSA has made in recent months.
“But, and there’s a big but, even they would agree there’s a long way to go,” he said. “And furthermore, we believe, that to solidify these gains and to make further progress, some very important changes need to be made.”
Chief among them is the need to separate the governance of PWSA from elective politics. To do that, the mayoral panel recommends changing how the authority’s board of directors is appointed. Currently, under Pittsburgh’s Home Rule Charter, the mayor appoints board members. The panel would instead create a five-member independent body called a board of nominators to select a nine-member board of directors.
“We don’t view the separation from political influence as separating PWSA from responsiveness to the community. In fact, the opposite,” said panel member Alex Thomson, a former PWSA board chair. “We think separating it from political influence will prevent whoever is in power from having influence over PWSA.”
Panel member Mark Stulga agreed.
“The conduits are still there. We’re not changing government. You’ll still be able to get access to your councilman or access to the mayor,” he said. “There will be more pathways for feedback.”
But speaker after speaker voiced concerns that while removing politics from PWSA could improve the organization, it simultaneously removes the public’s access to the authority. Even if an independent body appointed board members, the process could still be political, said Aly Shaw of the Our Water Campaign.
“The problem with the board of nominators is that there’s no check on their power and no structure that keeps them accountable to the people of Pittsburgh,” she said, before offering a list of possible ways to do that.
She suggested adding areas of green infrastructure expertise and representation of labor, public health and low-income ratepayers to the board of directors; an open and transparent process for qualified people to be on the PWSA board, accompanied by a public interview process; and to give City Council the power to recall a member of the board of nominators by a super majority vote.
Panel member Fred Brown said the public’s voice must be heard, and that figuring out how to do so will be a process.
“Creating a healthy relationship that deals with difficult issues requires trust, it requires consistency and transparency ... and the role that the community plays looms heavily in our minds,” he said. “We didn’t come up with a complete process that’s done and sealed. It’s really something that we have to continue to work through.”
The panel encouraged people to contact them at a new email address, email@example.com.
Mayor Bill Peduto appointed the panel in March of last year to help the city choose a consultant to evaluate PWSA. Infrastructure Management Group, Inc. made its report in November. The mayoral panel reviewed that report and a number of other sources before issuing its own recommendations at the end of December.
The panel will now work with a lawyer to write a new contract between PWSA and the city. That lawyer will also draft amendments to state law to change how PWSA is governed.
An executive order issued by Peduto last week called for the new contract to be finalized by March 31.