National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV
26506-6893


Water Boards
How to train them? What to expect from them? How to lead them? What to pay them?

by Jamie Knotts
On Tap Assistant Editor

jknotts@wvu.edu

 

Editor’s note: This fall, Jamie Knotts, On Tap assistant editor, conducted a lengthy interview with Susan Poe, a board management training technician with Arkansas Rural Water Association. That interview is the basis of this article.

If O&M actually stood for “operation and maintenance” rather than “ongoing misery” at your drinking water utility, it would likely make your job as a water board member easier. Faced with tight budgets, increasing regulations, employee oversight issues, bill collection problems, and all the responsibility of assuring your customers safe water, the little—if any—compensation you get won’t make you rich. But while the hassle of being a board member might deter some from serving, the draw of helping neighbors and supporting their community inspires others to become water board members.

It’s a thankless job as far as customers go. Few board members will deny that. But it’s crucial to a water utility’s success. As a board member you will be guiding the utility’s direction for the time you serve on the board. You’ll be making decisions that affect customers today, as well as in the future.

The Devil’s in the Duties
Whether you were elected, appointed, or grudgingly selected to serve on the board, the work you do will affect others. Of the jobs you’ll do as a water board member, the two most important are hiring a certified, competent operator to run the treatment processes and making sound financial decisions for the long-term viability of the system.

“That’s right—it’s a ‘job!’ It’s not an honorary position,” says the training package Management Training Manual for Board Members of Public Water Systems. You don’t just sit, listen, and make comments. You don’t stand around and drink coffee and gossip. You may not have gotten a job description when you were appointed or elected, but you should have. Your community has put its trust in you to make decisions that have a very significant effect on its health, welfare, and economics.

“And yes, you are responsible legally and morally for the decisions you make or don’t make. It’s your responsibility to make sure your customers have safe, dependable, affordable drinking water,” says the training manual, developed by the Mississippi State University Extension Service and the Mississippi State Department of Health.

Susan Poe, a board management training technician with Arkansas Rural Water Association (ARWA) agrees that a utility board must work together for the community’s benefit.

“Base decisions (or votes) on the system as a whole and what is in the best interest to the community, and always have providing safe, quality drinking water as your priority in the process,” Poe says. “Avoid doing things as a board member for the good of a small minority of people versus what’s in the best interest of everyone as a whole. It is very important to educate yourself in the field and use every opportunity to take advantage of training materials, sessions, meetings, and so forth.”

Of the many boards she’s worked with, Poe sees some common practices that help things run smoothly. “Putting aside personal differences and backgrounds, using your outside skills and life experiences to operate without letting individuals dominate the board” are two keys to making a board work. “It is a team effort to operate as a board and not a dictatorship,” she says.

On a month-to-month basis, Poe says typical water and wastewater board members participate in board meetings and make decisions for the utility’s future.

“First of all, the biggest thing is being available,” she says. “They must be at meetings, have good attendance, and have a schedule that is flexible so they can attend them. Members must review any data and material that comes through in order to make good, valid decisions. They’re responsible to look over proposals and get the basic understanding of the issues. Board members need to try to educate themselves on the workings of the plant, both financially and treatment-wise. There are all kind of schools and assistance providers to help them gain a basic knowledge of their systems. They need to do this on an individual basis.”

Poe stresses that board members really need a basic knowledge of the system. “One of my most comical experiences was a case where the newly elected board wanted to change the line sizing from a two-inch pipe and increase it to four inches by cutting out four-foot sections to the line. They wanted to install a hydrant to the four-foot section and then reduce it back to two inches without replacing the entire line. They wanted to install four hydrants along this section of line using this method. This would have collapsed the whole line.

“Their reasoning for it was to save money and get hydrants that they said were badly needed,” she says. “It turned out this section was also a section that took in four of the board members’ houses. They were finally convinced that playing amateur engineer was not in the best interest of their system.”

Poe also warns that board members must be mindful of their legal obligations to the community. “They need to have an understanding of the legal implications of their jobs as well as an understanding of the regulations and compliance issues of the system,” she says. “They come from all different backgrounds and some of them get the term ‘tort immunity’ in their heads and think they are safe from the legal ramifications of their decisions. Anybody can be sued for an issue. They need to remember that their primary responsibility is to provide safe drinking water for the community, planning for the future, and taking responsibility for the system.”

So how much can board members expect to be paid for all the work and responsibility they take on?

“They get paid?” Poe says with a chuckle. “It’s mostly done out of the kindness of their hearts.” Most of the board members Poe has don’t get paid. She usually works with systems serving fewer than 10,000 customers, and depending on the way their governing papers were filed under state statute, most board members earn no pay. “Most boards are given reimbursement for training and out-of-pocket expenses, but it’s not what could be called a salary.”

Work Together to Make Meetings Work Well
Poe has provided assistance to systems that have worked well together and those that haven’t. “The worst-case scenario is the situation where personal problems between members results in a vote just to spite another member. The best case scenario is when arch enemies set aside differences and make a decision for the betterment of the whole community,” Poe says.

“I worked with a brand new system that totaled 1,900 customers by the second phase of the project. The board asked me to come to observe their board meeting and give them some advice with the process,” she says. “I saw mudslinging, no meeting skills, and members sitting throughout the room rather than at one table. I didn’t know who was a member and who was part of the audience. After a two-hour discussion, they were embarrassed.

“I worked with the board in a special training session,” Poe says. “We practiced their meeting skills. They started with 14 members—which was a huge mistake— and now they have reduced it to seven members. Now they can get in and out of a meeting in a half hour. They are also giving their consumers a lot more respect at their board meetings.

“We’re Arkansas and we do things informally here, but you still have to have formal meetings. If you show what you want the customers to do in the meeting, such as not talking over one another, then the meetings will run much more smoothly.”

Retaining the Good Members
So once a solid group of members are in place and doing a good job working for the community, what can be done to retain those board members?

“I can’t think of specifics that the board can do to ‘keep’ that ideal board member in place aside from developing a good operating board that is productive and ‘gets the job done.’ As long as they are being productive and going through a productive meeting by moving through the agenda, they aren’t sitting there stewing over something out of their control, they see the board is well run and getting the work done, and they are contributing, the good members will stay,” Poe says. “If there are problems, there may be a turnover due to frustrations.

“There is no advantage to being a board member on a personal level. It can be a very rewarding experience knowing that they are helping their communities. Fulfilling their responsibilities and staying with the times would create a desirable environment for a good member to want to stay with it.”

There are times when someone does leave the board. When that happens, the remaining members must work together to find the best replacement.

“Once an opening is declared, there is normally just a 30-day period to find a replacement, which is difficult to find ‘that good board member’ in such a short period of time,” Poe says. “A board needs to find a person in the community that is dependable, does not have pre-conceived notions about the water system, is open-minded, accepts change, and has a sincere desire to serve his or her community. Potential board members need to know up front the responsibilities and duties required of them so they have a clear picture of what they are getting into.”

Poe recommends that the opening be advertised properly. She says that word of mouth notice or press releases to local media outlets are some good ways to get the word out. Other options include posting notices at community locations, such as the post office and town hall, and running an announcement on the local public access channel.

Poe says that members are usually elected, but in some instances, commissions hand pick their board members. She says that some towns and cities also run their own water or wastewater system, so the council may serve as the water or wastewater board itself, or the council may appoint a separate board to oversee the utility’s operation.

Getting New Members up to Speed
To help new members understand their roles on a board, the ARWA has developed a template program that board members can use. The binder includes sections for the system’s bylaws, rules and regulations, financial reports, agendas, customer policies, and anything that pertains to the system. “This is put in a book for each member to have and use,” Poe says. “It is critical that new members learn about those things that are particular to their system.

“Bad decisions are made because board members don’t understand all the facts. For instance, they could vote on an issue that is in blatant violation of a code because they don’t know the regulations,” she says. “They really need to understand the rules and regulations. As another example, the board should know the operator certification requirements for their particular system so they can ultimately hire the person who holds the correct certification credentials.

“The book we give them is to use and understand. They should include six months of old agendas so they can read about and understand the history of the issue so that they may make the best decision,” she says. “Several months may go by without an issue being discussed, so if a new member has the old agendas and minutes to refer to, they can make a more informed decision on the matter rather than depend on another board member to explain what was discussed at a previous meeting. Board members should vote their own minds rather than go along with the flow.”

The template binder given to members includes a number of policy forms that members can fill out and for their administrative procedures. The binder also holds a customer complaint form the system can use to gain input from the public.

“Getting the policies in place is extremely helpful in running the system,” Poe says. “Water and wastewater boards like the program because they don’t have to type it. The policies we’ve included were drafted based on examples from the systems in the state that had good policies in place. The template is something they love. It’s generic and easy to use.”

Be Open, Be Honest
Keeping the public informed of the decisions it makes is not only crucial for a board in developing good relations with the public, it’s often mandated by law that the public be informed, such as with the consumer confidence reports. Open meeting laws and public disclosure notices dictate that boards be open and available to the public.

So what advice would Poe give to a board member who doesn’t necessarily want to be open to the public or wants to be secretive about their decisions?

“I do have individual members say, ‘if we could get together before and hash this out without the public watching us, we could get the matter settled without it being aired in public.’ That does happen in the real world,” she says. “But they need to make every effort to make the public informed. They need to remember that the public is their best ally if they keep them informed. If the public doesn’t think the board is being secretive, then the community is more likely to support a rate increase. You have to have the trust of the community. The Freedom of Information Act allows the community to obtain public information so a board must always be aware of what the public can see.”

When it comes to possibly contentious issues, such as rate increases, Poe says that boards should “stick to the issue and state facts—not opinions. In the example of a rate increase, a board member should continually state the reason for the increase and justify it no matter what the outcome of the rates. They may need to say ‘the rate increase is necessary to provide additional storage, additional storage is necessary to supply adequate pressure, and adequate pressure is needed to meet demand, etc.’ They might need to say ‘the rate increase is to cover the cost increases in parts and labor.’

“They always need to make the public aware that the system is run like a business and that, as a business, it is an expensive item to run and maintain,” Poe says. “Public water is not a free service—it’s a privilege to have safe water. On the public relations end, it may not be necessary to go into great detail on an issue. But the public does
need to understand why an engineer is needed or why chlorine is there and their associated costs. A board needs to be constantly educating its public.”

Working Well With the Staff
When it comes to working with a water or wastewater system’s staff, the board should absolutely not micromanage workers. “Don’t give your operator five bosses!” The booklet Small System Guide to Board Responsibilities for Operation and Maintenance notes. “Designate one person on the board to supervise the operator. This board member acts as the link between the operator and the entire board and should be fairly accessible if the operator needs to ask questions. At no time, unless it’s clearly understood by the board and the operator, should anyone but the designated board member give instructions to the operator.”

Poe agrees that boards should not meddle too much in an operator’s day-to-day workings. “It is not the board’s responsibility to oversee the day-to-day operations of the personnel. That is why they have managers or supervisors. Small systems have a lot of trouble with micromanaging from individual board members who feel that being a board member makes them an instant supervisor to all the staff. One board member cannot call the shots without the majority of the remaining board to support them.

“The staff is usually qualified, trained, and licensed for the jobs, whereas a board member is not duly qualified for handling or supervising the day-to-day operations,” Poe says. “Board members should focus more on the policies that are necessary to run a smooth system such as personnel policies, job descriptions, and so forth. A board should have the policies on paper so the board and the employee know the policy.”

Poe says she has seen instances where an operator was watched and followed to see if he was doing his job. She knows of an operator who was fired when a board member saw the operator stop at a local department store on his way home from work. The operator’s crime was using the utility’s vehicle even though it had been assigned to him as part of his on-call work.

Many operators also face working board members who don’t take the advice they provide. “I know of situations where the board totally ignored the operator’s advice and hired an outside consultant for advice,” Poe says. “ If the operator works with technical assistance providers like ARWA, they may get the board in the habit of using the free services available instead of paying consultants. This still gives the board the outside opinion or advice while not hampering the budget.
In cases where free assistance is not available, Poe suggests that systems should try to find a system that solved a similar problem. Looking at what another system did to handle the problem, could save costly consulting fees.

“We work for the system, not the board or the operator. When something comes up, I get a call to provide assistance, not work for one person at the system,” she says.

“There’s a lot of mistrust by board members who may shy away from taking the operator’s advice,” Poe says. “I try to encourage operators not to be offended when a board doesn’t follow his or her advice. I tell them to build trust over time and keep working at it by providing good advice that board members can trust and accept.”

Water Board Chair is Key to a Successful System

As the leader of a water board, you will work closely with other board members, operators, engineers, lending agencies, representatives from regulatory agencies, attorneys, community members, the press, and numerous others. As chair, you will need to use skill and diplomacy to solve problems, plan for the future, and act in the best interest of the community.

Learn the Duties of your Job

A good place to begin learning your duties is to speak with former chairs and other board members to see what worked and what didn’t. Take time to speak with your operator and other treatment workers, billing clerks, and customers.

Find out the system’s debt and any needs workers feel are pending. Tagging along as an operator works in the plant, reads meters, or repairs equipment or line breaks will give you new insight into the work that goes on in the utility.

A good chair will understand that his or her job means more than just running meetings, though running a meeting is an important part of the job. Well-run meetings help to keep people interested and motivated. Because many public utilities fall under open meeting laws, be sure to consult with someone who understands the requirements in your state.

Generally speaking, all meetings—except those involving private personnel issues—should be open to the public. Have an agenda to follow. If discussion gets off track, diplomatically bring people back to the agenda item up for discussion. Encourage participation from others, including the system’s customers.

Know Those Working With You
Get to know the other board members as well as the system’s staff. Make sure staff knows you personally and feels welcome coming to you for assistance or advice. Make an effort to listen to other board members who bring a different perspective to the board. It’s likely the board will be made up of a diverse group of people such as retirees, bankers, businesspeople, teachers, or community activists, so take advantage of the knowledge and skills that each bring to the group.

Work Together as a Team
Reassure the board and staff that you’re all trying to meet the same goals. Recognize and discuss the fact that each may have differing opinions how to meet the goals but that they can be met by working together. Set an example to others by not keeping secrets or forming alliances among members of the board. Don’t try to hide bad news such as treatment violations or money problems.

Try to keep everyone involved by providing them with information and listening when they come to you with an issue. Be objective and maintain a calm demeanor when others disagree with you. Try to remain rational and neutral and give others a chance to speak. A neutral party may be needed at times to help the board make a decision, but if you have the on-staff knowledge to make a decision, don’t waste the utility’s money by hiring outside consultants. Many operators feel left out of decisions based on consultant recommendations rather than their own input. This could lead to disgruntled feelings or an operator having little faith in the board’s ability to manage.

Be Available

As board chair, customers will expect you to be available at all times of the day. There will be times when you will serve as the spokesperson for the water board before the media. Many board leaders face the glaring media exposure during heated rate increase discussions, system health violations, and community opposition to board decisions. Prepare yourself in advance by honing your public relations skills.

The National Rural Water Association offers a great tool to help build better community relations. Quality On Tap! A Practical “Hands-On” Guide to Better Public Relations for Small Water Utilities includes several tools to help your system. Utilities can use these items to improve customer and media relations. Contact the rural water association in your state for availability of the public relations manual.

Adapted from “Getting the Best out of Boards and Board Members” by Thomas Higgins, National Association of Boards and Board Members.

To learn about board training opportunities available in your area like those offered by Arkansas Rural Water Association, contact the office in your state or log onto National Rural Water Association’s Web site (www.nrwa.org) for contact information. Many rural water associations offer water board training in addition to onsite assistance with community relations, management issues, technical problems, and other concerns.

To reach Arkansas’ Rural Water Association, call (501) 676-2255, or write to 240 Dee Dee Lane, Lonoke, Arkansas 72086. ARWA’s Web site is located at www.arkansasruralwater.org.

To learn more about Management Training Manual for Board Members of Public Water Systems, visit the Mississippi State University Extension Service Web site at msucares.com. An online version of the training manual is available through the Web site under its “publications” section or by doing a search for “water board training.”

To obtain a copy of Small System Guide to Board Responsibilities for Operation and Maintenance, contact the Rural Community Assistance Program, at (202) 408-1273.

About the Author
Jamie Knotts
Associate Editor Jamie Knotts holds a master’s degree in education and a bachelor’s degree in journalism. If you have a story suggestion or comment, send it to him at jknotts @wvu.edu .