Saturday, February 27, 2010

Citizen's Night at the Marin Municipal Water District

In my last blog I “went local”. I didn’t anticipate the ramifications. Going local creates access. My blog readers know me, they know how to reach me, and now I have excited a nerve and it needs to be scratched.

After a brief collaboration with friends I was enlisted to make a presentation to the local water district board, MMWD, which I had written about in my previous blog. In preparation I did my due diligence. I met with Paul Helliker, MMWD’s General Manager and Terry Stigell, the CFO. Terry was prepared with copies of my blog in hand appropriately highlighted as only Adobe Acrobat can do.

Wednesday, February 24 came too quickly. I spent the previous Sunday, ten hours of it, trying to normalize the rates the various districts charge their customers.[1] After making numerous requests to the president of the board for a larger block of time than the allotted three minutes, I was notified I would get the same three minutes as everyone else. How do you compress fifteen complicated minutes into three? It quickly became clear the procedures work to the incumbents’ benefit.

I rewrote my presentation[2] into bullet points. I downloaded a stop watch to my desktop and practiced my delivery over and over. No matter how I changed it fifteen seconds before I reached my climatic conclusion the buzzer went off. And no matter how many times it happened the sound of that buzzer was like an electric shock! OK, maybe I can ask for more time.

I drove to the meeting with my wife, Lorilei, and my good friend Bill Tunney. (I say good friend because who else would endure such an evening?) There was also a cadre of my blog supporters, those who had pressed me into this position. I'd made up a set of presentation materials. [3] picked up from Kinko’s only hours before, to pass out to those in the room. Tonight’s the night!

We arrived early to sign up for public comment. I thought if I got there early enough and signed in I would be high on the agenda. Foolish me. The incumbents are in charge and they deftly moved my card to the position of last speaker. Ah the power of being in charge.

Not knowing this I wait, thinking as each name was read mine would be next. I watch as people leave the room. Apparently the reporter from the Marin Independent Journal was one of the first because his write-up of the meeting was both inaccurate and incomplete. What hope do we have when we can’t even count on the fourth estate?

It’s now my time to present. I know my talk is three minutes and fifteen seconds, my internet timer told me so. The chair has been lenient and if I could just explain some of my slides a bit more they would have context.

I am at two minutes and fifty seconds and “Recommendations to the Board”. [4] I only have eight but it will take at least forty five seconds. I begin to realize I have lost to the incumbents. At number three the gavel sounds. Like the bell that went off on my internet timer it is like a shot of electricity. Doesn’t the board want to hear my recommendations? Aren’t they truly interested in the issues at hand? I look towards the sound of the gavel and see Jack Gibson. Flash back to fifth grade and a bully who wanted to control the playground. He has no interest in what I have to say. To him I am just one more rant he has to endure to advance whatever it is he has in mind. “What do we have to do to get him out of here,” says Jack. “Just listen to what I, a citizen and rate payer have as recommendations to you,” I think but don’t say. Instead I keep reading from my list. The gavel bangs again and there are shouts from the crowd. Are they for me or against me, I don’t know but finally I stop, bullied into silence by the gavel and unsure of the crowd. I walk back to my seat and the crowd erupts in a standing ovation. Twice I rise in acknowledgment embarrassed by the whole thing and wishing for the moment I could return to the anonymity of my blog. And then it is suddenly clear; there are three men present, one calling in by phone and a woman sick at home; they are the board and they are in control and there is nothing we or anyone else can do about it.

Nothing, that is, until the next election?

In my next blog I will apologize and explain why I was wrong about something I said regarding MMWD's unfunded liabilities. It turns out it may be worse.

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