Micro-managing nightmare or public’s PUD watchdog?
July 22, 2004
Pat Sutton’s tenure on the Truckee Donner Public Utility District board of directors has been many things.Long, for one. She has been on the board continuously since 1973 except for a short period from 1981-1985 when she was a Nevada County supervisor.For some, however, Sutton’s tenure has been too long. Her participation has often been contentious, and on at least two occasions she has been asked to resign from the board by other directors.Despite those calls for her ouster, Sutton has survived politically. But there are those on the current district board who still question her relevancy on the job.The ‘people’s business’Compared to many other governmental agencies, by most accounts the Truckee Donner Public Utility District board of directors works fairly efficiently in getting through what Chairman Jim Maass calls “the people’s business.”According to Maass, himself a 27-year veteran of the board, most of the time the district’s day-to-day business gets accomplished in an efficient manner because district staff does a good job of preparing the board. However, Maass claims that Sutton often disrupts that efficiency with pointless and inappropriate questions and meaningless ‘no’ votes.”We are to the point where if you really look at and analyze our meetings, her ‘no’ vote has no meaning whatsoever,” Maass said. “There are always going to be three or four ‘yes’ votes on most every issue. So is Pat Sutton, as a director of this district, relevant to the process?” Other board members have mixed opinions on that question.Director Ron Hemig agrees with Maass that Sutton is a handicap.”We are not as good as we could be as a board,” Hemig said, adding, “We could be more effective if we were a more progressive and more forward-thinking unit … and Pat does not think that way.”Both Maass and Hemig argue that Sutton has a tendency to micro-manage at district board meetings – a process that wastes time and can be intimidating to staff members, according to Hemig.”You sometimes hesitate in bringing up discussion points because sometimes you know … we will go off on a tangent and the whole thrust of the point, the whole meeting, can be lost,” he said. “If I’m hesitant to bring something up, staff is much more hesitant to bring it up. They’re guarded and you can’t have a real proactive environment or culture.”Director Joe Aguera, who in 1991 issued a joint press release with Maass calling for Sutton’s resignation, now seems to accept the role Sutton plays on the board, even while he admits that she asks a lot more questions than he feels is necessary.”We have to have the information,” Aguera said. “Pat thinks that she has to be in on the mechanics of it. She brings up these questions, and if they don’t get answered then she keeps asking until she has the information. And as a board member, that’s her prerogative.”The fifth member of the board, Director Nelson Van Gundy, may be the most accepting of Sutton’s questioning, which he said is an important part of the system.”I just think of it as being the way Pat works,” Van Gundy said. “She wants a higher level of information on a lot of these things than the rest of us seem to need to feel comfortable. And that’s an individual board member’s right. I wouldn’t allow anybody to question what I asked about, nor will I question any other board member’s ability to do that. Because to me that is the strength of the process.”The process seems to be one of Sutton’s main concerns, and one of the reasons that she argues that she makes a vital contribution to the board.”I believe that if you set up a process or a procedure, and if you go by that process, that the end-product is better than if you take shortcuts,” she said. “I’ve always seen my role as trying to make sure that the public’s business is conducted in public.”The processBut what exactly makes up the process is open to debate when it comes to the district’s board members. Maass and Hemig argue that timeliness is a key part of that process, and is what allows the district to best meet the current and future needs of its customers. Both men point at whether the district should provide broadband service and whether the utility should have taken over the Donner Lake water system as examples where Sutton has delayed business from getting done in a timely manner. “If she takes up valuable time, then all things get pushed in terms of timeline,” Hemig said, pointing out that Sutton always votes against anything having to do with the district’s proposed broadband utility, even though she usually fires of a volley of questions about it before doing so.When it comes to broadband, Sutton admits that she has and plans to continue to vote against the project.”Right now, I’m wondering why the board is intent on following what it decided to do three years ago, which was to build the [broadband] system,” she said. “I’m not going to vote yes on anything relating to this project because I still believe the project has been manipulated.”Outside the boardroomThe irony of the current tension among the board members is that outside of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District boardroom, they all get along well.”She has always been a big supporter of me and we’re friends,” said Aguera. “She’s a pretty strong person in the community.”And Maass, who has served as an educator within the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District for 35 years and has taught four of Sutton’s children, agreed with Aguera’s assessment of Sutton.”Do I like Mrs. Sutton? Yes. She is one of the most personable individuals when you get away from the board meetings … she and I can talk [outside of board meetings]. But I think she’s lost sight of what an elected official really is supposed to be doing. Yes, we are there to look out for the people, but we have to keep the people’s business going.”In the end, the issues that some of the directors have with Sutton’s approach to her job may settle themselves with nothing more than time and patience.Maass recently issued a press release saying that he will soon be moving out of the district and therefore will not seek another term on the board when his current term ends in November. And Sutton has also said that she doubts if she will seek another term when her current term runs out in two and a half years.