Tuesday, April 17, 2012

LOTT Has Come A Long Way - But Has A Long Way To Go

Above: Mosaic artwork outside the LOTT Clean Water Alliance will be open to the public in June. This one says, in part, "The health of our waters is the principle measure...."

LOTT Has Come A Long Way - But Has A Long Way To Go

By Janine Unsoeld

Bob Wood, Olympia street superintendent, said Tuesday digested sludge is now available free to the public at the sewage treatment plant located at the north end of Adams Street.

“It makes excellent fertilizer for flower beds,” he noted, adding that a loader will be on hand from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday for the convenience of the public.

“We load, you haul,” Wood said, adding, “and this has no odor to it.”

Yes, the above information is for real, but it isn’t an announcement from this week. While digging around in her attic, this reporter recently found a copy of The Daily Olympian, dated August 28, 1973, that included this little tidbit of news and brought it to a recent LOTT board meeting to show staff. As expected, they got a kick out of it.

“Good heavens! Did we really do that?” exclaimed Karla Fowler, LOTT community relations and environmental policy director.

She and LOTT public facilities manager Ben McConkey chuckled about it, saying that such activities happened before state and federal standards were in place. McConkey added that the sludge – now known as digested biosolids – would have had quite a bit of trash in it, especially little plastic pieces.

“By today’s standards, we were a Class B treatment facility, before the secondary treatment process. Sludge was treated in anaerobic digesters.” Fowler eagerly made a copy of the yellowed newspaper article for her files.

Flash forward to 2012, and the LOTT Clean Water Alliance has come a long way since 1973, but, as evidenced at LOTT’s recent board retreat, it has a long way to go.

LOTT is a regional Class A water and wastewater treatment facility, and regularly receives national wastewater treatment industry awards and recognition. On a local level, the public appears to lack an understanding or trust LOTT’s mission.

LOTT is composed of the cities of Lacey, Olympia, Tumwater and Thurston County. Representatives to the board are newly elected chair Cynthia Pratt, Lacey city councilmember, vice president Sandra Romero, Thurston County commissioner, Steve Langer, Olympia city councilmember, and Tom Oliva, Tumwater city councilmember, represent the city and county.

Current positions were chosen at last week’s LOTT meeting. As a new board with varying degrees of knowledge, Pratt is considered the most senior member of the group, with two years experience on the LOTT board.

As a result of recent turnover, LOTT board members and staff are having new conversations on a whole set of industry and organizational development issues as they embark on the development of a new six year long range strategic plan and a four year groundwater recharge study.

LOTT Board Retreat

LOTT held its day-long annual board retreat last month, broadly reviewing its history and examining its future.

The show of politics on public policy quickly became apparent as board members asserted their positions. Polite tension was evident as board members actively peppered LOTT executive director Mike Strub and staff with questions about long-held assumptions, and challenged business-as-usual routines. Board members did not tiptoe around the issues – they poked holes into every staff presentation, questioning the overall board-staff relationship, the legal definition of the organization and LOTT’s use of about 40 specialty consultants.

The agenda, set by LOTT staff, was ambitious. A wide range of issues was discussed and prioritized by board members, and will result in many work sessions throughout the year. Issues ranking highest in priority went to three areas: citizen involvement, the groundwater recharge study, and septic tank conversions.

“It’s like starting a whole new relationship,” said Strub in his opening remarks. “LOTT is a complex organization and people have a hard time understanding what we do – we’re not a high profile organization.” Strub said that LOTT has spent $100 million building capacity and Lacey’s entire future, for example, is based on that capacity.

Strub outlined the board’s relationship to staff and the internal workings of LOTT’s technical subcommittee, reclaimed water task force, and septic workgroup. In mentioning just a sampling of contemporary issues facing LOTT, he set the tone for the serious work ahead for board members, staff, and the community.

“The impaired health of Puget Sound and Budd Inlet, the recommendations offered by the ongoing Deschutes Total Maximum Daily Load advisory committee study, the county’s update of the critical areas ordinance, compounds of emerging concern, and the groundwater recharge study are all issues that are going to change our worldview….We’re at a bellwether moment in LOTT’s history and future. With a population of 100,000 in three cities, we cannot stop, we cannot fail. Failure is not an option – the implications would be an unprecedented disaster,” said Strub.

Public Involvement Issues

It was emphasized by board members that while LOTT, a nonprofit, is not technically a public agency, it should act as a public agency, especially with regard to the public meetings act. Strub told board members that both the Washington State Department of Ecology, and the Washington Cities Insurance Agency, almost immediately recognized LOTT as a public agency.

The upcoming groundwater recharge study generated a great deal of comment about public involvement. A consultant will soon be hired to determine what citizen involvement will look like. A citizen’s advisory committee could be formed.

However, for all the concern expressed about LOTT being misunderstood by the public, and the desire for more citizen involvement, LOTT board meetings are not televised, and minutes for the board retreat were not taken, nor was it audiotaped. This was discovered by board members when, at the last LOTT board work session held April 11, board member Tom Oliva asked if meeting minutes were taken at the retreat. The reply by staff was no. It was then half-jokingly suggested by someone that this reporter’s notes could be offered. She stayed the full six hours of the retreat and took over 11pages of detailed, raw notes.

Board work sessions, open to the public, are held from 5:30 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. and are held just prior to each monthly board meeting. A boxed dinner is provided to board members by LOTT and board members and staff often eat together in the LOTT cafeteria prior to the meeting. Board meetings start at 7:00 p.m.

Brief summaries, not minutes, of work sessions are available. Work sessions started to be audiotaped last month, Karla Fowler said today.

In terms of LOTT’s strategic business plan, the public’s values and level of expectation for the utility was discussed. Accurate measures of success can be determined if public values translate into board actions, board goals, LOTT core values and levels of service.

LOTT staff outlined areas they value and discussed related challenges in four performance areas: business management; environmental resource management and stewardship; education, communication and partnerships; and human resources and workplace environment.

Strub said that they do a thousand things a day to prevent a LOTT permit violation. He mentioned, as an example, that during the recent winter storm, power outages and blips caused havoc. Staff worked hard to prevent the dumping of raw sewage in Budd Inlet and a dumping was averted with 15 minutes to spare.

Basic questions were addressed and explored, such as how rates were set and whether or not there should be a flat rate for residential service, and if low income discounts could be provided. LOTT staff told board members that they field several calls a day from the public who ask questions like, “Why do I pay the same as my neighbor when I’m single and my neighbor has seven kids?”

LOTT is a wholesaler, billing the cities for treatment costs. The cities set the rates. If LOTT goes down the road of being the provider, LOTT will become a retailer. Discussion ensued about city responsibilities, whether there could be incentives for conservation and volume based rates being difficult to manage and expensive. Langer said metering is expensive, and is happy with the current system. Romero commented that there is increasing pressure for a volume based rate structure as the population ages.

Throughout the day, board members were fully engaged in the process and constantly provided staff feedback on their wishes with respect to their roles, internal structure, and core values. By the end of the board retreat, friction between board members and staff seemed to mellow.

In discussing how LOTT moves forward, Langer said, “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing as well as being told what to do.”

Oliva commented on the wording of how to describe themselves. “Right now, it’s LOTT this and LOTT that. That’s the old way of thinking, like a corporation, not as a public entity,” said Oliva.

Romero agreed, and wanted entire language about how LOTT describes itself reworded.

“If you talk about its community values, the organization becomes the animal. We can reframe this to show our collective values. What’s missing is the relationship between LOTT and its partners. This is about good faith, communication and cooperation. Let’s pause to figure out who we are. The word ‘Alliance’ is more inclusive of who we are. It shifts the control…the acronym removes people from the entity," said Romero.

Michael Pendleton, facilitator for the day’s discussions, wrapped up sentiments by saying to the group, “You don’t have the luxury of being just a utility anymore. You have core needs, but the public may demand more.”

Langer agreed. “The environmental constituency has gotten louder about Budd Inlet and Puget Sound and our connection with the public has to change.”

Clearly, there is significant work ahead for LOTT partners, and it won’t be easy to change entrenched ways, but optimism reigned by the end of the day.

Eric Hielema, a LOTT senior wastewater engineer who attended the board retreat, commented afterwards, “I was a little scared to do things differently, but now I’m excited.”

For more information about LOTT Clean Water Alliance, 500 Adams St. SE, Olympia, call (360) 664-2333 or go to www.lottcleanwateralliance.org.

Above: This mosaic at the LOTT Clean Water Alliance continues from the picture above, "...of how we live on the land." The full ribbon says, "The health of our waters is the principal measure of how we live on the land."