Water charter draws concern

NASHUA – Some of the leading advocates of local ownership of Pennichuck Corp. are criticizing the draft charter for a regional water district.

Former state Sen. Barbara Pressly said the document approved last month by a study committee does not protect ratepayers enough, by limiting the board of directors to one member from each town or city that votes to join the district.

“They have removed the safeguards to minimize cronyism and to ensure we get well-qualified and appropriate people,” Pressly said.

The study committee spent a year debating the structure of the district before approving the charter, and it still must be approved by aldermen, selectmen or Town Meeting voters in the communities Pennichuck serves.

Allan Fuller, chairman of the Pennichuck Watershed Council, said he wants the review of the charter to go slowly from here.

“I don’t see any reason why we should close this out this year at all,” Fuller said.

A public hearing on the charter is planned for Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at the north campus of Nashua High School. Before that, Pressly has organized a meeting at 3 p.m. Friday afternoon in the City Hall auditorium to examine the charter in detail.

Pressly, an organizer of the Citizens for Local Water Control, and Fuller rallied support for the January referendum in which city residents voted overwhelmingly to support going forward with the acquisition of the water company.

Since then, Pressly said she has been watching from the sidelines as a group of town and city representatives crafted the charter.

“I’m disappointed, but not surprised. They did what human beings do. They all protected their small interests,” Pressly said, adding that she commends the charter-writing group for its hard work.

Fuller said he wants to scrutinize the document and hold more than the one scheduled public hearing. It is important to prevent the district’s board of directors from being filled with patronage positions, he said.

But the advocates’ concerns are not shared by City Hall.

Mayor Bernie Streeter said the charter “protects our interests.”

The city’s water customers would have the overwhelming say in three key areas – water rates, expansion of service and borrowing money, he said.

To ensure the charter is consistent, Streeter said he asked the Devine, Millimet & Branch law firm, which the city hired to focus on the Pennichuck acquisition, to review the document.

The biggest point of contention in creating the charter was balancing the needs of Nashua, which has 75 percent of Pennichuck’s customers and most of the infrastructure, against the needs of the 15 towns that are served by Pennichuck, including most of the immediate Nashua area.

The charter calls for the district to be overseen by a board of directors consisting of one member from each town or city that votes to join the district.

On most issues, each director will get one vote, but on a few topics they will get weighted votes that depend on the number of district customers in each community.

Meanwhile, the city is still awaiting a response from Pennichuck on the city’s $121 million offer to purchase the company.

Representatives from 16 communities served by Pennichuck started working on the charter in January, and met some 20 times to put a framework together to operate a regional water district.

Pressly is chiefly concerned about the makeup of the district’s board of directors, and feels there should be broader representation than what is called for in the charter. She said it is “out of balance,” in Nashua’s case, for only one person to try to represent the interests of some 21,000 ratepayers in the city.

Also, the charter grants the member communities the authority to appoint their own representatives, Pressly said.

In contrast, early versions of the charter restricted municipal employees or elected officials from serving on the board, and required the director positions to be advertised with a list of qualifications. Under this scenario, she said, there would be more opportunities for everyday ratepayers to serve on the board.

Pressly also suggested a formula in which representation on the board would be based entirely on the number of customers in a community, so Nashua’s vote would never hold equal weight with those from communities with few customers.