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TMCNet:  Utilities employee blows whistle on communications plan

[November 21, 2012]

Utilities employee blows whistle on communications plan

Nov 21, 2012 (The Gazette (Colorado Springs - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- A Colorado Springs Utilities employee is blowing the whistle on the billion-dollar city enterprise, claiming it initiated a plan to "counter comments and actions" from Mayor Steve Bach, City Council members and the public regarding the future of the downtown power plant and other utility issues, according to a letter obtained by The Gazette.

Utilities denied the allegations. A spokeswoman said the utility simply created a group of existing employees to provide accurate information to ratepayers "so they can make informed decisions on their own behalf." The employee said Utilities' actions could be construed as a waste of ratepayer dollars and even unethical. The employee claims the plan includes hiring outside marketing and public relations firms to avoid disclosure of the utility's activities under the Colorado Open Records Act.

"I feel it's unethical," the employee wrote in an Oct. 14 letter to Utilities' Human Resources Department, which is looking into the allegations.

"I am stating this, as I wish it to be known that should an audit be performed, I can't condone activities related to intentional non-disclosure. I believe as a municipal utility, we must be accountable and transparent to our citizen-owners," the employee wrote.

The Gazette is withholding the name of the employee at the request of a source who fears the employee could face retribution.

The employee's accusations and the utility's efforts to control the message come amid a growing and sometimes contentious community conversation about the governance and management decisions of Utilities. The utility, which has a monopoly in Colorado Springs, has been under increased scrutiny about everything from the level of detail in its annual budget to its decision to bankroll a multimillion-dollar emissions control technology at its downtown Martin Drake Power Plant. The coal-fire power plant, an aging facility that emits clouds of condensation, has become the subject of a decommissioning study, raising questions about whether the utility should continue to invest in sulfur dioxide scrubbers invented by Neumann Systems Group ahead of a 2017 deadline to meet environmental regulations.

The City Council doubles as the Utilities Board and oversees the utility. Critics say council members fail to provide proper oversight.

Bach has called for greater transparency at the utility but has no voting power on the board. He said the allegations made against Utilities by one of its employees are "alarming." "I would hope City Council is looking into it and will get back to us with the facts," Bach said in a statement Tuesday.

Sherri Newell Wilkinson, Springs Utilities' chief public affairs officer, said the employee's claims are false.

"The accusations are simply not true and whoever sent the letter doesn't have the facts," she said.

Newell Wilkinson said she assembled what is being called a Local Affairs Team to provide ratepayers what she calls "accurate information" about three studies initiated by the Utilities Board. They are a study of decommissioning Drake, a study of Utilities' electric generation operations and a study of Utilities' governance.

"It is our responsibility to be the first and best source of Utilities information and to correct any misinformation," she said.

Newell Wilkinson said ratepayers "have asked for additional information on these topics." She said the requests have come through public meetings, Utilities' website and call center and in one-on-one conversations. She couldn't quantify the demand for information.

Utilities spokeswoman Patrice Lehermeier said the Local Affairs Team is comprised of employees who have been asked "to be refocused" because of the additional requests for information around the Drake power plant and other issues in the news.

"But this idea that somehow we're trying to come out against the mayor or come out against anyone who has their own opinions and ideas is just, on its face value, it's incomprehensible," he said. "That's not the intent of anyone in this organization." According to the employee's letter, the team was formed in September. During a staff meeting, the employee raised concerns that using ratepayer dollars "could be construed as unethical or illegal," especially for outside public relations support.

"My comment are based on risk aversion -- as I feel this approach will create undue exposure and risk to reputation, operations and policy management," the letter says.

Utilities said it has used the services of two outside firms on the project so far.

VI Marketing and Branding, which has a Colorado Springs office, and Denver-based Sigler Communications Inc. provided "communication strategy," Lehermeier said.

"This has occurred through conversations and meetings with the Local Affairs Team," she said in an email. "It's constructive for us to have different experience and perspectives at the table. Since September, we have paid the agencies a combined $5,443.75." The employee said paying outside consultants when the utility has "superior talent" within the Public Affairs Division is "a waste of ratepayer money." "If our mission is an obligation to serve, then I believe we should put our best foot forward and tell our story, through our consistent examples of exemplary work that our community appreciates," the employee wrote in the letter.

City Councilman Tim Leigh said Monday in his electronic newsletter that he had heard that Utilities had formed a special working group "to defeat the mayor" and "questions and questioners who voice alternative views to CSU's management." Leigh said Tuesday that ratepayers should be "outraged" that Utilities formed such a group.

"Unless you can have an open and honest and transparent dialogue, you can't reach the best conclusion for the citizens, and that the management would have the hubris to form a special committee to try and defeat that open conversation is absolutely outrageous," he said.

-- Contact Daniel Chacon: 476-1623 Twitter @danieljchacon Facebook Daniel Chacon ___ (c)2012 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) Visit The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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