Water revives debate about city authority in Brighton

Effort to limit Brighton city manager’s decision-making power on water fails

Liam Adams
ladams@coloradocommunitymedia.com
Posted 6/28/21

After a year’s break, Brighton City Council once again debated city staff’s jurisdiction over water issues when Mayor Pro Tem Matt Johnston led a charge to limit the city manager’s authority …

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Water revives debate about city authority in Brighton

Effort to limit Brighton city manager’s decision-making power on water fails

Posted

After a year’s break, Brighton City Council once again debated city staff’s jurisdiction over water issues when Mayor Pro Tem Matt Johnston led a charge to limit the city manager’s authority over city utilities.

After Brighton City Manager Jane Bais DiSessa informed council members last week that she was considering issuing mandatory water restrictions, Johnston called for a special June 18 meeting to temporarily block Bais DiSessa’s ability to do that. Then, on June 22, council held another special meeting to vote on a resolution that would extend the limit on Bais DiSessa's power, though council did not approve the motion. 

Last week, the city’s water treatment plant demand exceeded previous years’ peaks and this year’s projected peak, when it had to deliver 12.75 million gallons of water in a day. Due to the treatment plant’s age and condition, its difficult to meet that demand or higher, staff said. The plant can only operate so many treatment “trains” at a single point, explained city utilities staff at the June 22 council meeting.

“My biggest concerns are that if we are reaching about 12 million a day, we could be in extreme danger in a 12-to-16-hour period in a shutdown,” said Sam Mingo, Brighton’s water treatment plant supervisor. “If I lose a single well, if I lose a single filter. If I break any piece of equipment, we lose production.”

Mingo and Utilities Director Brett Sherman explained that the city’s total water supply or the region’s current drought conditions aren’t causing the current crisis; the treatment plant is. When the city exceeded its daily peak demand last week, it did so a month ahead of schedule, Mingo said.

When demand surpassed the projected peak last week, the city immediately reduced its water use and purchased more treated water from Thornton than it usually does. Still, city staff was alarmed, so Bais DiSessa informed council members of the situation and that she was considering issuing mandatory restrictions.

Johnston, seeing Bais DiSessa as taking unilateral action and violating the city charter, called the June 18 special meeting out a sense of urgency. The mayor pro tem said at the meeting, “We’re here because we have to be. We have to make sure that the residents have power in this community. They have not had enough power for too long, and here’s where we sit with a new council and we’re not going to allow that.”

Three members of the council, including Mayor Greg Mills, were not able attend the Friday evening meeting, resulting in Johnston’s overseeing it. The mayor pro tem allowed other councilors and public commenters to speak but limited Bais DiSessa’s comments. On several occasions, the city manager raised her hand to try and explain the situation, but Johnston didn’t allow it.

Bais DiSessa had one chance to talk at length, saying that she wasn’t skirting the council’s authority.

In an emergency, she has the authority to move the city to a higher drought stage in the city’s drought management plan, she said. She also refuted a claim Johnston made that the city was imposing additional costs on customers by issuing mandatory water restrictions because of financial penalties assessed to people who violate the restrictions.

At the June 18 meeting, council voted 4-2 to temporarily block Bais DiSessa’s ability to issue mandatory water restrictions until Tuesday, June 22. Johnston and Councilors Tim Watts, Mary Ellen Pollack and Adam Cushing approved the resolution, Councilors Mark Humbert and Ann Taddeo voted against it.

The June 22 meeting -- with all nine council members were in attendance -- picked up where the council left off. This time, the resolution under consideration would permanently give city council the sole authority over declaring drought stages and water restriction issuances.

The meeting got intense at moments. At one point, Johnston was engaged in a heated debate with Mingo over certain information that city staff presented to the council about the situation. Sherman jumped in, saying, “Mayor pro tem, I would appreciate it if you would stop bullying Mr. Mingo.”

The council debated everything from the city’s water situation to the city manager’s authority to claims about the mandatory restrictions being a means to impose additional costs on customers.

“That kind of ridiculous behavior to scare people, those scare tactics, that is wrong,” said Taddeo, alluding to the previous controversy in the community over water rates.

Meanwhile, Councilman Clint Blackhurst, who served as the city’s utilities director at one point, said he doesn’t think the city should issue mandatory water restrictions and that the city should consider other alternatives first.

But Blackhurst also said doesn’t think the city manager’s authority should be limited.

Ultimately, Taddeo, Blackhurst, Humbert, Mills and Councilor Kris Jordinelli all expressed disfavor for the resolution to limit Bais DiSessa’s authority.

Seeing that a majority of the council would vote against the resolution, Johnston decided that he wouldn’t make a formal motion for its approval. No decision was reached on the water restrictions, but Bais DiSessa said she would consult with her staff about some of the alternatives that Blackhurst suggested.

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