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August 14, 2007

Representin’: The lone voter

Why was Doug Hawkins the only council member to vote against MSD’s rate increase? Doug Hawkins has gotten more than 50 e-mails since last Thursday thanking him for voting against a proposal to increase sewer rates by the Metropolitan Sewer District. Some are from constituents of the 25th district, in southwestern Jefferson County, which the Republican has represented since 2003. Others are from people around the city, perhaps dissatisfied with their own representative’s position.Every one of his 24 colleagues on the Metro Council (one was absent) voted to allow the MSD to add $6.95 a month (not per bill, which comes every two months) to our bills, ostensibly to pay for an $800 million consent decree obligation to repair Louisville’s antiquated sewers. The new fee will generate another $30 million a year for the agency. The council’s budget committee passed the hike unanimously two weeks ago, and with comparatively little discussion — the committee heard from no members of the public and, in fact, refused to let a man there speak near the end of the meeting. “I’m not sure we’re being good stewards of the citizens by passing this increase almost carte blanche,” Hawkins told me in an interview Monday night. Hawkins has become notorious as a thorn in the side of many people. The Democrats don’t like him, and he’s critical of Mayor Abramson. He is something of a lightning rod for fellow Republicans, who tend to keep their distance. The reason, of course, is that he asks a lot of questions. Too many questions. And people who ask too many questions, who want to know exactly where $30 million a year will go, to the T, are obstructionists to those who take the lazy, “just trust us” approach. This is the nature of his problem with MSD — the way the agency is structured, the authority vested in that structure by the mayor, and his colleagues’ willingness to offer unquestioning allegiance to it. MSD executive director Bud Schardein told the budget committee that MSD’s debt is currently about $1.4 billion, and probably double that if you count interest. Two-and-a-half billion dollars is nothing to sniff at. Hawkins wants to know, somewhat academically, how this agency has been spending its money, and why, with astronomical debt, the plan to update the system for the consent decree is not more advanced.Hawkins is also troubled by how MSD is structured. Its governing body is a board of directors appointed by the mayor. The agency has largely gone about its business behind closed doors, Hawkins said, and the board is accountable to nobody but the mayor — infamously, a judge ruled several months ago that the Metro Ethics Commission, the body supposedly holding public officials accountable, does not have jurisdiction over quasi-governmental agencies like MSD. That leaves the council.“When you vote, a lot of times you have to ask yourself, does this really pass the smell test? MSD, pardon the pun, does not pass the smell test. The way they go about things is behind closed doors. … MSD is out of control.”At the hearing, budget committee chair Madonna Flood, D-24, asked Schardein for transcripts of the handful of public meetings the agency held over the last several months to introduce the rate hike to the public. Ten minutes later, the committee approved the hike, obviously unconcerned to see what the public had to say. So, in the interest of helping the council gain a broader view of the public’s opinion of a $30 million fee hike, here are portions of a few of the e-mails dropped into Hawkins office: The Carters of the South End: “We need more people of your caliber and courage to represent us. … Sometimes it only takes one to give another courage to stand with you.” Chrystal Schank: “Thanks for voting no on the MSD increase. We are being taxed enough. I will be calling the Mayor’s office tomorrow and will ask all my friends to do so also.” Virginia S. Logsdon: “Thank you for voting NO — it’s time someone stands up to these giant utility companies and tells them we are tired of paying these ridiculous increases. We already pay more for getting rid of the water than we do for getting it!” Some of the beauty of our governmental system is that we have elected representatives to deal with nuts and bolts issues, like finding out how tax money is being spent, so we amateurs don’t have to. So much for the thorn in your side. Contact the writer at sgeorge@leoweekly.com