The Honolulu Board of Water Supply, under fire in recent years for rate hikes and errors in customer billing, is fighting back against an effort by the Honolulu City Council to exert greater control over its operations and change the composition of its policy-making board.

The agency’s Board of Directors voted Tuesday to reaffirm its opposition to City Council Resolution 14-63, which would increase the board from seven to 11 members and require that appointed board members have water expertise. Two of the 11 board members would be City Council members.

Honolulu Hale

Honolulu Hale, where the City Council meets.

Top Board of Water Supply officials say that the resolution, proposed by Council Chair Ernie Martin, risks injecting politics into a critical agency that has remained semi-autonomous since its founding in 1929.

“I believe it is important — because water resources and water service is so important to our lives and to our future — that we should try to minimize the influence of politics over water policy and long-term planning,” Ernest Lau, the water supply board’s top manager and chief engineer, said during the meeting.

Lau added that last year’s billing problems, which occurred when the agency was transitioning to a new system, have been resolved.

Board members also rejected a suggestion advanced by Councilman Ron Menor last week that just one of the appointed members has specific knowledge of water management.

Board member Theresia McMurdo argued that under the council resolution, members could have conflicts of interest because of outside employment in water management and a propensity to seek contracts from the Board of Water Supply.

The current board, which is unpaid, is made up of professionals from various sectors, including real estate, construction, law, Native Hawaiian issues and computer services.

The council resolution would require that appointed members have expertise in hydrology, geology, ground water modeling, global climate change, water infrastructure or related fields, as well as knowledge of island ecosystems.

Currently, the mayor appoints five of the seven board members, who are subject to a public hearing process. Two are ex-officio members.

The resolution would change this. Three members would be appointed by the mayor without the necessity of council confirmation. Three members would be appointed by the City Council. And one member would be nominated by the mayor and confirmed by the council.

This is not the first time that the City Council has tried to alter the Board of Water Supply.

In 2011, City Council Budget Chair Ann Kobayashi sought to end the agency’s semi-autonomous status and put it under the authority of the City Council and mayor. At that time, the Board of Water Supply had just voted to increase water rates by 70 percent over five years.

Last August, Councilman Ikaika Anderson introduced a resolution that would give the City Council ultimate power over the Board of Water Supply’s budget and to clarify that it was subject to city ethics laws. The measure was deferred.

The City Council has also ordered a comprehensive audit of the Board of Water Supply, a portion of which should be released as early as August. The audit, in part, looks at management policies, financial operations and whether the board should remain semi-autonomous. 

Board of Water Supply officials argued this week that the City Council shouldn’t take any action on the current resolution until the results of the audit are released.

One of Lau’s main concerns is that the City Council will exert undue influence over water rate hikes for political gain, ultimately at the expense of Oahu’s ailing infrastructure.

The “council may seek to defer an increase in water rates during an election year,” he wrote in a letter to council members earlier this month. “This cannot occur at a time when we need to modernize the infrastructure to ensure the delivery of safe, dependable and affordable water now and for future generations.”

Under Lau’s leadership, the Board of Water Supply has sought to speed up the pace at which water pipes are revamped. The county experiences a water main break about once a day.

The resolution, which would create a ballot measure in this upcoming general election, is set to be heard before the full City Council next week. However, the council is divided. During an Executive Matters and Legal Affairs Committee meeting last week, Council members Ron Menor and Breene Harimoto expressed strong reservations about the measure. 

Martin spoke up for his bill saying, “I think what motivates me in moving this along is we are directly accountable to our constituency.”

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