Regional water authority seeks new communications strategy

The Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority has hired a public relations firm to help communicate the agency’s mission, but not everyone is on board with the idea.

Marijean Jaggers, the principal at Jaggers Communications, said the annual cost of her services will be less than $40,000. She suggested improvements to the authority’s website and that the agency monitor social media to see what people are saying about various initiatives.

“[The authority] website exists, but it’s not to the level it needs to be to communicate with the entire population,” Jaggers said.

Albemarle County Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd was skeptical.

“I’m sitting here thinking of my own thoughts about water and sewer, and as long as my toilet flushes and my water is on and it doesn’t smell, I don’t think about it that much,” Boyd said.

The board of directors for the water and sewer authority and the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority spent part of a retreat Wednesday discussing communications problems that arise from a unique governmental structure.

“It would be simple if we had one community, but we have two governments and a separate authority,” said Michael Gaffney, chairman of both authorities.

The water and sewer authority was formed in 1972 when the city and county agreed to create one entity that would operate water and wastewater treatment plants for both communities. The solid waste authority was formed in 1990.

Both entities are governed by a seven-member board of directors. Albemarle and Charlottesville each have three members, composed of one elected official and two top staff members. A seventh is appointed by the City Council and Board of Supervisors to act as chairman, the role in which Gaffney has served since 2003.

“This board needs to act more as the board for [the water and sewer authority] and not just a platform for the city and the county to come in and cast their votes,” Gaffney said. “My focus should be on getting to solutions where the city and the county agree.”

However, the water and sewer authority plays no role in negotiations in agreements on how the city and the county should share the cost of capital improvement projects, such as the $40-million Rivanna Pump Station.

In December 2011, Gaffney cast the deciding vote on moving the facility to a new location. The city preferred that option after residents called for it, but county officials voted against it, citing the additional cost.

Thomas L. Frederick, the executive director of both authorities, said he wants to move the agencies past a dynamic where city and county interests are pitted against one another.

“We collectively serve the region,” Frederick said. “We want to take down the level of conversation that sometimes occurs about what’s good for the city and what’s good for the county. We want to speak as the region of citizens that we serve.”

That thinking led the water and sewer authority to Jaggers. Frederick said he was skeptical at first, but then realized having a media strategy could pay dividends.

“If we’re going to have three organizations doing water and wastewater, each organization has to have a communications strategy because when media and advocacy groups want to take an adversarial view, sometimes they look for where the organization is weakest,” Frederick said.

Gaffney said he saw the value in what Jaggers has offered.

“If we had some of these things 10 years ago, and we had respect in our community for the RWSA and for Tom Frederick, we wouldn’t have had four or five years of controversy over the water supply plan,” Gaffney said. “Certain elements in our community created doubt about who we were, what our intent was and why we were doing things.”

Gary O’Connell, the executive director of the Albemarle County Service Authority, said any communications strategy should shed light on how water and sewer services are provided through multiple agencies.  

“I’m amazed at how many people are confused about who does what,” O’Connell said. “If we focus on just the RWSA, we miss an opportunity to tell a bigger message to the community.”

Judy Mueller, the city’s public works director, pointed out that no individual pays a bill to the water and sewer authority because the city and county both sell directly to customer. She said decisions made by the board often are influenced by a vocal minority.

For example, the water and sewer authority voted in summer 2012 to invest in a more expensive water disinfection system because many residents were opposed to the use of chloramines.

“I would bet that 99 percent of ratepayers don’t know what granular activated carbon is,” Mueller said. “We have a small group of people who are focused on this, and it’s going to impact water rates.”

O’Connell pointed out that many people go to supervisors or the City Council with concerns rather than contact the water and sewer authority. He said there needed to be a unified strategic communications plan.

Frederick said he would meet individually with board members to find out how they want to develop such a plan.

“Before you dive headfirst into publishing your own content, you always spend a considerable amount of time just listening to the public,” Jaggers said.

City Councilor Kathy Galvin said the plan should provide a framework to help board members back a decision.

“Without a framework that lets us articulate the things we all buy into, we’ll have a tendency to slip back into what our jurisdictions and constituents are telling us to do, when we really have to think for the region,” Galvin said.

The board also was presented with a proposed $ capital improvement plan for the next five years. One of the projects is a $ upgrade of the Observatory Water Treatment Plant, which was built in 1954.

“It’s a situation where we have leaks, we have breaks, we have corrosion,” said Jennifer Whitaker, the water and sewer authority’s chief engineer.

There was little discussion on the future of the water and sewer authority, with the city and county no longer willing to pursue a joint approach toward solid waste disposal.

“We all have to admit that the experiment that started in 1990 when the city and county came together to form a regional approach to solid waste just didn’t work,” Frederick said. “It hasn’t worked since the day I walked in through the door.”