ORLEANS — Selectmen will invite the finance committee and the Orleans Water Quality Advisory Panel (OWQAP) to their Jan. 10 meeting for the unveiling of a revised financial model for paying the capital costs of a downtown sewer system.
That decision came at the end of a discussion Dec. 13 on whether the consensus-building OWQAP process, which brought eight community organizations together as stakeholders for 36 meetings on wastewater issues over the last 38 months (by the account of Selectman Alan McClennen, who said he'd attended all but one), had run its course.
Very much opposed to that thought were three speakers during public comment last week. Judith Bruce, who represents a stakeholder group on the panel, said her engagement with other members had led her “to come to accept that there are many ways to skin this cat” of nitrogen removal to improve town waters. “Wastewater is a fundamentally divisive topic,” she said. “(Although) the vast majority believe we must address it, there are almost as many options on solutions as there are citizens on OWQAP. (It) allows us to share options.” She said the panel has become “a communications forum for citizens” and “has helped decrease divisiveness.”
Shutting down OWQAP just before the town gets a look at the revised financial model for paying the capital cost of the downtown sewer would be a mistake, said another stakeholder rep, Don Cameron. “There's a lot of confusion and concern in town about the impact of the wastewater project on taxes and betterments,” he said. “One of OWQAP's functions is to review and ask questions.” The panel will be useful in reviewing educational materials prior to town meeting, he argued.
While not a member of the panel, Michael Hicks said he's followed wastewater issues closely for three years and has found OWQAP “provides a forum for highly complex water quality program review and discussion.” He's attended only one meeting but “came away with a lot of understanding of what's being talked about. I'm a voter who has to make decisions at town meeting, and I need that information.”
Hicks said the well-informed panel members “serve as ambassadors to folks like me to help me understand what's going on and what decisions we're being asked to make at town meeting. That task is beyond our capacity (without them). Voters can speak directly to stakeholders and get answers to complex issues. Access to them is crucial while this complex program is still being developed.”
As usual, selectmen reserved their discussion of the issue for later in the meeting. Chairman Jon Fuller expressed the impatience of someone who's been at this for many years: “I don't want to get involved in a meeting about technical minutiae and go on for three hours...I'm not willing to spend three hours in a meeting arguing over the size of a pipe. I think we're past all that, We're actually putting something in the ground. The idea is to get the big project done.”
Selectman Mark Mathison questioned the continued cost of the panel, which draws on the same consultants who brief his board. “I'm not sure what information is going to be lacking if you don't have that meeting,” he said, later adding, “If the information is now available here (at selectmen's meetings), what's the purpose of continuing that group and paying the bills we pay?”
OWQAP, Selectman Mefford Runyon said, “has focused on the (sewer) collection system up to now. We're long past the point of fresh information coming in. I don't want to hear anything more about arguments already hashed out.” On the other hand, the financial model for paying capital costs “is one thing that's fresh. If that became their task, to really learn about it and be able to educate people about it, that would help us.”
“The purpose of OWQAP was to create as much community transparency as we could about the most complicated project in the town of Orleans,” McClennen said. “What we got out of those 36 meetings was an incredible amount of community information.” In the last several years, he said, voters have come to town meetings and the polls to advance wastewater management and “I'm convinced that happened in part because people are getting information through the Orleans Water Quality Advisory Panel. Each stakeholder has its own membership list and transmits information.”
McClennen urged that OWQAP participate as the town settles three outstanding matters: the financial model establishing how capital costs will be paid, final identification of a disposal site and backup location for treated wastewater, and the independent review of AECOM's 25 percent design of the sewer collection, treatment, and discharge system.
“When we go to town meeting this spring or next fall (to fund sewer construction),” McClennen said, “we will need the membership of all those stakeholder groups supporting our efforts. If they don't understand it and pass it along to their memberships, we won't get it.”
After members asked OWQAP to consider evening meetings rather than their usual daytime sessions, the board voted unanimously to invite the panel to the Jan. 10 meeting about the financial model.