Independence, Mo., Smart Meter Plan Draws Resident Objections

The decision to approve a $29.45 million contract for advanced utility meter infrastructure is now under fire by members of the community who are petitioning for an August ballot initiative to rescind the council action.

by Mike Genet, The Examiner / April 8, 2019
Independence, Mo., City Hall Shutterstock/Jon Kraft

(TNS) — After Monday's sudden reconsidered vote on smart meters by the Independence City Council, petitions have been taken out to put that matter to a vote of the people – as well as recall Mayor Eileen Weir.

And while city staff is working to finalize the vendor agreement and craft an opt-out policy for citizens, the council members in the minority on that revote are moving to try and delay the contract with Core & Main for advanced meter infrastructure (AMI) for city utilities – better known as "smart meters."

Karen DeLuccie, Mike Huff and Tom Van Camp, the three no's in Monday's 4-3 vote, delivered a signed letter Friday afternoon to Mayor Eileen Weir saying "a large portion of citizens" upset with Monday's action and it would be "unwise" for the city manager to sign the Core & Main contract, which a 4-3 majority approved.

Their letter made no direct objection to the mayor. DeLuccie said she does not support a recall of the mayor, and Huff said he has nothing to do with that petition.

Council Member Curt Dougherty moved to approve the $29.45 million contract initially turned down March 18, though it was not listed on Monday's agenda. The council had considered two possible vendors for AMI that offered different transmission technology — the other being Honeywell — and both were voted down 5-2.

In Friday's letter, the council members said they had no notice the vote was coming. It also noted that an opt-out provision for ratepayers, which the council mandated be included in some form in any AMI contract, had not been resolved and claimed the non-ordinance action item for the contract had not been properly adopted and violated the Sunshine Law and city charter.

DeLuccie said she wondered if the four yes votes had talked together and noted that a non-ordinance action item (the contract vote) is not covered in the city charter.

Also, they believe a citizen petition could lead to an August ballot initiative that might rescind the council's action.

The city clerk's office confirmed that two petitions had been taken out Friday afternoon – an initiative against AMI and a recall on Mayor Weir. Per the city charter petitioners must gather valid signatures from 5 percent of the city's registered voters within 30 days (May 6) for a possible ballot initiative. A mayoral recall on the ballot requires 8 percent of registered voters, which the clerk's office said is nearly 5,000.

"I don't want us to get sued for breach of contract," DeLuccie said, referring to the chance of voters overturning smart meters after a signed contract.

Weir did not return a message Friday evening seeking comment. The recall petition against her lists claims for: violating the city charter, lack of responsiveness, waste of taxpayers/ratepayers funds and general abuse of power.

Citizen Meeting

Huff led a hastily organized meeting with citizens Thursday evening that led to the AMI petition.

"My phone since Monday has been non-stop," he said. "They don't want it, and on top of that the way it was handled."

Huff and DeLuccie both said Monday's vote smacked against the democratic process, and they also have expressed serious doubts that going to AMI will generate the long-term savings that analysts projected — $44 million over 15 years.

"That's not the way it should be working," Huff said of the vote. "Secrecy is bad for the city; I think it gives us a bad name. I think we all lost."

After Monday's council meeting, Dougherty said he had talked with Council Member Scott Roberson about bringing back the AMI vote, as they were both in favor of the technology but preferred different vendors.

"He wanted one vendor, I wanted another; we both think it's the right thing to do," Dougherty said, adding that he went with Core & Main "in the spirit of compromise."

Dougherty said when they decided to bring back an AMI vote they just missed the deadline for putting the item on the agenda, and since the discussion was fresh it would be more timely than dragging it out another two weeks.

"Nothing would have changed," he said about how the vote turned out.

Van Camp has consistently voted against AMI but said that's not what Friday's action is about.

"The method used to vote it in did not allow citizen participation, and I want them to have the opportunity to have their say," he said.

Surprise or not to council members, the motion for revote was allowed under the council rules. A council member can bring back a previously voted agenda item for reconsideration at any time, as long as that person had been on the prevailing side on the original vote. Dougherty had voted against the Core & Main contract (after voting yes on the Honeywell contract) on March 18.

Dougherty had voted for the Honeywell contract, Roberson had voted for Core & Main, which was slightly less, and Weir had voted yes on both counts. John Perkins had voted no earlier but changed his mind after he said he took a hard look to make sure the numbers — for projected savings by going to AMI — added up. Both Roberson and Perkins said they only talked to Dougherty prior to Monday, and Weir said she didn't anticipate the vote coming up again.

'Far-sighted decision'

"I think it is going to be a huge benefit to the city and the citizens," Roberson said after Monday's vote, which he called a very far-sighted decision. "In years down the road it could help us avoid rate increases. This will go beyond any of us on the council."

The city first started looking into smart meters in 2015, and Monday's vote marked the fourth time the council had voted on them. When the council voted 4-3 against the Core & Main contract in April 2018, Dougherty, Perkins and Weir all indicated their no votes were soft and could change with ironing out some technology and labor questions.

DeLuccie had voted yes then but said she soon questioned her decision, as the projected savings from staff movement and attrition and data analysis didn't add up and she said she didn't receive satisfactory answers from the city manager's office.

"Absolutely, it sounds great," she said, "but on the surface it's not adding up."

Huff said he believes installation costs will be higher than estimated, as well as meter replacements down the road. More people opting out of AMI and keeping analog meters will cut into savings, he said, and as a former Power & Light director he believes the city's meters have been as accurate as smart meters would be.

"I never did politic for or against it," he said. "This is not the right time for us (to do AMI), not saying totally against it, I consider this a want rather than a need. We need to worry about generation, and we need to worry about getting rates down."

Brent Schondelmeyer of the citizens group IndyEnergy, which has advocated for smart meters to help modernize the city's utilities and possibly lower rates due to savings, noted that five different people voted for Core & Main at one point.

"That shows at least some desire for AMI," he said. "They just didn't act in a singular fashion."

"We've engaged in this for three years, had meeting after meeting after meeting, study after study after study, and if we held an all-day weekend marathon for people, at the end of the day there's still seven people that have the responsibility and prerogative to make the choice."

Schondelmeyer said that as the council has struggled and stumbled to move on various Power & Light issues and rates have become a hindrance, "a needed utility is being converted into a referendum on the city council.

"Owning a public utility should be a benefit, but every issue has become contentious, every issue has become divisive."

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