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An important step for regional policy

Published January 24. 2012 4:00AM

This newspaper has long been an advocate for taking a regional approach, where appropriate, to address the challenges facing southeastern Connecticut's communities. And we have consistently argued that strengthening the powers of the Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments is the most logical means of promoting regional responses and solutions.

We therefore welcome the request by the council of governments to seek legislative approval for measures that would more directly involve it in the operations of the Southeastern Connecticut Water Authority (SCWA) and the Southeast Area Transit District (SEAT) public bus service.

The council of governments (COG) consists of the chief executive officers of the 20 municipalities in the region, each with an equal vote. Its role remains largely advisory, while the planning work of its small staff, paid for collectively by the towns, helps guide municipal and regional policy. If the COG is to begin seeking some genuine authority, the regional issues of water and mass transportation are good places to start.

Created in the 1960s, SCWA has never lived up to its intent to serve as an agency for regional water planning. It has instead assumed the responsibility for operating several smaller utilities serving neighborhoods scattered across the region. It has done that job well and it is an important role. But longer-range regional water planning is taking place separate from the authority, involving the three major municipal water utilities in southeastern Connecticut, serving Groton, Norwich and New London, along with the Mohegan tribal authority and the COG.

It only makes sense to create a stronger link between the council and SCWA. A Representative Advisory Board now appoints the seven-member water authority, which sets rates for the water systems it operates and which hires the director. The appointing board consists of representatives of every town in the region, but seats are often left vacant and attendance poor, in large measure because of the board's limited role.

The proposed change would give COG the job of appointing members to the authority, approving the hiring of the general manager, and authorizing contracts in excess of $100,000. COG would also review the water authority's financial condition.

The details are open to debate and certainly lawmakers should listen to concerns about a loss of autonomy for the water authority and any adverse affects on construction bonding, but the overall concept is a solid one - a tighter connection to the agency most responsible for regional issues.

Likewise, another legislative initiative would add three members to the SEAT district board appointed by COG. The board currently has 12 members, two from each of the largest towns its buses serve, Groton, Norwich and New London and single members appointed by Ledyard, Montville, Waterford, Griswold, Stonington and East Lyme. SEAT funding comes from a combination of bus fares, state and federal aid and contributions from the towns. Norwich is the largest contributor, providing about $146,000 annually.

In addition to the COG representation on the SEAT board, the council of governments would have the authority to approve the general manager, ratify any contract in excess of $100,000 and select a certified public accountant to conduct an annual audit. Again, the details of the proposed changes will be subject to the legislative process and that could well mean adjustments.

But on balance the intent of the changes - getting the council more directly involved and connected to these important regional functions - would be a positive development.

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