Madison Water Utility Tells Customers “You Wingnuts Just Can’t Take a Joke!”… While Itron Corporation Laughs All the Way to the Bank
With his contract renewal going before the Madison Common Council on July 16, and given Mayor Paul Soglin’s recent call for training “to ensure everyone of Madison’s staff in every department understands that they cannot effectively and properly serve the public…unless every action, every word, is committed to gaining trust and dignity”, a review of Madison Water Utility General Manager Tom Heikkinen’s tenure is in order. The capstone of his five years in Madison has been the $14 million smart meter project, called “Project H2O,” which is behind schedule, rife with problems and so poorly implemented that more than 1250 customers have “opted out” to date. The following is a synopsis of Heikkinen’s interactions with his customers, the ratepayers of Madison, regarding smart meters.
In late 2011, a group of Madison citizens began raising questions about Madison Water Utility’s $14+ million “Advanced Metering Infrastructure” (AMI), which requires the placement of “smart meters” in every home and business in Madison. Citizens raised questions about health risks, efficacy and longevity of the meters, corporate influence on public utility functions, costs to ratepayers, privacy issues, and lack of broad public discussion in implementing the systems. See here and here for previous citizen commentaries on the smart meter fiasco. Citizens who questioned AMI were first ignored by the Water Utility, and then treated with thinly-veiled ridicule when they began attending meetings and demanding answers. But the group of citizens persevered—and grew—and eventually the Water Utility was pressured into offering an opt-out, albeit one with unjustified and punitive costs.
But the smart meter debacle is far from over.
On May 1, 2013, gloating about having weathered the smart meter debacle, Mr. Heikkinen depicted citizens who questioned AMI as “wingnuts” at a professional seminar for state water regulators. At the June Water Utility Board meeting, Mr. Heikkinen explained with a smirk that his presentation was “tongue-in-cheek” and meant to provide “comic relief.” Board members rushed to his defense, explaining that sometimes humor just doesn’t translate when people feel strongly about the issues at hand. The Board Chair lectured citizens on not being able to take a joke. Yet, a recent open records request has revealed how insightful citizens’ concerns and questions about AMI have been all along. Installations of the smart meters have been beleaguered with significant problems, and the project is now far behind schedule. Citizen complaints about Corix, the company contracted to install meters, have been numerous and ongoing. Hundreds of installed meters are not working properly and will require “mitigation.” Since the contract with Corix is nearly over, the Water Utility has to hire LTEs to complete the large number of installations that are not complete yet. How much will the project run over its original $14 million cost? Who will pay for this? Utility rate payers, of course.
In addition to questions about the growing costs of AMI to Madison citizens, this ongoing debacle raises serious questions about increasing corporate influence over public functions in Madison, and about the state of democracy here overall. Water Utility emails reveal that the multinational Itron Corporation, which made millions selling its AMI system to Madison, has been advising utility and city leaders all along on how to answer—and often how to deflect—citizens’ questions about the system. Not surprisingly, much of the information Itron and industry consultants has provided to the Water utility—which then went to the public—has proven to be incorrect. Do we really want an international corporation telling our public agency leaders how to interact with the citizens they serve?
For example, after receiving initial citizens’ questions about smart meters in December 2011, Water Utility General Manager Tom Heikkinen’s first move wasn’t to respond to these citizens—his customers—but instead to contact Itron representatives for materials and advice on how to deflect them. Citizens continued to send questions, and while Heikkinen discussed them with Itron, citizens received no responses whatsoever for over five months—and then only after they finally went to a board meeting and demanded answers in person.
Worst of all, rather than engaging with citizens or their questions in these five months, the Water Utility instead worked behind the scenes to craft an ordinance that would threaten citizens with violations of law, huge fines, and possibly disconnection of water service if they didn’t cooperate with the smart meter installations. In a May 7, 2012 email message to Alder Sue Ellingson, assistant city attorney Doran Viste explained reasons for the ordinance changes: “…the ordinance changes will help empower the utility to gain access for the meter upgrades by giving it the ability to use citations and the threat thereof to gain access to properties where the owners/tenants are not being cooperative with the AMI upgrades” (emphasis added). The fines proposed in the ordinance ranged from $100 to $1000 per day. Inability to pay, or refusal to pay, would result in disconnection of water service. Alders Ellingson and Lauren Cnare agreed to sponsor these ordinance changes.
It wasn’t until the May 2012 board meeting, which several citizens attended after coming across the draft access ordinance on the meeting agenda, that utility leaders and board members were finally forced to directly acknowledge the questions they had been sending for months. Apparently, Water Utility leaders had hoped to quietly pass the highly punitive ordinance before citizens noticed—and without ever addressing their questions. Did the Water Utility hope threats in the ordinance would intimidate citizens and shut them up? Did Itron Corporation advise the Water Utility and City to develop this ordinance, perhaps based on lessons the corporation learned in other cities that implemented their systems and faced citizen resistance? This approach is not unexpected from a multinational corporation with $14 million at stake, and perhaps even the Water Utility; but why did our elected officials condone this?
Citizens, not deterred by the threatening ordinance attempt, but instead outraged by the antidemocratic approach, continued to ask questions and push for an opt-out. Finally, by the end of May 2012, Alders Anita Weier and Satya Rhodes-Conway suggested that the Utility develop an opt-out, which it decided to do some time in early June. The opt-out was announced publicly at a special June 19 city council meeting, but shared with alders and the mayor on June 12, when a smart meter-related resolution was tabled at a regular meeting.
Though pleased that an opt-out would be developed, citizens felt that many of their most critical questions about the AMI system (such as those about privacy issues, health risks, long-term costs, etc.) had not been adequately or honestly addressed. Some had not been addressed at all. So they petitioned the state Public Service Commission to require the Water Utility to address these issues. Unfortunately, the petition was eventually rejected by the PSC.
Nevertheless, citizens pressed on for answers to their questions. The Water Utility, apparently having not learning any lessons from what had already happened, continued to avoid engaging directly with them. Instead, Utility representatives trolled neighborhood discussion lists for citizen comments critical of AMI, at times refuting them in mean-spirited and patronizing ways. Citizen comments critical of AMI were forwarded to utility leaders.
On several occasions, Water Utility leaders gave citizens incorrect or highly misleading information, taken directly from Itron or smart meter industry consultants, apparently without any concern about the accuracy of these statistics. Since early 2012, citizens had been requesting accurate details about radio frequency signals emitted 24-7 by smart meters—information critical to understanding health risks. After months of asking, citizens finally received some questionable numbers from Itron and smart meter industry reports. Not trusting these numbers, citizens reviewed publicly available Itron specification sheets, and began monitoring installed meters with their own RF meters. They found that meters not only transmit strong bursts of radiofrequency radiation every 60 seconds, they also send signals out every five minutes that are orders of magnitude higher than the every-minute signals. After citizens sent Mr. Heikkinen info about these two signals, he emailed Itron asking for advice on how to rebut what citizens had found; instead, Itron told Mr. Heikkinen citizens were correct about the two types of signals. He never shared this information with citizens; to do so would have acknowledged they were right, and that the information the Water Utility had been sharing with the public all along was incorrect.
Most problematically, the Water Utility used some very questionable approaches to discredit citizens involved in anti-smart meter efforts, and to suppress public discussions and citizens’ efforts to share information critical of AMI. In July 2012, a member of the Water Utility Technical Advisory Committee, forwarded to Mr. Heikkinen and Board Chair Madeline Gotkowitz personal emails she received from a citizen who had been publicly sharing articles related to smart meter risks. Mr. Heikkinen and Ms. Gotkowitz (with Alders Cnare and Ellingson copied) then forwarded this citizen’s personal emails to the assistant city attorney, suggesting that she was a safety threat and asking if there was a way to ban her from audiotaping future water utility meetings. The assistant city attorney advised them that the citizen did not appear to be a threat, and that citizens have the right to tape WU meetings according to open meetings laws. The Technical Advisory Committee member, however, didn’t stop; on more than one occasion, she harassed and bullied citizens who were sharing information about smart meters at farmers markets and suggested that they didn’t have the right to be there. Did Water Utility leaders and city officials encourage this behavior? We don’t know, in part because critical emails were removed from the open records documents, with the excuse of “attorney-client privilege.” What is the Water Utility hiding? Regardless, we know that Water Utility leaders attempted to smear a citizen and ban her from recording public meetings, and to intimidate and silence citizens sharing opinions and information about an expensive publicly-funded project in public venues. This should be chilling to all Madison citizens who care about free speech and democracy.
Many months have passed since the opt-out policy was approved by the PSC. Even with the punitive opt out charges that were eventually developed, over 1250 customers have opted out (including one alder), and more will opt-out in coming months. Clearly, a large number of people have questions about these meters. Installation problems abound, and as of the summer of 2013, the smart meter program is not operational.
Meanwhile, however, Mr. Heikkinen apparently hasn’t learned anything about treating his monopoly customers—all Madison citizens—with respect, as the “wingnuts” comments referred to above demonstrate. He also made a special point to note in one PowerPoint slide that “the more PhDs, the less common sense,” illustrating his utter inability to respond to genuine, well-informed questions that demonstrated a greater knowledge of technical aspects of smart meter than he possessed.
Clearly a surreal reality exists at the Water Utility, where citizens and democracy are irrelevant—and the Water Utility Board, instead of providing independent oversight of the utility, is willingly playing along as rubber stampers, finding all Utility actions “in compliance” (to use their own jargon). Perhaps a change in leadership is needed; a change where customers are treated with respect, not contempt, and where democracy is the guiding principle.