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Thursday, March 5, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -4.0° F  Fair
The Daily
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Questions arise about contract renewal of Madison Water Utility chief Tom Heikkinen
In the presentation, Heikkinen showed a slide that said "the more Ph.D.s, the less common sense."
In the presentation, Heikkinen showed a slide that said "the more Ph.D.s, the less common sense."

Susan Pastor is under no illusions as she asks the Common Council to reconsider renewing the five-year contract (PDF) of Tom Heikkinen, general manager of the Madison Water Utility.

"I have no doubt they'll renew his contract," Pastor says. "And I have no doubt we could do worse."

But Pastor would like the water utility to get better about listening to the concerns and suggestions of residents.

Pastor was one of many residents who raised questions about the utility's plan to install wireless meters in homes. In a June 17 email to Common Council members, Pastor complains about a presentation Heikkinen gave on May 1 about "Lessons Learned: Madison Water Utility's Smart Meter Installation Project."

In the presentation, Heikkinen showed a slide that said "the more Ph.D.s, the less common sense" and another that branded critics of wireless meters as "wingnuts."

Pastor says the slides are indicative of the attitude the water authority has toward citizen input. "Our concerns were dismissed across the board," she says. "Why should somebody be made out to be crazy when saying we should think before we spend that much money?"

Heikkinen did not return a call for comment. However, Mayor Paul Soglin -- while admitting Heikkinen erred in showing the slides -- defends his job performance and supports renewing the contract.

"He made one mistake in a presentation, which was a bit disrespectful," Soglin says. "But in terms of the professional nature of the analysis of what to do in rolling it out, he did a fine job."

Pastor says the issue goes beyond Heikkinen's job performance. She got involved in water issues when she received a notice for a meeting about possible contamination at her neighborhood well on the east side. Since then, she's gone to many similar meetings held by the water utility and finds that the input they solicit tends to be cosmetic.

"You can learn some things about the issues, but you really can't weigh in on the larger decisions or the values that are driving them," she says.

Pastor recently went to a meeting regarding well 7, which needs an iron and manganese filter. "Citizens were able to weigh in on how's that building going to look. But there was never any input on the key issue, which is: Do we really want to pump that well harder? If you pump the well harder, you draw in more contaminants."

Adds Pastor: "We need a process that would allow us to weigh in on issues such as conservation."

But Soglin says the Water Utility Board is the venue for public input. "We have hearings, we have public notices. Except for the alders, that board is all citizens," he says. "Every time we get a complaint about process, it usually has to do with people not liking the end result."

The Common Council will vote on Heikkinen’s $130,000-annual contract (PDF) at its Tuesday night meeting.

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