Trouble at OWASA

More help wanted... Carrboro will be looking for a new representative to the OWASA (Orange Water & Sewer Authority) board, after a member resigned citing internal political motives on the board. This key institution has a huge impact on our local environment, and it is governed by representatives of Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Orange County.

John Smith, a member of the board for more than five years, also warned the Carrboro aldermen in his resignation letter to be more vigilant about the decisions and deliberations of the utility's board.

"In my opinion, the Board has become increasingly political," Smith wrote in his letter, dated Oct. 28. "At times, decisions appear to be made more on a basis of personality and personal alliances than from thoughtful, informed consideration." - Chapel Hill Herald, 11/12/04

The OWASA board is one of the most powerful non-elected positions in the county, so it doesn't suprise me that there would be some kind of politics going on there. But this seems to go beyond typical wrangling, with Smith citing his removal from a key finance committee where he seemed to be playing a watchdog role. And this wouldn't be the first time that Mark Marcoplos (current OWASA board chair) appeared to remove a political obstacle by kicking someone off a committee.

[Marcoplos] said most of the differences between Smith and the board came out during discussions over OWASA's water reuse project with UNC.

"It's a great project, and for some reason John resisted it at every turn," Marcoplos said. - Chapel Hill Herald, 11/12/04

The OWASA Board of Directors are: Mark Marcoplos, Chair, Milton S. Heath, Jr., Vice Chair, Penny Rich, Secretary-Treasurer, Mac Clarke, Susannah P. Holloway, Randy Kabrick, Bernadette Pelissier, Judith K. Weseman

So who's got the scoop? Will the Board of Aldermen choose a replacement and/or will they dive into the muck of political allegations? Mark, want to tell your side of the story?



I will be interested to see Mark's comments, but echo those of Melanie. I read the same article, which stated that the gentleman missed 20 of 38 meetings in the year. With that number of absences, my growing concern over the politics of this resignation and the committee appointment issue, subsided.

According to the news article I read, the gentleman was removed because he travels frequently and missed 50% of the meetings. Seems to me that he should have resigned and saved the board the trouble of dismissing him. Not saying it ISN'T political--just saying the OWASA board appears to have "just cause" on this one.

And I'm no huge fan of OWASA, believe me.

What the article says is that Marcoplos took him off the committee for poor attendance. It doesn't say anything about Smith's attendance at regular board meetings.

Trust me, I share your lack of sympathy for folks who occupy board seats and then leave them vacant. I have worked to remove these folks from boards I've sat on. This should always be done through clear bylaws and fair enforcement to avoid any appearance of personal attacks. I would so much prefer to read in the paper that the guy was automatically removed from the committee because he fell below the designated threshold for attendance, instead of that the chair thought it was time to go.

Finally, none of this really addresses his resignation from the board.

Mmmmmh. Lack of criteria was the same source of conflict for one of the volunteer Boards in Orange County recently, right? In that case, the person's term was not RENEWED, with absences cited leading to the decision, but no specific criteria was in place to guide such an action. Generally, I am concerned about the nature of this resignation with OWASA. These Boards need to be representative of the community, but not politicized. Very frustrating as a member of the public to watch. Mark was appointed by the Town Council of C.H. right? What year? Mmmmmh, is this a pattern?

You know, the other thing I mentioned in the Orange County case when we discussed this was term limits - - - always advisable on such Boards.

Typically water reuse projects are ~+/- 50% successful.

OWASA will be paying for this one for a long time...............................


All Advisory Board members are appointed for specific terms--Chapel Hill appoints representatives to the OWASA board for 3 years; Carrboro appoints for 7 year terms. Orange Co doesn't specify for their appointments, nor does the OWASA website provide info on beginning and ending terms. In Chapel Hill, a member can serve only 2 consecutive terms. I'm not sure if Carrboro and/or Orange Co have term limits. John Smith's appointment was due to expire in June 2006. See page 7: The board chair cannot fire a volunteer member.

Mark Marcopolous was appointed by the Orange County Commissioners since OWASA is a county board.

John's letter of resignation raised a number of concerns about the atmosphere surrounding the governance at OWASA. Before reaching any conclusions, the Board of Aldermen will hold a work session with Susie and John (our current and former rep's) to better understand this issue. In short, let's see if we can get the true skinny to help determine an informed course of action.


The newspaper article did a pretty good job of summarizing the story. The only thing I would change is that John was not "kicked off" a committee. He was assigned to another committee as board members frequently are.

We have three major sub-committees. It may appear from John's letter that the sub-committees have power on par with the U.S. Senate. Actually, they just delve into issues in the type of detail that would be too time consuming for regular board meetings. In my stint at OWASA, the sub-commttees have always done their business thoughtfully, generally taken into consideration the perspectives of board members not on the committee, and presented their findings honestly to the full board for review.

Furthermore, every board member is apprised of the meeting scheules and encouraged to attend any meetings that he or she wishes to attend. Many frequently do. Of course, any board member who is present has the same opportunity for input that committee members have.

From a practical standpoint, we like to have at least three sub-committee members present at meetings. His time spent out-of-town was problematic in this regard. (By the way, the 20 out of 38 meetings missed was regular full board meetings.)

John's letter alluded to "politics" without describing any specifics, so I certainly can't address a vague charge like that. Obviously, he wasn't happy on the board, so he resigned.

His disgruntlement with the board became clearly apparent during our long deliberations on the water re-use project on which OWASA is collaborating with UNC. This has been the topic of many meetings over the last couple of years, many of which John was absent from. Everyone but John voted in favor of this project.

It is a great project for many reasons. When the system is in place in a few years, 700,000 gallons per day of treated drinking water will not be used in UNC's heating & cooling facilities and for irrigation where non-potable water will suffice. This is almost 10% of our average potable water consumption.

If this sytem had been in place during the drought of 2001-2002, we would not have been in the dangerous situation we found ourselves in the fall of 2002.

This initial 700,000 gallon amount will increase as more uses for the reclaimed wastewater are found. So in effect, we are creating a virtual reservoir which will grow in size. In other words, this water savings is also a source of supply. And it is the least costly source of supply when compared with running a pipe to Jordan Lake or creating a new reservoir. It also allows us to defer capital costs of building more treatment capacity, so future savings will also accrue.

When this sytem begins working, the revenues for potable water will drop, although we will make some of that up with the charges to UNC for the reclaimed water they will use. In all likelihood, a modest rate increase will be needed to offset the loss of revenue.

John's resistance to the project was partially rooted in his desire to charge UNC for the water they weren't using. The majority of the board could not justify this approach, not only because it would likely be a project killer, but because we are encouraging water conservation in all sectors. OWASA is currently working with the city school system on an excellent plan to reduce water usage. Do we then charge the city schools for the water they will not be using?

In my personal opinion, he let himself become too personally vested in his minority argument and it began to cause him unhappiness. At any rate, there are many instances in which a board member has a lone perspective which they believe in strongly. But in the interests of working as a team and honoring the full board's decision, when the vote is cast and the decision is made, it's time to acknowledge the reality of the full board's will and move on constructively.

When I joined the OWASA Board with a background in community activism, I must confess I started with a attitude of healthy skepticism about what I might discover. I came to see an organization that is a model in many respects and continues to grow. I'm very proud to be a part of the "greening" of OWASA as we implement new projects and approaches such as the re-use project, alternative fuel use, and the new operations center built using many environmentally sound techniques (including solar water heating), just to name a few. I also appreciate the exemplary work-place culture being created there with such policies as paternity leave and a general atmosphere of collegiality and cooperation.

I encourage everyone to come to some meetings, talk to board members and staff, and learn about OWASA. I think you will find a community jewel and a municipally-owned utility that is gaining an excellent reputation around the country in water & sewer utility circles.



I reluctantly reply to this. On the one hand I'm reluctant to rehash an old story that is a little more complicated than a few sentences can explain.

On the other hand, I don't appreciate your innuendos and slurs without explanation - such as your above statement:

"This is just one example, I wouldn't be surprised if there were others."

Hey - if you've got a tale to tell, tell it & be specific. Otherwise you are just taking gratuitous pot-shots outside the bounds of fair discourse.

Okay - you said I "removed a political obstacle by kicking someone off a committee". No. 1, I didn't kick anybody off a committee. Alex and I were members of the Orange County Economic Development Commission. I couldn't possibly have kicked him off that committee. Alex was not an "obstacle" so without any specifics from you this is just more bs.

The Orange County Greens as an organization requested that Alex not continue to claim membership as he had clearly chosen an active role in the Democratic Party and supported a mediocre Chamber of Commerce guy for the Economic Dev. Commission Chair over myself, a Green. The organization's members felt like this was the last straw in Alex's evolution away from the Greens and that it was more honest to acknowledge this. Of course the local papers had a heyday - intolerance they harrumphed - but the Greens felt that we had principles to follow and that they were important.

At any rate, this action on the part of the Orange Country Greens was a far cry from me personally removing someone from a committee.

I request that you refrain from rumer-mongering and false statements that are not true. Feel free to describe anything that actually happened. I don't mind actual criticism that I can specifically address.

Thank you,

Using unreclaimed water for non-potable purposes is a great plan and I hope we can find more ways in which to conserve our water resources. But intuitively, it seems that if the volume of treated water decreases the fees should also. Is UNC paying anything for the unreclaimed wastewater or are they paying a lower rate?

Why is it legal for UNC to use reclaimed water--and illegal for me to do so? Two years ago I kept my extensive perennial beds alive with bathwater. I later found out that re-using "gray water" is against the law...

but it's OK for UNC?

When we end up on water restrictions again (and it IS when, not if) I'll be quietly hauling bath and laundry water to my plants...and hoping the water police don't come get me.

Of course, I'll STILL be paying sewer fees for water that isn't going into the sewer. And I get taxed for my impervious surfaces--excuse me, I pay a FEE for my impervious surfaces--even though I have areas designed to mitigate run-off...

but that's another story.


The short answer is that even though less water needs to be treated, the operating costs remain the same - plant operators, meter readers, truck maintenance, etc., etc.

UNC will be paying for the reclaimed water, but at a lower rate. They will actually have to further treat the water so it doesn't adversely affect their machinery (this is what Jack Granger was alluding to). The rates for reclaimed water have not yet been set - study is under way.



Could you please explain the details of what you referred to in the following statement in your intro to this thread? I can't recall ever kicking someone off a committee, so I - as well as readers who may accept this at face value - deserve an explanation.

"And this wouldn't be the first time that Mark Marcoplos (current OWASA board chair) appeared to remove a political obstacle by kicking someone off a committee."


Mark M., I was referring to Alex Zaffron's removal from the Orange County Greens after a disagreement with you on an unrelated county board. I believe we have been over this topic before. This is just one example, I wouldn't be surprised if there were others.

I didn't mean to impugn you over this resignation.. I really don't know anything more about it than what I read in the paper. But some of the complaints of excessive partisanship sounded pretty familiar to me, so I thought I'd see if there was anything behind them.

Melanie--I found the answer to your question about gray water. Gray water is actually a stormwater management issue: "Wash water, gray water, and septic system wastewater are among the many common stormwater pollutants that can degrade water quality. Stormwater runoff containing wash water and gray water has been found to contain high concentrations of pathogens such as bacteria, parasites, and viruses. When they wash into our recreational waters they can make people sick with sore throats, intestinal problems, rashes, nausea, and eye and ear infections. Wash water also contains nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, that fertilize aquatic algae blooms and promote bacterial growth which can degrade water quality." I'm assuming that means that UNCs reclamation project involves some treatment but not to the full extent of potable water.

Mark M., it seems to me that I did describe something "that actually happened" as you requested. "I was referring to Alex Zaffron's removal from the Orange County Greens after a disagreement with you on an unrelated county board." How is that different from your story?

I won't even get into the local Green's purging people who don't toe the party line. I never understood that.

Mark--I just read Wednesday's CH News article on Smith and OWASA. I applaud the majority of the OWASA board for support UNCs reclamation project and thinking beyond payments. I'm sure the infrastructure changes UNC had to make were so costly that having to pay full price for the water would have been a disincentive to change. In the long run, we will all benefit from the reduced load on the treatment facilities. It's not always easy to assign a dollar value to such benefits, but it can be done and might help with public relations/understanding.


Details please.

Name two people the Gtreens have "purged". You need to realize that you have a responsibility to the facts when you make such uinsubstantiated statements.


Mark, I didn't say there was a list of people. But the facts are, according to you, that you asked Alex to leave because you didn't agree with his decision on the county economic development board. If I was the Greens I would take all the support I could get, not apply a litmus test to keep out anyone who didn't agree with me 100% of the time.

What I said was “I was referring to Alex Zaffron's removal from the Orange County Greens after a disagreement with you on an unrelated county board.” From your description of things, that seems to be exactly what happenned. I also said "I wouldn't be surprised if there were others," and that is also true. Based on what I do know, I very much wouldn't. Since I have stayed as far from the local Greens as possible, I can't offer any more evidence than that.

It's interesting that on the same same day that proposed OWASA rate increases are reported in the HS, the N&O has a front page feature on the dangers of chloramination.

OWASA will have a May 26th public meeting on the budget if you want to weigh in on the %6 increase. I'm curious if OWASA plans to reduce rates once the major, needed improvements are significantly paid for or will it operate like so many other governmental units and find new uses for the increased revenue?

Come on down to the OWASA public hearing next Thursday, May 26 at 7pm at the CH Town Hall to learn more. You can also watch it on TV, but it would be great to see some interested citizens there.

Mark Marcoplos - Board Chair

Holy Toledo!

When the cat's away...Just happened to notice (with some amusement) the not-too-recent rehash of an old hubbub in which I was a central figure on this string, so, rather belatedly, I thought I'd add a bit of perspective from one who was there: Yes, I was "Churched" by the Greens in very much the manner Mark described (recent events surrounding a certain church in the news lately seeming strangely resonant here), with a couple of musings: A point that Mark fails to mention is that I did, in fact nominate him for the position of Chair of the Economic Development Commission in the Nominating Committee. The other members would have none of it, citing the need for a consensus-builder---a characteristic that they felt was incompatible with Mark's rather, uh... strident style of advocacy. As such, other names were discussed, and we settled on Jim Gibson. Having agreed to this, I felt obligated to support the Committee's recomendation before the full Board, and acted accordingly.

Moreover, I think many would take umbrage with Mark's characterization of the late Jim Gibson as a 'Mediocre Chamber of Commerce Guy'. Rather, I would suggest that among the hundreds of long time progressives attending his memorial---Bob Seymour, J.R. Manley, Rebecca Clark, just to name a few, he would be (and was) described as a thoughtful, kind progressive committed to civil rights and social justice who acted on these principles on a personal as well as political level, every day.

I don't recall my involvement in the Democratic party as having been in the conversation, and even granting this, when did participation in the Orange County Democratic Party constitute a defection to the Dark Side ("Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Democratic Party!!!???" "uhh, er, I refuse to answer on...") ?Those operating under the notion that this is some right-wing front group may want to check out their policy statements, and platform: http// Time was, that the Greens included a fairly diverse group of progressive activists who actually might disagree on an individual issue from time to time, and that was OK.

In the final analysis, I will confess to being briefly nonplussed and a bit hurt in the immediate wake of this bit of business, but this was quickly dissipated when I managed to join in on the round of bemused chuckling and giggling that greeted Mark's thunderous Press Action on the episode---Lending an air of gravitas to the whole affair somewhat akin to an old episode of 'The Gong Show', with Mark in the role of Jamie Farr wielding the mallet, and Yers Truly, the Not So Unknown Comic, being swept off the Stage By 'Gene Gene The Dancing Machine' (If you're under 30, and asking the question, 'What the @#*? is he talking about?! you'll just have to Google it up).

P.S. Hey, Mark---Don't get bent. I'm not.



First I heard that you had nominated me... Thanks I guess.

I would like to point out that your vote on the EDC was the tiebreaker. In other words - if I might include you as a supporter since you report that you nominated me - a majority of the board supported me as chair.

Normally nominating committees poll the board members and come up with nominations that will gain the board's support. In this case - with a 3 person nominating committee - 2 members were allowed to wag the dog and propose a nominee that didn't have the support of half of the board. Citing consensus building as a prime consideration seems odd in this situation.

And lastly, before I bore everyone to tears, here's a little lesson I've learned.

If you are a strong and vocal supporter of the status quo (Stick Williams comes to mind), you are passionate and committed and, of course, always "civil". However, if your views run counter to the status quo, you are labeled "strident" or "uncivil".

Alex, don't worry. I'm not bent. It was amusing. Water over the dam. In the end we're all working in our own ways for a better future. All is cool.

Just a couple of points. I have sat in on various committee meetings as a concerned citizen and offered suggestions and research material on certain issues only to find that not only were many committee members not interested but some seemed downright hostile if the suggestions did not “tow their party line.” So if it is a fact that John Smith missed numerous committee meetings, it may well have been due to a growing sense of frustration and futility. I spoke with John via phone when I was researching the reclaimed water project (way before his resignation) and he was extremely frustrated and concerned over how decisions were being made at OWASA—not the demeanor of a man who just missed committee meetings due to travel or disinterest. And one concern he had was that no environmental study had been conducted prior to OSAWA and UNC entering into a letter of agreement on the reclaimed water project. He was also concerned because the reclaimed water project will provide UNC with cheaper water while citizens and commercial businesses (for all you fiscal conservatives out there who claim you are concerned about attracting commercial business) will pay higher prices to make up the revenue lost by OWASA in selling UNC the cheaper water. In 2002 the Chapel Hill News reported that UNC is OWASA's biggest customer and consumed 25% to 30% of all water supplied by OWASA. Shortly after this was published the OWASA board voted to not release info on customer water usage. And now UNC wants to include a provision in the changes to the OI-4 zoning that would limit any formal responses required by UNC on its utility needs. Increased development is fast out stripping our local water supplies and UNC is poised to begin 8.2 million square feet of additional development and is pushing for secrecy on their utility needs and how they plan to pay for them (for more info see my website

There's a lot there to respond to. I'll leave the conjecture alone, but there is one basic point that needs to be kept in mind concerning the present & future water supply in regard to the re-use project.

Some people have focused on the brief period of decreased revenues due to the significant water savings that the re-use project will yield. They feel it is unfair that the need for adequate revenue to run the non-profit water & sewer utility will likely be provided by a modest rate increase.

They compare the probable rates after re-use with the rates of today and conclude that we are headed toward the worst fiscal alternative. The missing part of the equation is how much it would cost us to get water from Jordan Lake or buy water from other utilities somewhere down the line. The yield from the re-use system represents a significant supply source (as well as a maximization of our watersheds which we do such a good job of protecting) that will protect us from future droughts as well as keep us living within our means (i.e. carrying capacity). The most expensive alternative is to not implement the re-use program. It would be fiscally expensive and environmentally expensive over the long-term to not conserve this large amount of water. And what would the critics suggest? That we forego conservation because it would cost us a little in the short term? Why not do away with fire departments & schools until it is proven that they can pay their way?

Additionally, a highly significant and historic action was recently taken by the OWASA Board. (I wish that it had been recognized by OrangePolitics as a way, way, way more important issue than a lone disgruntled board member.) The Board (after working closely with highly knowledgeable OWASA staff members) passed a policy that says we will meet our future needs through conservation. There is not another utility in the state that has such a responsible policy linking future planning to the carrying capacity of the watershed. I haven't heard of another utility anywhere else that has made a similar commitment.

Check out for more info.


Community Guidelines

By using this site, you agree to our community guidelines. Inappropriate or disruptive behavior will result in moderation or eviction.


Content license

By contributing to OrangePolitics, you agree to license your contributions under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.

Creative Commons License

Zircon - This is a contributing Drupal Theme
Design by WeebPal.