Macon’s Water Authority After Amerson

Special to The TelegraphSeptember 30, 2012 

At the funeral of Frank Amerson on Sept. 18, Lonzy Edwards and Kirby Godsey spoke well of Amerson as a family man, neighbor and community member. They saved their most eloquent and passionate words, though, for recalling Amerson’s remarkable 35-year role leading Macon’s water authority, which he was still serving as its elected chairman at the time of his unexpected death from heart trouble at 83.

The Macon Water Authority is a municipal franchise, with a legally protected monopoly in delivering purified water through pipes along public ways, and accepting used water to treat it properly after use. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that legally protected monopolies are an “embarrassment” that must be justified by an overwhelming public good. Governmentally guarded monopolies like Macon’s water authority have lots of potential to be embarrassing.

Amerson’s special contribution was to ensure that Macon’s water authority would turn out not to be an embarrassment, but a source of pride for the quality of its water and treatment, its abundant supply, and the authority’s excellent service to one and all.

In his classic book “Regulation and Its Reform,” U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discussed the inherent dangers that threaten monopolies like Macon’s water authority. Macon’s authority is even more at risk now that the public’s fierce guardian Amerson is no longer around.

Absent competition, monopolies typically succumb to a web of insidious mutually-reinforcing tendencies. Upward creep in pricing. Lack of imagination about how to meet potential new demands. Flagging quality. Poor service. Bureaucratic entrenchment. Overcompensation. Vulnerability to corruption. Resistance to new competitors.

Few if any of those ailments seem to afflict Macon’s water authority today. Quite the opposite. That’s in large part because Amerson internalized the public’s interests, insisting by sheer intensity of personal will, strategic intelligence, hard work and integrity, that the water authority would not slip into normal patterns common to many public bureaucracies.

Amerson ran the authority, as he often said, “like a business.” He held politicians at arm’s length, simultaneously driving fair, sensible bargains with one and all, white and black alike, who dealt with the authority as contractors, suppliers, employees, developers and consumers.

Meanwhile, the authority’s big projects were thoughtful and well executed. For instance, after the flood of 1994, Amerson parlayed $5 million into a smart $105 million investment in a big water reservoir project that ultimately paid off big-time. He did it all while being notoriously averse to giving or taking kickbacks.

But with Amerson’s death, and despite the presence of its superb continuing manager, Tony Rojas, the water authority is now embarking on a new era. Public vigilance will be called upon to help substitute for the strict governance controls imposed personally, if privately, by Amerson. The entire water authority board and the community as a whole must now take on more of the job of helping the water authority seize the opportunities and avoid the pitfalls that Amerson’s personal vigilance and considerable power made possible without much extra oversight.

If Amerson’s leadership had a weak side, it was that his governance controls were often hidden from public view, while his disdain for apparent fools and rogues was all too public. It seemed that he thought he knew best, just about always. In the post-Amerson era, it will therefore also be incumbent on the governors of the water authority to make sure they work more transparently, cooperatively and accountably while attempting the hard job of filling in for Amerson’s many strengths.

To continue Amerson’s core achievement of helping the authority to avoid the pitfalls that inherently threaten any governmental monopoly, the authority must first, as an elementary matter, be subject to explicit, careful scrutiny about its pricing and terms. We can’t allow the authority simply to impose creeping costs on option-less consumers, nor to dictate hard terms to them, just because the authority can get away with it.

Given the quality of the water and the lack of alternatives, price creep and adopting a take-it-or-leave-it attitude with present and potential customers will be tempting.

Second, the authority must continue and even significantly expand its vision about what Macon’s abundance of high-quality water can mean for regional development. As the ongoing “water war” in court among Florida, Alabama and Georgia shows, water in the southeast is an increasingly scarce, valuable commodity. Macon’s water could be a generator of significant economic growth in such an environment by being a lure for water-intensive businesses around the country to locate here.

That massive latent potential should be pressed hard. George Israel’s recent appointment to a marketing role with the authority, one of Amerson’s final official decisions, makes sense in that light. If such efforts are successful, the spin-off benefits in new jobs for the community as a whole could be substantial.

Third, while the accolades continue to pour in about the quality of Macon’s water and the excellence of the water authority’s management, there will be an inherent natural tendency to kick back in self-congratulatory relaxation, meanwhile over-compensating those basking in the glory. Let’s agree to leave the glory to the late Amerson. Service and quality cannot be allowed to lag; special controls should be instituted regularly to measure whether quality and service are being maintained, or even improved and pay and benefit scales should be rigorously checked against the private sector and competitive water authorities.

Fourth, the management and staff of the authority should not be allowed to revert to “government work” standards. They should be held to the competitive and ethical standards of business that Amerson correctly recognized as being of a higher general standard than sometimes seen in government offices. Likewise, every effort must be made to ensure that political oversight of the authority does not result in inefficient, costly accommodations to angling politicians and special constituencies, or even outright corruption.

At the same time, we must never forget that the water authority is a public institution intended for the ultimate benefit of all the citizens. Sensitivity should be shown to the reasonable suspicion in the historically sophisticated black portions of our community that the water authority was originally split off from the city and county in 1973 partly to avoid potential control by black leadership.

Whatever the hidden motivations may have been four decades ago, today the sensibilities in a consolidating Macon are different. Since Amerson got involved in 1975, the racial affairs of the water authority have for the most part been exemplary. Race should be understood as basically irrelevant to water authority governance going forward, unless there are fresh and fair reasons for concern.

It makes little sense to fold the water authority back into government as an ordinary bureaucratic department now. By doing so, we would radically increase the risk of losing the water authority’s special efficiencies and qualities.

In our spare U.S. Constitution, we have a special line about how the “corruption of blood” doctrine should not permit the people’s government to punish innocent offspring for the legal sins of their parents.

By analogy, even if the water authority’s founders had offensive reasons for creating the authority in the first place, the water authority itself should be held to account today only for its own conduct over the decades.

Out of respect for Amerson’s hard-earned legacy, it’s now our collective job to do what he took on as his personal crusade. We need to accept the responsibility of ensuring that this particular monopoly remains no embarrassment, but a beacon and a blessing for all.

David Oedel is a professor of law at Mercer University Law School where he studies, among other things, governmental regulation and regulated industries.

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