, Newburyport, MA

October 10, 2013

Our view: State should make island's water system woes public

Newburyport Daily News

---- — For many months, Plum Islanders have been left to wonder what is wrong with their water system.

It’s been in the ground for less than a decade, yet the multi-million-dollar system is experiencing a significant problem. The Daily News brought this hushed-up issue to the public’s attention in February, and the public now knows some general information — basically that an unknown number of bolts that hold water pipes together are rusting and falling apart. But the public has been kept in the dark about the precise extent of the problem, who is at fault, who will fix it and what the cost will be.

These are significant questions that islanders — and Newburyporters too, since their city administers the water system — have a right to know. It’s time for the state, which has been the key player in the hushing of information, to step forward and deliver a comprehensive explanation.

This issue came to the surface in a very public way last week, when the Newburyport City Council voted by a one-vote margin against Councilor and mayoral candidate Richard Sullivan Jr.’s effort to release the council’s executive session meeting minutes pertaining to the water system problem. Under state law, civic bodies are allowed to go into these non-public sessions to discuss certain matters, and they may keep the minutes private for a period of time.

Typically, the council would keep these minutes under wraps if there is pending legal action being taken, which the city has stated is the case in this situation.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that Newburyport is in a full-blown mayoral election cycle. There is no doubt that Sullivan’s efforts can be seen as a politically motivated move to put Mayor Donna Holaday on the defensive. Holaday has recommended against releasing the minutes, saying that the state does not want the city to reveal too much about the situation. The state supposedly does not want to jeopardize any legal case it is building.

Still, there is some merit to the spirit of Sullivan’s efforts. State officials ought to read this as more than just “election antics,” as some have called it. This has been dragging on for months, with no substantive resolution or information for the public. Certainly Plum Islanders — most of whom live in Newbury — deserve an answer as to whether they will be on the hook for a multi-thousand-dollar, or multi-million-dollar, expense. This is a subject of much discussion and concern among island residents. Island homeowners may be sitting atop an expensive liability that will have a big impact on their home values and ability to buy or sell properties.

The matter before the City Council may be moot for now, but the real issue of the state’s secrecy on this matter remains. The agencies involved in this matter — primarily the state Attorney General’s Office — should be making a real effort to inform the public.