I visited a member utility Sept. 15 -- the first time since February. The year started well enough, with a productive swing through northwest Minnesota and then time with people in February, at MMUA meeting and training events.

Then came March. And you know that story all too well.

Who among us thought in March that we would be where we are today? This situation is a particularly vexing problem for an association. Our basic work—if you consider MMUA’s name—is to associate. We still can, but it is harder, and less satisfying, when you are locked down, or distancing, or masked.

The member I visited on the 15th has a new city administrator, a new electric superintendent and a new billing clerk. I was fortunate to run into the administrator outside on the sidewalk, as she took a look at a street project underway right in front of city hall. At least she and I can put a name with a face now.

Entering the shop through the side garage door, the superintendent and billing clerk were meeting. A tandem like this is so common, and so important, in the MMUA membership. My impression of the people was good, and they seemed to be working well together. This is also a typical observation. The clerk and I each took a moment to drop the mask for a moment, so we could see what the other’s face looks like, before covering up again. I handed out my cards, we talked a bit, and I was off again, to let them attend to business.

When I first started with MMUA, I received a report that a member was unhappy. I went out to meet with the person, in their office. After a few minutes of listening to his concerns, and taking a few notes, the man’s face brightened a bit, and the conversation moved on to other topics. We eventually had lunch at a café down the street, and I left on a good note. It may be going too far to say we ended as friends, but we were certainly friendly and I always enjoyed a visit to that utility (and still do).

We sometimes have to call a member and ask them to respond to a legislative or regulatory issue. I found this was much easier to do if I could ‘put a name with a face.’ Maybe it is just me, but I felt a lot better calling somebody and asking them to do something—something that might be a little uncomfortable for them—if I had spent time visiting with them in their city.  Beyond that, you just don’t get a sense of a place, or a person, without a visit.

With the onset of the COVID pandemic, that sort of associating has become more difficult. People are concerned, and rightfully so. Providing basic necessities like clean water and reliable electricity are essential to a functioning modern society. Given that, it seems only prudent to quarantine yourself—to the extent possible—when your job is now officially deemed ‘essential.’ (Cholera outbreaks and devastating fires were among the reasons cities started to provide water service. Electricity was needed to pump water. Those two services still do go hand in hand. It is no accident that you can often find a municipal utility at the water tower, and the fire department next door.)

The current difficulties of meeting with other people doubly impacts MMUA -- a basic function of ours is to train and meet. How sad was it that we were unable to meet this summer! When will we be able to meet again? As Minnesota’s state of emergency drags into its seventh month, this question hangs heavy.

But the Association is moving forward. We broke the ice with the Generation School in July. The Summer Conference was ‘virtual,’ but our people met again, in person, in September with the Overhead School. Attendance was down. That’s not surprising for a couple reasons. One is that there is concern over catching and spreading the virus. And with the re-thinking of operations and necessary changes taken earlier in the year by our member utilities, there is no doubt a lot of work to catch up on.

But we met, and we will meet again. Along with all the other personal protective equipment so familiar to the utility worker, we wore masks at the Overhead School, when prudent. We distanced. The legitimate health concerns and resulting restrictions on normal human conduct left the interaction different at times, but we conducted the necessary training in the best way we possibly could.          

The way forward is murky, but we are moving forward.

- Steve Downer