What’s Actually Happening at SLV Water?
By Chris Finnie
If you’re like me, you might have noticed some local media—social, print, and radio—accusing the San Lorenzo Valley Water District of a wide range of misconduct.
But I’ve been a customer for 22 years now. I’ve found the staff to be polite and helpful, the service excellent, and the water quality great. I asked around and found that’s the general experience. I also know a couple of the board members slightly. Neither strikes me as a crook or con man. So I was somewhat at a loss for why there seemed to be this vendetta against the district.
So I decided to check for myself and see if something was really wrong. I’d just gotten an email from SLVWD listing capital improvements and costs. It was signed by Brian Lee, the district manager, and included his email address. So I sent him an email and told him I wanted to look into all the stories I’d been seeing. He offered to meet with me the next morning. I asked him a lot of questions, and he answered all of them. When I asked him for materials he’d referenced, he sent them to me later that day.
I checked out some of the things he’d told me on my own. Here’s what it looks like from what I can find.
The Vierra Case
Former board member Terry Vierra recused himself from decisions on whether or not the district would buy a piece of property because his wife was the listing agent. However, he voted to approve a list of payments that included several that were required to close escrow on that property. The district had already completed several steps to buy it. His wife was not going to make any more money because escrow closed. But he shouldn’t have voted on that list of bills. When a citizen sued Vierra six years later for that vote, the judge said it seemed like a minor, and probably innocent mistake, but agreed he shouldn’t have done it. So Vierra lost the case and had to pay a fine. Then things really got nasty.
- The citizen who filed the case, has sued other government bodies in the past. Because he won this time, he’s now sued for legal fees in the amount of $150,000.
- SLVWD covered Vierra’s legal fees because the California Government Code, which governs the conduct of the district has a section 825 that says the district is responsible for legal bills of employees who need representation because of something they did on the job.
- A court case in the Fourth District Court of Appeal, filed on December 23, 2013, in the matter of Lexi vs. the City of San Diego, holds that directors are considered employees for this purpose.
- The California Attorney General also issued a finding in June of 1998, which says, “Thus, we have determined that the members of a board, commission, committee, or similar body established by the Constitution or by statute are employees entitled to defense and indemnification.”
- So the board paid legal costs for board member Vierra until he was found guilty. At that point, the board decided they had fulfilled their obligation to him under the relevant statutes and case law and that they did not need to fund an appeal.
Was there a problem? Yes. A minor one that was probably innocent, and which didn’t materially affect board decisions or provide financial gain to anyone involved. In fact, you could argue that the judgments against Mr. Vierra could deter anybody from ever wanting to serve on the SLVWD board if a minor mistake could cost them $160,000.00. Board members are only paid $150.00 per meeting. That’s hardly worth the potential liability.
The Lompico Merger
Over the years, the small private water districts that dotted the Valley have merged into SLVWD as they could no longer adequately maintain their ageing infrastructure, provide services ratepayers expected, cover costs, or maintain the quality standards required by the state. The district serves more than 7,300 connections in Boulder Creek, Brookdale, Ben Lomond, Lompico, Zayante, Scotts Valley, Manana Woods, and Felton.
By most accounts, the Lompico water district couldn’t pay their bills, they were running out of water, and the quality didn’t meet state standards. Water running through Lompico pipes now meets today’s quality standards because the residents have received water from SLVWD for the last three years. When planned construction projects can be completed, they will again be able to use water from Lompico.
Though the first merger vote failed in Lompico by one vote, they held a second. That one passed and a merger agreement was negotiated and executed in 2013. Under the terms of the Local Agency Formation Commission Resolution #953-A, adopted on August 6, 2014, Lompico agreed to special fees for Lompico ratepayers for a period of five years because of significant outstanding debts. Understandably, not everybody has been happy about this.
So SLVWD accepted the offer of a volunteer to audit the Lompico costs. While the audit disproved some of the complaints, it also showed that SLVWD had actually lost money on Lompico customers in the first year of service—even with the additional fees. They almost broke even in the second year. The auditor also projected that the district would be able to provide service to Lompico without losing money, and without the additional fee, in the third year. The district then notified Lompico ratepayers that they would drop the special fees three and a half years early.
Did the district do anything wrong? Not that I can find. In fact, even one Lompico resident who contacted the district manager with a question about the fees, admitted at the beginning of her email that she was very happy with the service. I also saw the response to her, which was professional and seemed to adequately address her concern.
So Why the Negative Press?
Several media outlets and a couple of citizen groups seem to feel the SLVWD needs extra scrutiny. Oversight of public bodies is a legitimate role for the media and for citizens. However, in this case, they appear to be making trouble where there is none. They also seem to be working together to coordinate and plan their attacks. I base this on an email that Mr. Lee shared with me from one of the citizen groups to another newspaper that appears to be planning their next line of attack. The sender probably didn’t intend to copy Mr. Lee, but accidentally did. Looking at the newspaper Facebook page, you can also see a consistent pattern of interaction between the citizen group, the radio host, and newspaper editor. They appear to have established a media and social media echo chamber to continue what seem to be inflated accusations against SLVWD.
The effect of this has been quite unfortunate. Public meetings have become acrimonious and disruptive. Other citizens who wanted to comment on issues before the board have not been able to. Board members and district employees have been personally attacked, ridiculed, and vilified on social media, in traditional media, by telephone, by email, and in person. I have seen some of the emails and social media posts and they are simply vile. I can see no reason for somebody to have to put up with this just to come to work. I’m also concerned that it could lead to more baseless lawsuits that will cost the district money that could be better spent for the capital improvements we so badly need.
Checking all this out has been a clarifying experience for me. I hope my research has helped to inform Bulletin readers as well. I also hope that everyone involved can proceed in a more constructive manner in the future. It seems to me to be in all of our best interests to do so.