Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sacramento grand jury calls for overhaul of Rio Linda water district

Things have gotten so out of control at the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District - with political squabbling, lawsuits, wasted taxpayer money and a generally unsafe water system - that it's time to reorganize the dysfunctional local government agency, according to the Sacramento County Grand Jury.

Today, the grand jury released the findings of its investigation into the district, which serves 18 square miles in northern Sacramento County.

"Based upon its investigation, the grand jury has little hope that (the water district) will be able to take the necessary corrective actions without outside help," wrote Rosemary Kelley, the grand jury forewoman, in a cover letter accompanying the report. "The conduct of the board of directors has been deplorable. It has wasted taxpayers' dollars at the same time that it has brought disrepute on the District ... Since they have failed repeatedly in the past, there is no reason to believe that they will be successful in the future. The only hope for the District is that major changes are enforced."

The grand jury found numerous problems, many of which The Bee has chronicled over the past year, including low pressure, unsafe drinking water, questionable spending and apparent conflicts of interest on the part of the Board of Directors.

Among the grand jury's findings:

Despite a 2007 compliance order from the California Department of Public Health for dangerously low water pressure, the current Board of Directors has failed to upgrade the system. "No significant supply improvements have been made under the 2007 Compliance Order," according to the report. As a result, the state issued a second compliance order on Dec. 28, 2009.

Unsafe water pressure is a fire hazard. That's because firefighters might not be able to power their hoses if pressure is too low. The insurance industry is aware of this and largely as a result, residents conservatively pay an extra $100 per year in insurance premiums for single-family homes, the grand jury found.

Board members "often interfere with the operations of the (district) general manager," according to the report. Board members often go around the general manager and speak directly with outside agencies and officials. "This results in contradictory and misleading information being presented to the district," the grand jury found.

A board member's personal business has received money from the district - an apparent conflict of interest. In February, The Bee reported that Vivien Spicer-Johnson, a board member, had received money for running district ads and notices in her monthly newspaper. The District Attorney's office has been looking into the possible conflict.

The board violated open meetings laws by discussing possible well sites in closed meetings, according to the report. "Rio Linda/Elverta residents have alleged the proposed site for a new well is owned by a relative of a director," the Grand Jury found.

In a February interview with The Bee, interim general manager Michael Cardenas acknowledged the district was considering buying land from a cousin of Johnson's to use as a well site.

"Almost everybody in Rio Linda is connected to everyone," Cardenas said.

The current board's decision to fight the union has cost scarce resources. "Currently the district only has six employees and has never had more than ten employees; yet the District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor negotiations and employee lawsuits," according to the report.

A board approved surcharge might violate the statewide Proposition 218, which requires utility rates to be proportional to the cost of providing service. That's because small homeowners and big business pay the same $15 bimonthly amount in the district.

While the Grand Jury report bashes the current leadership of the district, led by board President Mary Harris, the investigation also questions the lack of action by the state, county and other agencies.

The Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission is required to conduct a Municipal Service Review for each agency in the county. Such a review is a way to evaluate how the agencies provide public services. LAFCO has never conducted such a review for the district, the Grand Jury found.

The grand jury can't compel compliance with any of its recommendations. The district does, however, need to respond to the report by July 6. To read the full report visit www.sacgrandjury.org .

Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2010/04/05/2656799/sacramento-grand-jury-calls-for.html#ixzz0kKhoYKLk

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