Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Civil grand jury accuses chairman of Santa Clara Valley Water District of flouting state ethics laws

By Brandon Bailey
Posted: 06/20/2010 02:58:35 PM PDT
Updated: 06/21/2010 10:11:17 AM PDT

Santa Clara County's civil grand jury has accused the chairman of the countywide water district of flouting state ethics laws by promoting a series of district projects likely to increase the value of his family's land holdings in Alviso.

A report by the grand jury says Richard Santos blurred the lines between his personal interests and his duties as a public official, most notably in pushing the Santa Clara Valley Water District to build a $1.3 million educational center — which critics describe as unnecessary and overpriced — on land next to a mobile home park Santos inherited from his father.

Santos, a retired San Jose fire captain and longtime Alviso resident, disputed the criticism and denied acting for personal gain. In an interview, he insisted he has followed legal advice while fighting for projects that would benefit all of Alviso, a community that has long complained of neglect by local government agencies.

"I did my job like I'm supposed to, and I'm going to continue to do it," said Santos, 66.

The civil grand jury acts as a local government watchdog; it can make recommendations but cannot impose penalties or issue criminal indictments. The latest report, released Friday and signed by forewoman Angie M. Cardoza, marks the third time in five years that a civil grand jury has accused the water district of mismanagement and overspending.

"He has failed to uphold his ethical obligations," the report said of Santos, adding: "It is difficult to determine when he is participating as a private citizen promoting his own interests and when he is participating as a public official."

Water district CEO Beau Goldie responded with a statement defending the board's ethical practices, adding that the jurors "unfortunately made some findings and recommendations that may not be accurate."

A spokeswoman said the district, which is responsible for water-supply and flood-control projects across the county, would not comment on specifics.

But one board member called the report "well-documented." Larry Wilson, who voted against the controversial education center in 2008 and has often sparred with Santos, said he believes the report should be reviewed by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission, which can levy fines for violations of California's political ethics law.

The grand jury's months-long investigation focused on Santos' efforts to promote district projects in the mostly blue-collar community of Alviso, where the southern waters of San Francisco Bay lap at the northern edge of San Jose. Though once an independent city, Alviso was annexed by San Jose in 1968.

Santos, the son of a former Alviso mayor, has an ownership interest in 23 properties in Alviso, including the Summerset Mobile Home Park off Gold Street. While he represents a large swath of the county on the water district board, the grand jury characterized Santos as being overly focused on Alviso.

Jurors particularly criticized Santos' efforts to promote construction of the education center, consisting of a large gazebo, interpretive displays and public restrooms, on state-owned land near Gold Street. While questioning the project's expense, the jury report said it would provide a "park-like setting at the entrance to the Summerset Mobile Home Park."

The jury also criticized Santos for pushing a separate restoration plan for the nearby Alviso Slough. The plan calls for clearing vegetation and deepening the channel to allow boating, water-skiing and other recreation, which the jury concluded would raise the value of land in Alviso, including Santos's holdings.

Both the educational center and slough restoration were approved by a majority of the water board.

In a third case, the jury said Santos unsuccessfully urged the district to pay for modifications to the Alviso clubhouse of the South Bay Yacht Club, to which he belongs.

Santos insisted he won't profit personally from any of the Alviso projects. He said the education center would be an attractive feature and "gateway to the community," but denied it would affect the value of the mobile home property.

He said the slough restoration was important for flood control in an area that suffered repeated and devastating floods during the last century, although district officials have said the restoration goes beyond flood-protection efforts.

Santos abstained from voting on both projects in recent years, on the advice of the district's legal counsel. The grand jury, however, criticized him for taking part in board discussions about the projects and found Santos cast two votes related to the projects, after abstaining from earlier votes.

Santos said the jurors are "good volunteer people" who were misled by his political opponents, whom he declined to name. "I've been fighting to protect my community," he added, "after Alviso's been neglected for 42 years."


Terry Johnson said...

Richard Santos is a civic minded person and is trying to improve the area in which he serves. Nothing more

Anonymous said...

Richard Santos is a political opportunist, a dishonest and unethical official of the water district.

Santa Clara County resident