Monday, July 2, 2012

Grand jury report finds future of North San Joaquin Water Conservation District in jeopardy

Posted: Wednesday, June 27, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:38 am, Wed Jun 27, 2012.
By Sara Jane Pohlman/News-Sentinel Staff Writer

A San Joaquin County Grand Jury report found mismanagement, lack of leadership and an unwillingness to follow policy and legal counsel caused the North San Joaquin Water Conservation District considerable setbacks, financial and otherwise, and could undermine its future.

The report is based on interviews of 2011 board members and past board president Bryan Pilkington, attendance of meetings, complaints lodged by citizens in the district, and reviewing financial reports and legislative documents. The grand jury called the board “dysfunctional” in their former chaos.

President Joe Petersen called the report “a day late and a dollar short” at Monday’s board of directors meeting, adding that it is based on old information.

A major problem cited in the report is a lack of revenue. The district struggles to maintain aging pumps and pipelines, and has a hard time balancing their budget, stated the report.

The report focused on the drama surrounding the groundwater charges the district imposed in 2007 to make improvements. When then-president Bryan Pilkington, “the most outspoken critic,” joined the effort to challenge the charges, it marked the beginning of thousands of dollars going to cover legal and process fees.

Since then, the district has taken no action to collect groundwater charges.

Pilkington did not return a request for comment as of press time.

“I think they’re hinting that we had a good thing going and we screwed it up,” said Petersen, referring to the approval of Measure V by a narrow margin in 2008.

Measure V repealed a groundwater charge imposed by the district in 2007-08, denying the district’s right to collect charges from property owners to improve district pipes and pumps.

The measure made it to the ballot after a citizen initiative was circulated by Pilkington.

Other violations include two board members with a financial interest within the district failing to abstain from a vote to forgive debt owed to the district in groundwater charges.

Board members “constantly” disagreed about water issues and finances. Meeting preparation was lacking. Verbal outbursts and abusive language were common, and Robert’s Rules of Order were ignored, according to complaints and grand jury research.

Directors were reluctant to comment on the specifics of the report, but will address each finding at the next meeting.

“A lot of the stuff in the report is from the past and I don’t want to make any comments on it,” said director Hugh Scanlon. “It may open up old wounds, and I don’t want to open up old wounds until we get something pulled together as a board.”

The report offered a laundry list of recommendations to improve the board’s function. The board must complete the following:
Review its own policy manual.

Complete Brown Act training, as well as ensure that meeting minutes, notices and agendas are completed and distributed properly.

Complete ethics training.

Explore new sources of revenue and create a sound fiscal plan with a balanced budget.

The report concludes the district’s actions in 2011 placed their financial future and their ability to survive in jeopardy, as well as cost thousands of dollars in legal and processing fees.

It does note board leadership has changed, from Pilkington to Petersen, and has shown improvement since then.

Petersen hopes the public takes the report with a grain of salt.

“Keep in mind this was the old group. There have been a few improvements since then, I’d like to think,” said Petersen.

But the district has not yet found a way to raise more revenue and maintain its water right, stated the report.

The district has 90 days to respond specifically to each claim in the report.

Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman

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