Wednesday, March 15, 2017
[ Santa Cruz County] SLV water manager joins the fray
Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.
When Brian Lee was hired in January 2015 as manager of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, his new bosses included three newly elected directors. The district was off to a fresh start, after a controversial rate increase, an unflattering Grand Jury report and the firing of its district manager.
His arrival also followed by barely two months the filing of a lawsuit against the water district board and one of its former members, Terry Vierra, alleging a conflict of interest in connection with the purchase of some property nearly four years earlier.
Vierra lost that lawsuit in December, and was ordered to repay a real estate commission and possibly $70,000 in legal fees incurred by the man who filed that lawsuit, Bruce Holloway.
Vierra hasn’t repaid the commission, because four of the current water district directors believe they are obligated to pay all of his fines and fees, and also agreed to seek to overturn the court ruling. The decision to appeal virtually guaranteed that Vierra’s legal fees, borne by the district’s ratepayers, will surpass six figures.
The controversy over that decision by the current board – which directed its attorneys to continue to continue to represent the former director – has already resurrected the powerful ratepayers’ group, San Lorenzo Valley Watchdogs.
Lee’s aggressive advocacy of this board stance – in emails to ratepayers, public comments and court filings – now places him squarely in the middle of the controversy.
All of this is coming at a time when he and the board are beginning to build a case for yet another round of rate increase for the approximately 8,000 customers in the sprawling mountain district.
Lee’s most recent action was to send an email this week, presumably on his own initiative, to all five directors giving them “a gentle reminder” that only “Chair Ratcliffe” (board president Gene Ratcliffe) could speak to the news media.
He said he was referring to the most email request sent to all directors by the Press Banner asking if the directors had authorized or directed Lee to speak on their behalf, specifically about the Vierra appeal. Ratcliffe and three other board members – Margaret Bruce, Chuck Baughmann and Erik Hammer – continued to ignore this most recent request to clarify their position with regard to Lee’s advocacy on their behalf.
Lee’s email this week was the last straw for newly elected member Bill Smallman, who had cast the lone dissenting vote against the continued legal appeal of the conflict-of-interest ruling, and who had kept silent publicly. Wednesday he broke that silence, in an email to the Press Banner.
“I can't talk about what specifically took place in closed meetings,” he wrote in an email Wednesday. “If I discuss this issue publicly, I was told that all it would do would worsen my relationship with the other directors, but I don't care. They are childishly trying to keep me out of this.”
“My position has not changed. Vierra violated conflict-of-interest, it is that simple,” Smallman wrote . “This Board and Brian are completely out of touch and their reasoning is absurd in my opinion. They think it is all going to roll over, and people will let it go.”
He called on the Valley Women’s Club, the most powerful political organization in the San Lorenzo Valley communities, to “put a stop to it.”
“As far as my relationship with the board and Brian, I'm up against a fight, and I don't think it is going to end until the next election – if we get some fiscally responsible candidates that respect and understand conflict-of-interests laws,” he wrote.
The water district attorneys will be back in court on March 17, asking Superior Court Judge John Gallagher to admit he made mistakes in the original trial of the Vierra case, reverse his decision and order a new trial.
March 11, 2017
By Barry Holtzclaw