Ever see the film “Rashomon”? It’s the story of an incident told through the eyes of four different people. Their stories don’t match. Such seems the case with the ugly San Juan Water District election.
In interviews with nearly a dozen officials, accounts included claims of questionable financing, incivility, illegalities, cover-ups and Chicago-style politics.
San Juan serves more than 265,000 people in suburban Sacramento, and also supplies water wholesale to separate water districts in Citrus Heights, Fair Oaks, Orangevale and Granite Bay. Its operating budget is around $15 million a year, yet it is $42 million in debt.
According to the state Controller’s Office, the district has 46 full-time employees whose salaries average around $100,000 each. Total wages from 2009 to 2012 increased by $955,233, even with one fewer staffer. San Juan raised its rates by 51 percent over the last decade, with plans for annual increases of 5 percent or more through 2020.
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That’s troubling for the districts that depend on San Juan for their water while trying to keep costs down for their own ratepayers. “They have a way of doing business that we disagree with,” Fair Oaks Water board President Lonny Gossett said.
Three San Juan board seats are up for grabs on Nov. 4. When board president Bob Walters sought an endorsement from Fair Oaks Water District General Manager Tom Gray, he refused. “I told him, ‘It’s not personal, but I just don’t believe in how you guys are running the district,’” said Gray, who lives in the district and pays San Juan rates.
An email from San Juan board member Pam Tobin followed, accusing Gray of “campaigning against San Juan with your own slate to further your agenda. … There are rules about that. … Be careful!”
Gray and Fair Oaks board members viewed that as a threat and presented their concern in a formal letter at a San Juan board meeting on Sept. 24. When Gossett tried to address the letter during public comment, San Juan board member Ted Costa held the letter over a trash can and yelled, “This is a piece of crap we’re just going to throw in the garbage.”
“Ted was out of control,” Fair Oaks board member Dave Underwood told me. “Grown-ups can disagree, but this was beyond that.”
At a follow-up meeting with San Juan’s legal affairs committee on Oct. 14, Gray recalls: “As soon as I walk in the door. Ted Costa looks at me and says, ‘What the hell are you doing here?’” Costa “then went on a five-minute tirade, belittling me, using foul language,” Gray says.
Costa admits to his “outbursts” and language, but won’t apologize because he believes Gray is violating election law. “If I know someone is violating the law, then I should tell ’em about it,” he said.
Sorry, but not in such a disrespectful manner, not under any circumstances.
Walters claims he tried to calm Costa down at each meeting, but Fair Oaks board members say he remained silent, allowing the rants to continue. Though Gray requested the tirade toward him be put in the meeting minutes verbatim, it wasn’t. “Not one word,” Gray said.
“We weren’t taping it,” San Juan general manager Shauna Lorance said. “I had to go back by memory, so it was put in that there was an ‘outburst.’”
Tobin says the district used to record meetings, but the process became “cumbersome.” “You look at anybody’s board minute meetings … there are no recordings,” she said.
Actually, the neighboring Sacramento Suburban Water District records its meetings, available to the public for six months. Interestingly, both Tobin and Walters requested I send each a transcript and recording of our interviews. I agreed.
Tobin went so far as to file a complaint against Gray with the state Fair Political Practices Commission. She wouldn’t comment on it, but I’ve seen it. It looks weak. Gray insists he’s done nothing wrong, “but if I have, I will own it.”
Such complaints typically spike during election season. Tobin filed similar complaints in 2012, all dismissed, said Dave Peterson, the San Juan board member who first contacted me. He’s not seeking re-election, frustrated by his board’s behavior.
There’s a bigger problem here. Many water districts and other special districts are so small that impropriety of any sort often goes undetected. The media lacks the manpower to cover them; voters haven’t enough interest to follow them. Even if they did, transcripts are lacking, audio is missing and accountability becomes difficult.
The result: countless clusters of calcified governance that can become little fiefdoms for those in power. And there are more than 5,000 such agencies in California. This week, the Controller’s Office will release an audit report on four of them.
San Juan isn’t one of them. Yet.
Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.