Digger - October 17, 2011
The grotesque corruption unearthed in the city of Bell, CA inspired a bill written by Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, that expands the authority of the state auditor's office to examine the finances of local governments which appear 'at high risk" for fraud, waste or mismanagement. Many thanks are due Representative Ricardo Lara for his bill. A recent San Diego Union Tribune editorial opined that the very first government body that should be scrutinized is the Otay Water District because its board, in "an astonishing abuse of power," voted to give lifetime retiree health benefits to more than 100 managers, union employees and their dependents after ratepayers had already been hit with a series of sharp rate increases and despite intense public opposition which made it "simply unconscionable."
The Otay Water District boondoggle is outrageous but not unique. In December 2008, the Borrego Water District board decided the small (fewer than 2,000 ratepayers) district was so flush that they should reward themselves and their dependents with free access to the district's platinum medical insurance plan despite howls of protest from incensed ratepayers who would pay for it. In November 2010 the terms of three of the five board members, including that of Chair Kathy King, were up and none were re-elected. The three newly elected directors immediately canceled the board's free insurance that had already cost the small district $122,000. They also discovered evidence of gross financial misfeasance by the General Manager and previous board as a result of which the district was verging on insolvency. Within weeks after the election one of the two remaining members of the previous board, Robert Mendenhall, and the GM, Richard S. Williamson, abruptly resigned. The last remaining member of the old board, Eleanor Shimmel, finally resigned on 26 August 2011.
The new board and a new GM are struggling mightily just to keep the agency operating, but there is no assurance they will succeed despite their considerable ability and determination, and notwithstanding a recently enacted thirty percent rate increase with more to come until rates have nearly doubled in three years.
While Otay directors should face serious repercussions, they are by no means the only public agency in the county suffering from waste, mismanagement, and egregious abuse of power. The Borrego Water District's recent history is proof of that and the miscreants who created the disastrous situation in which it now finds itself should feel the full weight of the new law as soon as possible.
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