News Water District

Sacbee: Rio Linda water agency lashed

Published Tuesday, Apr. 06, 2010

by Robert Lewis

Citing years of dysfunction, the Sacramento County grand jury is pushing for an overhaul of the Rio Linda/Elverta Community Water District.

On Monday, the grand jury released the findings of its investigation into the district, which serves 18 square miles in northern Sacramento County. The investigation found that political squabbling, lawsuits and wasted taxpayer money are crippling the district and threatening public health and safety.

“Based upon its investigation, the grand jury has little hope that (the water district) will be able to take the necessary corrective actions without outside help,” wrote Rosemary Kelley, the forewoman, in a cover letter accompanying the report. “The conduct of the board of directors has been deplorable. It has wasted taxpayers’ dollars at the same time that it has brought disrepute on the District … . Since they have failed repeatedly in the past, there is no reason to believe that they will be successful in the future. The only hope for the District is that major changes are enforced.”

The grand jury found numerous problems, many of which The Bee has chronicled over the past year, including low pressure, unsafe drinking water, questionable spending and apparent conflicts of interest on the part of the board of directors.

Among the grand jury’s findings:

• Despite a 2007 compliance order from the California Department of Public Health for dangerously low water pressure, the current board of directors has failed to upgrade the system. As a result, the state issued a second compliance order on Dec. 28, 2009.

• Residents conservatively pay an extra $100 per year in insurance premiums for single-family homes partly because of the fire hazard low water pressure poses, the grand jury found.

• A board member’s personal business has received money from the district – an apparent conflict of interest. In February, The Bee reported that Vivien Spicer-Johnson, a board member, had received money for running district ads and notices in her monthly newspaper. The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has been looking into the possible conflict.

• The board violated open- meeting laws by discussing possible well sites in closed meetings, according to the report. “Rio Linda/Elverta residents have alleged the proposed site for a new well is owned by a relative of a director,” the grand jury found.

In a February interview with The Bee, interim general manager Michael Cardenas acknowledged the district was considering buying land from a cousin of Spicer-Johnson’s to use as a well site.

“Almost everybody in Rio Linda is connected to everyone,” Cardenas said at the time.

• The current board’s decision to fight the union has cost scarce resources. “Currently the district only has six employees and has never had more than ten employees; yet the District has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on labor negotiations and employee lawsuits,” according to the report.

While the grand jury report is critical of the current leadership of the district, led by board President Mary Harris, the investigation also questions the lack of action by the state, county, Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission and other agencies.

“These public bodies need to come to the aid of Rio Linda/Elverta residents. At present, the residents live with risks to their health and safety. Their future could be worse,” according to the cover letter attached to the report.

It’s unclear if such help will be coming any time soon. The California Department of Public Health refused to comment on the grand jury’s call to reorganize the district. In a prepared statement, the department said it is committed to ensuring the district meets the requirements of the compliance order.

Peter Brundage, executive director of the Sacramento Local Agency Formation Commission, and county Supervisor Roger Dickinson, whose district includes Rio Linda and Elverta, could not be reached for comment.

The grand jury can’t compel compliance with any of its recommendations. The district does, however, need to respond to the report by July 6.

Monday night, Harris told The Bee that the grand jury didn’t fully understand the issues. She disagreed that the district needed to be reorganized but said she would work hard to answer all of its questions in the district’s response.

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