District Struggling with Old System and Board Conflicts

By Horace Smith, Lebec County Water District Customer and Katy Penland, Reporter

Editor’s Note: We sent a reporter to the Lebec County Water District (LCWD) meeting on Monday, Jan. 4. That night, before the reporter’s notes were turned in, we received an opinion piece from an LCWD customer. Here, you’ll see Horace Smith’s take on the meeting (labelled HS) combined with reporter Katy Penland’s notes and observations shown in italics (and labelled KP).

HS: The Lebec County Water District’s (LCWD) monthly meeting brought to light a water board and water system that is critically broken. The meeting’s strange beginning foreshadowed the ensuing bickering and an abrupt ending, when nearly all in attendance rose as one and left in disgust.

KP: Fifty of the 60 people departed at 8:40 p.m., half-way through the meeting, after one of the new Holiday Inn Express owners, Lexander Singh, called board member Darren Hager ‘Hitler’ as Hager tried to re-gain control of the meeting. Hager had asked Fire Marshal Vernon Brothers to stop interrupting every statement made by others with a statement of his own.

HS: A written agenda issued prior to the Call to Order was quickly discarded when board president Bruce Koch (pronounced ‘cook’) announced that the written sequence of issues to be discussed would immediately skip to item number 7 (b) Conflict of Interest (2) President of the Board (Koch) and Mal Frykholm.

KP: Koch did not make a motion to change the order of the agenda, he simply stated he wanted to jump right to item number seven.

HS: Over a weak protest, Koch publicly began to explain a convoluted relationship he had with his friend Mal Frykholm, in which he used the Frykholm surname as his own to obtain a telephone line many years ago.

KP: Koch asked who placed this item on the agenda and Darren Hager said he did, out of concern for individual board members acting without board approval, and for Bruce Koch being listed in the phone book as ‘Bruce Frykholm’ and using that name to conduct board business. Hager said he was “getting sick and tired of being beat up about the lack of transparency on this board” and wanted this issue out in the open.

HS: Hager insinuated that preferential treatment had been afforded Mal Frykholm by Koch.

This very contentious issue eventually resulted in Mal Frykholm, who was in attendance, standing up to explain that his rental property had been subjected to a condition of brown, unsanitary water and that he had properly reported the condition to Board President Bruce Koch. Mr. Frykholm explained he had not sought special treatment for his tenants but was seeking remedy through the board regarding an issue of health. He advised that, had not President Koch acted in a timely manner, he would have gone to the Kern County Health Department and possibly his attorney for relief.

This explanation apparently did not fully satisfy board member Darren Hager who continued to cast aspersions upon President Koch, stating to all that the board should have voted before fixing Frykholm’s line. Board member Jack Rider joined Darren Hager in spirit by brusquely indicating the board would not be intimidated by threats of suits or reports to the health department.

KP: Several members of the public, among them Dan McWhorter and Mike Hightower, stood to comment that no single board member should ever act unilaterally and without board approval.

HS: All the above took place in the first 15 minutes and before the call to order and reading of the minutes were accomplished.

KP: The meeting was called to order at 7:20 p.m., only after secretary/treasurer Jamie Guinn completed handing out copies of the agenda and the previous month’s minutes. All discussion took place after the call to order.

HS: Board President Bruce Koch subsequently excused himself from the meeting, explaining he was ill.

KP: Koch turned the running of the meeting over to vice president Jack Rider.

HS: Complaints from the citizens in attendance were often left unanswered or responded to in a surly fashion by…Darren Hager. He acknowledged he had resigned as a board member then asked to be reinstated.

KP: After Koch’s departure, several in the audience asked about the procedure to remove board officers: “What did the bylaws say,” they asked, and “How much would a recall election cost?”

Later in the meeting, Jack Rider moved that Bruce Koch be removed as president, which was seconded by Steve Cozzetto and passed with three ayes. Rider made a second motion to reinstate Darren Hager as board president which was seconded by Cozzetto and passed with three ayes.

HS: Hager allowed technical questions to be answered by a professional contract water operator, Kristopher Hollands. Hollands’ explanations referenced an old water system with uncharted water lines and valves which were failing and, on at least one occasion, sequentially failed and left a significant number of homes without water on Christmas eve and Christmas.

KP: LCWD Water Operator Kristopher Hollands was on the agenda and presented a detailed report about the recent ten-day water disruption from December 18-28 that “required a lot of detective work” to determine the cause. It was, he said, “a series of events” involving failed booster pumps, the opening of the new 12-inch line to the Holiday Inn Express hotel and CLA valves that were never adjusted to handle the 12-inch line. The 12-inch line was closed after an emergency meeting of the LCWD on December 24.

HS: Board Director Darren Hager, after leaving open a question regarding how board members could be recalled, went on to ramrod the meeting, accusing others of improprieties—reaching out to even criticize one of the heroes of the failing water system, Santana Molina.

KP: The criticism stemmed from Santana opening the 12- inch line on December 26 after being given permission to do so from Bruce Koch and Kern County Fire Marshal Vernon Brothers, who was at the meeting. Audience members demanded to know on what authority Koch acted without board approval, and on what authority the fire marshal acted on behalf of the water district. Brothers responded, “I’m the fire marshal. I can do anything I want when it comes to fire protection.” Many Lebec residents in the audience asked, “What about our fire protection?”

HS: Hager capped his performance by denouncing the attending fire marshal for opening a line which provides water to the new Holiday Inn Express hotel. Hager could not seem to comprehend that the fire marshal was authorized and obligated to provide water pressure to the structure whether it had guests or not.

KP: Many in the audience also demanded to know why they were left without any water at all for a hotel that wasn’t yet open for business and could not open for business without having adequate water pressure for firefighting emergencies.

Water Operator Hollands, in continuing his presentation, said that testing on December 27 revealed that the valves on the 12-inch line were again in the open position, and another heated discussion ensued with demands from the audience about “Who has keys to access the valves?” along with the suggestion that perhaps only the Water Operator (Hollands) should be in possession of the keys.

Hollands’ presentation ended with the statement that the Lebec “system had stabilized” on December 28 when the 12-inch line was again closed, and that KCFD was informed of its closure, resulting in a drop from the required 1,600 gallons-perminute flow to the Holiday Inn to 750-950 per minute. Hager said that the 12-inch line was never engineered for use with the ‘CLA-valves’ (a sophisticated valve that adjusts water pressure) nor was it legally hooked into the LCWD system. Emilie Wainright (the owner of land sold for the hotel) stated that the 12-inch line was on her property and a “private line.”

The meeting then splintered into multiple conversations, ending with the previously mentioned walk-out of all but about 10 people who remained to hear discussion of other agenda items, among them: a proposed water rate increase; discussion and approval of the payment of current bills; the board’s approval to make the Water Operator independent contractor position full-time with a rate increase from $18 to $25 per hour; and to temporarily increase regular board meetings to twice a month to address the most critical issues.

All remaining agenda items were tabled until the next meeting, which was scheduled for Monday, January 18 at 7 p.m. at the LCWD office, 401 Frazier Mountain Park Frontage Road, Lebec.

Also of note, before the meeting began, board member Bob Karr, who was elected in November and served one month, told Bruce Koch he intended to resign from the board, saying that he had health issues that prevent him from serviing.

HS: It is apparent the Lebec County Water District has a problem and it is not only with the corroding water lines and valves. The management of the district needs an urgent overhaul.

KP: Mr. Smith left before the board voted to make the Water Operator a full-time position to manage the system.

Read related story Lebec Water District Threatens to Cut Off Holiday Inn Line

This is part of the January 08, 2010 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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