‘You Could Kill Someone,’ Local Water Boards Told

  • Serious water board members from Piñon Pines, Lebec, Lake of the Woods and Napa County attended the 4-hour Ethics class on December 4 in Frazier Park, followed by a 2-hour evening session on new law.

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    Serious water board members from Piñon Pines, Lebec, Lake of the Woods and Napa County attended the 4-hour Ethics class on December 4 in Frazier Park, followed by a 2-hour evening session on new law.

  • (l-r)Trainers David A. Warner of Self-Help Enterprises with RosAnna Noval and Jean Thompson of Rural Community Assistance Corporation on Dec. 4. [Hedlund photos]

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    (l-r)Trainers David A. Warner of Self-Help Enterprises with RosAnna Noval and Jean Thompson of Rural Community Assistance Corporation on Dec. 4. [Hedlund photos]

  • The December 4 evening part of the workshop offered two hours of training on Assembly Bill No. 54 to 12 more board members, for a total of 16 from Lake of the Woods and Krista mutual water companies, as well as Lebec County Water District, Piñon Pines and some from the Bakersfield area. [Hedlund Photo]

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    The December 4 evening part of the workshop offered two hours of training on Assembly Bill No. 54 to 12 more board members, for a total of 16 from Lake of the Woods and Krista mutual water companies, as well as Lebec County Water District, Piñon Pines and some from the Bakersfield area. [Hedlund Photo]

Ethics classes for water officials warn of red-tagged homes

By Patric Hedlund

We may take it for granted until it isn’t there, but water is the source of life. Most people wouldn’t be able to live in these Mountain Communities without the small water companies which tend wells, monitor storage tanks and maintain the distribution systems that bring the precious fluid into our homes every day and night.

This fall the three largest water systems on the mountain have undergone sudden management changes.

On September 28 the Lebec County Water District (serving most of the residences and the businesses in Lebec) terminated its contract with its professional water management company. In mid-October Mil Potrero Mutual Water Company (serving the Pine Mountain community and Pine Mountain Village) saw its general manager leave abruptly. Then sadly, on November 29, Frazier Park Public Utility District (serving all of Frazier Park) lost its general manager to a heart attack.

Providing the continuity through all these changes are volunteer boards of directors, elected by their neighbors. Decisions by these boards are critical to the public health and economic stability of the region.

Most of the mountain receives excellent water, but all the systems here (as elsewhere) are challenged by quality concerns, capital upgrade costs and the expense of meeting state health standards.

Some of our small mutual water systems are in urgent need of system upgrades, but have acquired a reputation for secrecy and lack of responsiveness to shareholder requests for information.

Board members of the Lebec County Water District this year were advised by the Kern County Grand Jury in a series of three blistering reports: "Get training or resign."

To help, three trainers from the Rural Community Assistance Corporation (RCAC) and Self-Help Enterprises came to Frazier Park to offer an "Ethics, Conflict of Interest & Policies" workshop worth about $1,500, paid for by the California Department of Public Health. The task at the Frazier Mountain Park Community Center on Tuesday, Dec. 4 was to teach elected water boards about the framework of ethics laws put in place to protect the public and to guide elected officials to make decisions in the public interest rather than influenced by personal interest or private gain.

The goal is to inform rural water boards how to operate within the Ralph M. Brown Act, open meetings and public records laws. Trainers also explained new legislation for private systems that provide drinking water to the public.

Maintaining Public Trust

The trainers urged directors to avoid fines, convictions and loss of public trust by asking themselves:

  • As public officials, are we maintaining strict transparency as weconduct the business of our water companies?
  • Do we carefully follow the Brown Act by posting notices and agendas forall meetings?
  • Do we avoid illegal meetings, including serial meetings, outside of thepublic eye?
  • Do we apply ethical tests to disclose conflicts of interest and do weseek to avoid even the appearance of conflicts of interest on our board?
  • Do we recuse ourself from voting on any issue relating to a familymember or personal financial interest?
  • Do I protect and respect the public’s right to know as a solemn part ofmy responsibility as an elected public official?

The stakes are high. Trainers David A. Warner, RosAnna Noval and Jean Thompson told of California water companies that have failed in technical, managerial and financial capacities in recent years. The consequence of bad behavior by boards and failure to live up to their pledge to follow the law can be grave. /p>

"The worst that can happen is that you can kill somebody," Noval and Thompson told the workshop about the damage that can be done by inattentive, incompetent or corrupt boards.

Property values can also be damaged. In Northern California mountains much like ours, homes have been red-tagged when their water system became insolvent. A system in Placer County went into receivership. Courts have removed local control and have given failed water companies to counties to run-at a hefty added cost to homeowners.

Other failed systems have been acquired by for-profit companies that like having a distribution monopoly, making the slogan, "water is the new oil," a reality for families charged ten times the rate we pay today for water here.

Because of failures such as Diamond Park Mutual Water Company in Santa Ana, a moratorium has been placed on forming new mutual water companies in California, RCAC’s Jean Thompson said.

The passage of California’s Assembly Bill No. 54 has changed the "private" nature of mutual water companies such as Krista (serving Los Padres Estates), Lake of the Woods, Piñon Pines and Pine Mountain’s Mil Potrero.

They are now defined to be providing "a public service," amending California’s Corporation and Government Codes, as well as the Health and Safety Code for safe drinking water.

A.B. 54 requires that a map of the boundaries of every mutual water company be submitted to the state by December 31 and forbids providing water to anyone outside of those boundaries or to parties other than its own shareholders. The new law puts mutual companies under the jurisdiction of LAFCO-the Local Agency Formation Commission. Board members must take a 2-hour course about the new law. It requires that the companies maintain financial reserves and utilize accepted accounting standards.

Mutual water companies may be private nonprofit corporations, but every property owner is a shareholder and has a right to attend monthly and special meetings, to ask questions and to receive records and information about how their water company is operating, Thompson said.

Vigilance by homeowners is wise, because fines of $5,000 to $25,000 per day for violating California’s Safe Drinking Water Act are possible. A fee can be levied on shareholders (homeowners) to pay those fines.

Board members attending the ethics workshop included Joseph David of Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company, William Hopper and Tony Venegas of Lebec County Water District and Michael B. Hall of Piñon Pines Mutual Water Company.

More people came to part two of the workshop, "Ethics and Mutual Water Systems," which is required by the new law. Merrill Baughman, George D. Dodge and Art Bence of Krista Mutual Water Company attended. Joseph David of Lake of the Woods Mutual Water Company returned with Tim Eggebrecht, Stephan Signon, Robert Stowell and Greg Gustafson. Michael Hall of Piñon Pines Mutual Water Company and William Hopper of Lebec County Water District also returned. Directors from other parts of Kern and Napa Counties also attended.

In interviews, Frazier Park Public Utilities District said they paid for a private training session with an attorney and Mil Potrero Mutual Water Company said they used an online training option.

The Fair Political Practices Commission answers questions from the public and officials at 1-866-275-3772 about ethics, conflicts of interest or financial disclosure requirements.

This is part of the December 14, 2012 online edition of The Mountain Enterprise.

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