Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | December 8, 2009

An open letter to the water district board

This column is an open letter to Santa Clara Valley Water District board members Tony Estremera, Joe Judge, Rosemary Kamei, Patrick Kwok, Sig Sanchez, Richard Santos and Larry Wilson:

As one of the Santa Clara Valley Water District voters, taxpayers and ratepayers whose interests you are supposed to represent, I’m asking that you immediately quit your defense against lawsuits that allege your agency’s groundwater extraction fee increases violated Proposition 218. In 1996, California voters approved Prop 218, which requires that all tax increases imposed by local agencies be approved by voters.

Despite this, your agency raised groundwater extraction fees without seeking voter approval. Those increases prompted Great Oaks Water Company, a south San Jose-based water retailer, to file several lawsuits challenging your agency’s actions. Great Oaks just won the first of those lawsuits and was awarded a $4.6 million refund, plus interest.

You’re now deciding whether to appeal this ruling.

Don’t.

Don’t fatten lawyers’ pockets with fees for appeals when your agency is so clearly in the wrong.

Don’t clog our already overburdened court system with a doomed, meritless appeal.

Don’t add insult to ratepayers’ and taxpayers’ injury by first charging them illegally and then using those ill-gotten monies to fund fight the lawsuits that practice triggered.

I believe you should take the following actions on behalf of the taxpayers and ratepayers — whose interests you are supposed to represent — instead.

Issue a sincere and shame-faced apology for disregarding the will of the people as expressed in Prop 218.

Decline to appeal the lost case, pay the court-ordered refund and interest to Great Oaks and immediately settle all outstanding cases.

Provide a lightweight, quick system for all ratepayers who were charged illegal groundwater extraction fees to collect refunds. (And one more don’t: Don’t use your cumbersome, slow landscape rebate program as a model. I replaced my front yard’s grass and pop-up sprinkler system with approved low-water plants and drip irrigation in May and am still waiting for my rebate and for a response from my water district board member to my August request for help with the painfully prolonged process.)

Taking these actions will be painful to the agency’s finances and to its pride. But fighting these lawsuits and losing in the end — and I believe that’s what will happen if you continue the court battles — will be much more expensive to your finances than doing the right thing now, later than you should have, but better now than years from now. Your agency’s pride is irrelevant.

Finally, take some of the money you’ll save on lawyers’ fees and spend it to investigate how a screw-up of this magnitude could have happened and institute reforms to ensure that something like this can never happen again. Years of observing local government agencies have provided me with insight to speculate about how you might have gotten yourselves into this pickle:

• Lack of voter oversight breeds arrogance. Few governmental agencies are less sexy than water districts. When voters aren’t watching, bureaucrats and elected officials can get away with a heck of lot more than when voters are paying attention. Voters are at fault when they fail to watchdog their public servants, but anyone who takes advantage of that situation is responsible for his or her actions.

• Seeking legal advice about what actions are likely to successfully skirt the law instead of advice about what actions are within the letter and the spirit of the law. Unfortunately, not even lawyers’ crystal balls are perfect; in addition, lawyers aren’t on the hook when their crystal balls are faulty.

• Over-reliance on staff obfuscates fiduciary duties. Elected officials who depend too much on staff members can end up — often without realizing it — putting staff’s best interests ahead of taxpayers’ and ratepayers’ best interests. These elected officials sometimes forget that they work for the people who elected them, not for the agency and not for the agency’s staff.

I wouldn’t be surprised if some or all of these factors are involved in your current woes.

As public servants, it is incumbent upon you to find out what went wrong, share what you discover, get the public’s response, and implement meaningful, lasting reforms that serve the public’s best interests.

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