Audit: Inland Water District Officials Spent Big On Themselves
Those down-ballot races for spots on local agencies like water boards can seem boring and unimportant. But those can be positions where unscrupulous public servants can help themselves to lavish perks at public expense.
That appears to be the case with the West Valley Water District, according to an audit by the State Controller's office that was circulated on Thursday. The district serves about 80,000 customers in Rialto, Colton, Fontana and Bloomington in San Bernardino County, and Jurupa Valley in Riverside County.
The audit examined spending from 2016 to 2019. It criticized the elected five-member board for indulging in ritzy hotel visits, taking board member retreats to a wine country golf resort far from the district they are supposed to serve. The management inflated salaries for some staffers, and the board helped themselves to thousands of dollars in stipends for attending dozens of meetings that were not approved in public.
The water district and its five-member elected board of directors has been in turmoil for years, facing accusations of cronyism and overspending.
A few years ago there was a staff revolt, several firings and at one meeting the Rialto police had to show up to keep order.
Although the state Controller's report was made public this week, it was shared with the water district in mid-April, and shortly after several top administrators were fired or left.
The district responded to the audit in a statement that said it had frozen hiring and hired an interim human resources director, who would improve the agency's documentation of recruitment, hiring and promotions. It had also adopted new policies for documenting credit card spending.
In an emailed statement, Chief Financial Officer Rickey Manbahal called the controller's report, a "turning point to ensuring financial responsibility and accountability". The water district also responded to the controller's report and ratepayer criticisms by cancelling future off-site board meetings like the ones held in Temecula.
More documentation of spending will be required of board members and employees. And board members must include agendas for meetings they attend if they expect to receive reimbursements and stipends.
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TEAM BUILDING AT A WINE COUNTRY GOLF RESORT
Directors of the district held two lavish special meetings costing more than $70,000 at the Temecula Creek Inn wine country golf resort. It was 60 miles outside the boundaries of the water district, and far from where the public they serve could observe their discussions.
About half the cost was for rooms and food, and the rest for team-building consultant fees, the audit said. The meetings were in November 2018 and August 2019. As of March, the board had not released to the public any account of what was discussed or decided in the meetings.
The district's response to the criticism was that there was no suitable meeting place for their off-site board retreat within the 30 square miles of the West Valley Water District boundaries. The Controller responded was that it was still a meeting that citizens should have been able to conveniently attend within the district.
The audit said the elected directors collected stipends of $161 for each of dozens of meetings per year that were not approved by the board of directors. The meetings were not on a list of pre-approved meetings. Those meetings boosted the directors' pay by $11,000 to nearly $19,000 in the 2018-19 fiscal year. Sometimes the directors attended multiple meetings on the same day, collecting multiple stipends, the audit said.
Some of the five elected directors also overspent their $5,000 annual expense budgets, including on hotel stays in Monterey and in Washington D.C. The district footed a $10,000 bill for two directors and a general manager to attend a mayor's conference in Hawaii when little of concern to water managers was on the agenda.
District money was also used by some of the directors to throw a nearly $2,000 election victory party for themselves, something that most other politicians would pay for out of their own political committees.
A 68 PERCENT RAISE ON THE PUBLIC DIME
The district did not adequately control expenses charged by staff or directors to water district credit cards, and the audit called the district's practices "highly susceptible" to fraud and abuse.
District officials could produce no receipts for nearly one-third of their collective credit card spending over the 14 months ending in July 2019.
The district management also failed to follow its own rules in recruiting, hiring and promoting employees. Some candidates did not have the minimum work experience for the jobs they got. The district hired one person at $54,000 above the position's $105,000 minimum pay range. Two other employees who were promoted got raises of 41% and 68%, without management documenting why they deserved such big pay increases.
On June 11, the same day the Controller's office distributed the audit widely in an email blast, the water district posted a press release on its website touting its receipt of a "Transparency Certificate of Excellence" from a group called the Special District Leadership Foundation.