The Shredder recently poked fun at me about a series of complaints I filed with the Board of Supervisors regarding their recent handling of design-build contracts for the Los Osos wastewater project (“Poo-poo ca-choo,” Oct. 1). The mighty Shredder also took the opportunity to rip thousands of New Times readers who know me, my track record as former Los Osos CSD president, and what I stand for as a person: readers who know exactly what I’m talking about and who know the difference between a joke and a slap across the face.
The Shredder probably thought he or she was being funny. Anyone who thought it was funny probably doesn’t live in Los Osos. It’s no laughing matter for thousands of my Los Osos neighbors who will be forced to move because of the county’s no-bid sewer project; that is, if they can even sell their houses encumbered by $25,000 liens to pay for the sewer. In this low-ball real estate market, speculators are looking to make a killing.
For about 40 percent of Los Osos residents and businesses, the price of the sewer makes the difference between staying or having to move out. No one in the U.S. pays $250 a month just to flush their toilet—it would happen only in Los Osos.
Last March, without explanation, the county eliminated a top-ranked engineering team guaranteeing a 20-percent savings over competitors for building the wastewater project. Instead, they selected the giant multinational firm Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH) as one of three short-listed firms for both major contracts.
The interview panel recommending MWH was comprised of county employees and consultants, selected by Public Works Director Paavo Ogren. These consultants receive regular no-bid contracts from Ogren and happen to be former business partners of MWH. Ogren placed himself and recently-fired Gail Wilcox on the appeals panel.
MWH designed the failed project for the Los Osos Community Services District (LOCSD); an expensive downtown project that voters rejected. They had a habit of securing reasonable contracts that were repeatedly “amended” into millions of dollars of additional costs; essentially no-bid, no-competition. Their last so-called “amendment” with LOCSD was a no-bid contract for $7.48 million dollars; one they recommended for themselves.
Ogren was the LOCSD’s first manager; he arranged MWH’s first contract; Bruce Buel came next. A 2006 letter from second-manager Buel to third manager Dan Bleskey stated that after his arrival, manager Ogren requested that he backdate (isn’t that illegal?) LOCSD’s first contract with MWH; Buel complied with Ogren’s request.
This is not an opinion, as reported by County Counsel Warren Jensen, who refused to investigate or respond to 75 percent of my complaints. Lawyers disagree with Jensen’s opinions, but because a bankruptcy action has frozen legal proceedings, these matters haven’t been heard before a judge and are still pending.
MWH is back again. Legal issues remain unresolved, yet they made the shortlist as the leading candidate for the county’s project. I have been asked, “What’s wrong with a “little backdating” or repeatedly hiring one’s “favorite” consultants with no-bid contracts: Who gets hurt?”
We all do. We are damaged by a system promoting “sweetheart” deals, “loaded” interview panels in a system of old-fashioned favoritism, instead of honest, healthy competition. Taxpayers will pay out the nose every time.
Los Osos has its share of broken promises; the county ignored sound planning practices for years, all the while collecting property taxes. Saltwater pollution, identified in the ’70s, poses a serious threat to our only water supply, but nothing has been done. Our roads are a mess; septic tank management is nonexistent; storm drainage, abysmal. We have the worst ratio of parks per capita in the county.
The financial burden rests squarely on the shoulders of those who can least afford it. While my friends in SLO County, when asked, can’t recall what they pay for wastewater (because it’s so low), Los Osos’s $250-plus per month will suck upwards of $10 million per year out of the local economy. Businesses will go belly-up and rentals, comprising 30 percent of the properties, will become unaffordable and vacant. Young families, elderly residents, and the disabled are at more risk than the rest: Wastewater costs here would far exceed what the country’s median-income household could possibly afford to pay.
I care deeply about what happens to the environment and people who live in Los Osos. As a former elected official with direct knowledge, legal and ethical duties required that I come forward and share information with the Board of Supervisors, especially after they short-listed MWH. Not surprisingly, my disclosures were met with reactions that whistleblowers experience around the world, that of denial. ∆
Lisa Schicker is the former LOCSD president, a proponent of environmental justice and a modern, sustainable wastewater project. She is a community volunteer who works professionally as an environmental planner, biologist, and teacher. Send comments to the editor at email@example.com.