Taking heed of public dissatisfaction, the newest incarnation of the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Board of Directors voted unanimously at its Jan. 21 meeting to initiate a thorough study of operations at the sewage treatment plant the board oversees.
The board has long resisted pursuing such a review, but Jim Hill—newly seated Arroyo Grande mayor and board chairman—insisted on agendizing for Jan. 21 a discussion of whether to review the district’s expenditures.
Although there was substantial confusion during the meeting about exactly what type of audit, review, or investigation the district board wanted to initiate, the board did agree that it wanted to pursue something.
Sanitation District Manager Rick Sweet said the investigation to be determined is best described as a “management review”—examining both physical and fiscal aspects of sewage plant operations.
Sweet said he would return to the board with a list of desired items to be examined in the review, which will eventually take the form of a formal request for proposal sent out to consultants.
“We need someone with both financial and engineering expertise,” Sweet said.
Much of the public disappointment expressed during the meeting stemmed from either the district’s $1.1 million fine incurred after a 2010 raw sewage spill or alleged mismanagement by former district administrator John Wallace, who simultaneously served as administrator and as president of the district’s contracted engineering firm.
“John Wallace lined his pockets, plain and simple,” said Arroyo Grande City Councilman Tim Brown, speaking during public comment. “I don’t begrudge him earning a living, I begrudge him wearing two hats and enriching himself.”
Though Wallace resigned in February 2013, many speakers at the meeting argued that he was never held fully accountable for his actions and that his management practices were never fully vetted.
“I think we have a black cloud hanging over us that’s raining on our parade,” said board chairman Hill. “I think a full-on forensic audit is necessary to re-establish our trust with the public.”
Though Hill emphatically threw his support behind a comprehensive review, his fellow board members—Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals and Oceano Community Services District President Matt Guerrero—were more tempered in their support.
“I’m not on this board to conduct a witch hunt,” Shoals said. “I want to do what’s in the best interest of our community and our ratepayers.”
Guerrero explained that he’d declined to pursue a review in the past because district employees had unanimously told him there was no fraudulent conduct. However, he voted with Hill and Shoals to pursue a review this time.
Sweet said that the precise cost and nature of the desired review aren’t yet known, but will be discussed at future board meetings.