Commerce Official Wants Full Audit of Water District
Councilman Robert Fierro says elected district officials are unresponsive to the public, even though their decisions affect ratepayers.
By Elizabeth Hsing-Huei Chou, EGP Staff Writer
Attempts to shine a light on the Central Basin Municipal Water District have proved a difficult battle in the past 24 months, said Commerce Councilman Robert Fierro at a Tuesday council meeting.
He directed staff to draw up a letter of support backing a full-scale audit in order to get answers from a district that he says has failed to justify recent water rate increases.
Recent revelations of excessive travel expenses and connections to politically powerful allies have also raised red flags about the district’s finances that need to be examined, he said.
Fierro represents the city of Commerce as a member of the Southeast Water Coalition, one of the few groups that regularly monitors the activities of water districts, entities that have jurisdiction over one of the region’s most valuable resources.
The coalition is critical of Central Basin’s project to construct a recycled water pipeline that starts in Pico Rivera and is expected to end in Vernon, on the grounds it will raise water rates in the region.
The district has failed to justify a surcharge that would go toward the pipeline project, according to Fierro, who described elected district directors as reluctant to respond to public questions.
“We wanted to have Central Basin explain, and to make us part of the process,” Fierro told EGP on Monday.
Commerce officials asked the water district to send a representative to the city to explain to the public why the surcharge was being imposed on ratepayers.
It took several tries to set up the meeting, but when their local representative from water district, Art Chacon, finally arrived, Fierro said he acted “unprofessionally,” and was “disrespectful to residents seeking answers.”
At the time, Commerce resident Ed Miles had collected 1,400 signatures from residents opposing the surcharge and subsequent rate increase on the grounds it would place an unfair burden on low and medium income residents, a concern shared by other officials on the Southeast Water Coalition board.
Faced with the seeming unresponsiveness of the district – the pipeline project has since been approved and is now half done – the coalition has made request after request to their state legislators, asking them to perform a full scale audit of Central Basin, but to no avail, Fierro said.
At one point an audit was in the works, but Fierro says State Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) canceled meetings that could potentially have led to the audit, one of the few ways the public can exercise oversight on the water district.
Fierro says Calderon and his brother Tom Calderon, a former state assemblyman, backed a recall against him and fellow Commerce Councilwoman Tina Baca Del Rio in 2009 and suspects it was because they were vocal about issues that affected the water district: A claim echoed by Del Rio at Tuesday’s council meeting.
“Why would a senator, a senator’s brother, and people they knew, why would they all want to put money into a recall? It’s related. There’s no doubt about it,” Del Rio said.
Back then Fierro and Del Rio opposed a proposed power plant in Vernon. Central Basin’s recycled pipeline would have benefited from having the proposed power plant as a customer.
“The building of this power plant would mean so much money for so many different individuals. It was a matter of you know what? Tina, Robert, they’re really small potatoes, they need to be moved out of the way, so we can move forward with these projects,” Del Rio said.
Fierro says Tom Calderon has worked for the Central Basin as a consultant, and both Calderon brothers have defended the water district’s interests in the legislature.
Both Del Rio and Fierro say their criticisms of the Calderons are not personal, but they are frustrated that attempts to request oversight over the obscure governmental entity have been thwarted by people with connections to the district.
Legislators “have resources to request an audit so [the Southeast Water Coaltion] tried to get their support and blessing… we tried many legislators,” but according to Fierro, their attempts were stymied by some of their own elected representatives.
Fierro told EGP the coalition is now seeking help from freshman Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), who “fortunately” is chair of the State Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.
“Hopefully Assemblymember Lara will listen to our concerns,” because the “Central Basin has avoided a full audit [since] 2001, so [the legislature has] never been exposed to their finances, never been given an opportunity to be critical of all the money they oversee.”
Fierro says the Southeast Water Coalition has enough money set aside to help fund a full-scale audit. The coalition was started 15 years ago and is comprised of eleven cities with common interests in advocating on water issues. Their meetings are open to the public and their board of directors, which consists of city council members from member agencies, meets every two months.
News that Central Basin board members have spent nearly $100,000 on travel expenses raise “big red flags,” Fierro says. Commerce’s own water district representative, Chacon, spent $25,000 in travel expenses to attend water conferences.
“I don’t see any other water district, or even city council members that spends so much money on travel,” Fierro said.
Chacon was recently fined $30,000 by the FPPC for failing to report $37,138 in contributions and $41,608 in expenditures on his campaign finance forms prior to being re-elected to the water district board in 2008.
Chacon did not respond to EGP’s requests for comment when the travel expenditure amounts and the FPPC violations were first reported.
After hitting a wall with legislators, the coalition and others decided to try and get their message out through the media. “The best way to expose Central Basin to public is to question them in the media outlets,” Fierro says.
Even though officials on the water district board are elected, Fierro and others in the community feel Central Basin is a “public entity with no oversight.”
It doesn’t help that most people are unaware of what the Central Basin does and who their representatives are. But ultimately the district’s decisions affect “thousands of people and these decisions are in the millions [of dollars],” Fierro says.
“We want to have Central Basin be accountable. They are supposed to be representatives of our cities,” he said.
He described the Central Basin Municipal Water District as a “political child in the corner, in the dark… with no oversight, lack of public scrutiny,” and yet the district has “say-so in what projects get done, the opportunity to decide who gets contracts… water is a source of survival.”Print This Post
June 9, 2011 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.