NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovers board members for the bay area s largest water district charging taxpayers to attend events that appear to have nothing to do with water issues. Jenna Susko reports.
Luncheons, Internet at home and membership fees: all things you’re paying for when it comes to a group of elected officials -- the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Board of Directors.
Their job, according to the website, is to ensure water resources are managed in a practical and cost effective way; the seven directors represent almost two million people in Santa Clara County.
Directors do not earn a salary, but are paid $286 per meeting and event they attend related to water district business, plus mileage. They can charge up to ten district-related events a month.
This is not unusual. NBC Bay Area called nine other large water districts in California and found board members getting paid up to $237 for each board meeting and event they attend, related to their water districts.
While SCVWD board members are picking up the highest fee per meeting out of the comparable special districts reviewed, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit also took a closer look at the types of meetings they’re asking taxpayers to fund.
What was found: Some directors charging for events, which they admit, had nothing to do with water.
The District has a list of policies governing what types of meetings and events are appropriate to charge -- from ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to barbecues and meetings with other board members. The policies state board members are permitted to collect a "per-diem fee for attendance at events, as each member determines will best enable them to serve the District.”
Director Richard Santos collected $50,474 total from the district last year, which includes meeting fees plus benefits and travel.
The Investigative Unit asked him about a meeting he charged with San Jose City Councilman, Pete Constant.
“We met on a retirement issue and also on district business, what I can do for him, education,” Santos said.
Santos represents SCVWD district three, which includes Milpitas, Alviso and northern areas of Sunnyvale. It does not include San Jose.
According to Constant’s online calendar, Santos requested the meeting to discuss San Jose’s retirement issues on April 13, 2011. Both Constant and Santos serve on the San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Board.
NBC Bay Area asked Santos if water issues were discussed in this meeting.
“I always offer what can I do for you, education, what can I do,” Santos said. “There is no meeting I go to without offering what can the water district do for you.”
According to the calendar, Santos stayed 30 minutes and it cost the taxpayer nearly $300, including mileage.
Director Patrick Kwok collected $57,462 last year on meeting fees plus benefits and travel.
Last year he charged taxpayers to attend the city of Sunnyvale Chamber of Commerce awards, San Jose State University’s Engineering Banquet Awards and the Asian Pacific Resources Group Lunar New Year luncheon.
NBC Bay Area asked if water issues were discussed at these events.
“Water issues were not discussed,” Kwok responded. He justified the charge, saying that other community members in attendance could potentially ask him a question related to the water district.
NBC Bay Area Investigative reporter, Jenna Susko, asked Kwok if it’s appropriate to charge taxpayers for a meeting on the basis that someone may ask him a question about water.
“It’s a judgment call,” Kwok said.
NBC Bay Area presented these findings to Judy Nadler, head of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University.
“The presumption that when you go out in the public someone will, A) Recognize you are a water board member and B) will have a pressing issue that they want to discuss at a social event, I think it’s actually unlikely,” Nadler told NBC Bay Area. “You are not necessarily paid to show up you are paid to do your job.”
Nadler told NBC Bay Area, they should be charging for events related to pertinent water district issues.
“If the gist of the discussion is not at all about water issues I would question why you would be in attendance,” Nadler said.
It’s not just events the board members charge to the district.
Kwok expensed $1,429 last year in membership fees to the Cupertino Rotary Club and professional engineering societies.
He told NBC Bay Area for the past year, he has stopped charging. According to new district rules implemented last month, board members are no longer allowed to charge for those.
However, taxpayers still pay for Director Santos to have internet access at home and when he moved, the public paid $126.51 for it to be installed at his new house.
NBC Bay Area asked Santa Clara Valley Water District CEO, Beau Goldie, if this was an acceptable charge.
“What is necessary is the board members have the right tools to do their job,” Goldie said.
Goldie told NBC Bay Area that it is important for directors to make a connection to the community by attending events, since they are the ones who set policy. He added that everything the district does is transparent.
“I assume they are discussing district business and issues related to water,” Goldie said. “There is an amount that’s responsible for the board members to be honest on what they charge for.”
Directors can also charge their $286 meeting fee to sit down with Goldie. Those meetings cost taxpayers $16,017.68 last year.
“I think the board members work pretty hard,” Goldie said.
For that hard work, Santos told NBC Bay Area that he deserves a raise.
“I feel like we are underpaid,” Santos said.
He followed that with, “I feel like I got what I deserved.”
A few days after his interview, Santos told NBC Bay Area when he met with Councilmember Constant, they talked about labor negotiations and how the SCVWD can learn from San Jose’s problems.
CEO Goldie also said the board is tightening its policies on reporting spending. They just approved to post all directors’ spending on the web on a quarterly basis.
The SCVWD is one of around 3,000 special districts in California according to the state controller's office.
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