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State investigates alleged Behee $$ conflict

The California Fair Political Practices Commission is investigating Tuolumne Utilities District for paying a Twain Harte company to conduct water-quality testing while the owner’s husband served on the public agency’s Board of Directors.

TUD General Manager Tom Scesa told current board members Tuesday night that FPPC investigators have recently requested information regarding the district’s past business with AquaLab Water Analysis, which is owned by former TUD board member Bob Behee’s wife, Cathy Behee.

“Some of the decisions you make may not be known for years,” Scesa said to the board.

AquaLab’s services have been used by TUD since the agency’s formation in 1992, Scesa said. The current investigation is focused on the period of time when Bob Behee served on the district’s board from 2008 to 2012.

Scesa said the investigation started as a public records request and has grown in scope in recent weeks. He’s since referred all of the commission’s requests to TUD’s attorney, Jesse Barton.

According to TUD board member John Maciel, who regularly attended meetings at the time Behee served, the monthly spending for services provided by AquaLab was approved each month in claim summaries.

The board authorizes the district to pay its monthly bills by approving the claim summaries, which is typically done at the start of the meeting and usually passed by a unanimous “yes” vote. Maciel said his understanding is that the question is over whether Behee should have excused himself from those votes.

It would have looked cleaner and more ethical, but was it against the law? That’s something attorneys will have to debate,” he said.

TUD board member Delbert Rotelli, the only current board member who served during Behee’s term, said AquaLab was selected despite the owner’s relationship to a board member because there were no other local options.

“They were the only outfit in Tuolumne County that could do the work, period. Otherwise, we would’ve had to send it to Modesto or Sacramento,” he said.

Scesa said a local laboratory is ideal because some tests must be done within only a few hours of collecting samples.

Earlier this year, TUD board member Kent Johnson asked district staff to gather bids for the work from other companies as well. AquaLab came in with the low bid of $31,110 for a year’s worth of lab testing and was awarded a contract that’s good through June 30, 2014.

AquaLab conducts testing multiple times each month at TUD’s various water treatment plants.

Shortly before being elected to the TUD board, Maciel inquired about TUD’s purchasing policy in regard to the contract with AquaLab at a September 2012 Finance Committee meeting.

According to minutes from the meeting, Maciel said the TUD policy stated that purchases for goods or services from district employees or their families, or firms owned and operated by those employees or their families, was prohibited.

Former TUD General Manager Pete Kampa said the district’s water treatment staff “must use whichever lab is most convenient and affordable,” adding that water samples must be processed within a short timeframe, and AquaLab was the only local state-certified lab, according to the minutes.

Current TUD board member Ruanne Mikkelsen said at Tuesday night’s meeting that a conflict of interest can be unavoidable at certain times, but it’s important for the district to set clear precedents on how to handle any situations that may arise.

“You have to prove that the board did everything it could to either neutralize or mitigate the conflict of interest, and that would cover you in cases like this,” she said.

Also at the meeting, the TUD board:

• approved minutes from the Oct. 22 meeting, during which the board decided to terminate Kampa’s contract during a members-only session behind closed doors. After consulting with TUD’s attorney, the minutes now state that the board re-entered the board room following the closed session and did not reconvene the open meeting because there were no members of the public present at the time.

• approved changes to the district’s Water Rules and Regulations. Most of the changes were made to provide more descriptive definitions of certain rules for clarity. The monthly use limit for the discounted water conservation rate was reduced from 500 cubic feet to 200 cubic feet, which will affect about 268 customers, according to district staff.

• approved an agreement with the law firm Burke, Williams and Sorensen, LLP to assist with legal representation during upcoming labor negotiations at an hourly rate of up to $295.

• elected John Maciel to serve as TUD Board president in 2014. Fellow board member Michael Sarno, who has served as president for the past year, will be the vice president moving forward.

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