The Tuolumne Sanitary District has about 850 customers and 923 registered voters. It might account for less than a 20th of Tuolumne County’s population.
Through the district’s nearly 70-year history, contested elections for seats on the district’s five-member board have been unusual, controversy has been rare and attendance at monthly meetings sparse.
A simmering dispute with the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians — whose Black Oak Casino is by far the district’s largest customer — rose to a boil last summer. In the months that followed, it degenerated into a contentious mess that saw most of the district’s directors resign, the tribe accuse a plant operator of doctoring sewage samples to justify higher charges, the sewer plant job stalled for lack of funds, the board firing its lawyer and, most seriously, $2.9 million directors said the Me-Wuk owed TCSD turned abruptly into a $1 million debt to the tribe.
For the few of us directly involved — TCSD taxpayers and those paying hookup fees — the stakes are high.
If a tentative agreement with the Me-Wuk stands, TCSD’s engineer says residents could face rate increases to cover debt incurred through no fault of their own. Although three appointed board newcomers have hired a new lawyer, arranged for the county to monitor its ailing finances and are trying to get the district out of its agreement with the tribe, the taxpayers could still be left holding the bag.
Which isn’t right: The agreement was negotiated by a discharged attorney and approved by board members who have since quit. It wasn’t made public until after the ink had dried, it sanctions a massive negative financial swing for the district and it gives the tribe an ex-officio board member who can attend even closed sessions.
For TCSD customers, this is a raw deal.
How the district got into this mess is unclear, but directors involved at the time — be they departed or still serving — must be held accountable. While it is unlikely that malice or criminal intent was involved, board members may be guilty of unconscionable negligence, carelessness and a lack of fiscal oversight. Their constituents deserve better.
If any matter that has transpired over the past several months warrants an investigation by the Tuolumne County Grand Jury, this one does. A thorough examination of what led the district to this unfortunate pass would not only identify who was responsible, but what mistakes were made and how they might be avoided in the future.
Yes, the Tuolumne City Sanitary District is small, but if we look the other way here, what will stop us from doing so when much larger agencies are involved and thousands more constituents are affected?
In conclusion, a look at the preamble to the California’s open-meeting law is in order:
“The people do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties