Union Democrat staff

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.

Until 2009, that is.

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


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


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