The Groveland Community Services District Board of Directors on Monday addressed questions about a $25,000 recruitment process for a new general manager that failed to produce a viable candidate and refuted allegations that it had planned to promote an existing employee to the position all along.
Several people, including a former GCSD director, objected to the possibility of the board appointing District Secretary and Office Manager Jennifer Flores as interim GM before a closed session at 10 a.m. listed on the meeting agenda as “Public Employee Appointment … General Manager.”
“There is no one who works at GCSD who is remotely qualified” for the GM position, said Steve Perreira, a former director who decided not to seek re-election in November after serving on the board for nine years.
Perreira said that current GM, Jon Sterling, who plans to leave the district at the end of the year, was not “secretive” about wanting Flores to succeed him and and had been “grooming” the board for her to take over.
While the board was meeting behind closed doors, Perreira said in an interview that he believes Sterling wants to be hired by the district as a consultant after he steps down from the role of GM and would benefit if his successor needed the help.
“This operation lives and dies on whether we are able to safely deliver and treat water,” Perreira said.
However, the three remaining GCSD directors announced about 10:30 a.m. that they had decided against taking any further action on the recruitment process until they fill the two vacant seats on the board.
Former GCSD directors Maureen Griefer and Nick Stauffacher resigned from the board on Sept. 14 over a dispute about a potential GM candidate whom they supported while the three other directors did not.
Griefer and Stauffacher stated in a joint resignation letter that they believed the others on the board wasted $25,000 in public funds hiring BHI Consulting to assist with the recruitment process while ultimately planning to promote from within.
The board is seeking applications from people interested in filling the vacancies and has scheduled a public meeting next month to interview candidates and consider making appointments.
Board President Bob Swan, who has served on the board since being appointed to fill a vacancy in 2013, told the roughly 15 people at Monday’s meeting that the board initially voted 4-1 in July to hire Adam Coyan as the new district GM.
Swan said the board wasn’t able to negotiate Coyan’s compensation until a meeting in September and received information in the interim that made him and GCSD Director Scott Wemmer reverse their earlier approval, though he declined to provide specifics.The Brown Act prevents directors from publicly disclosing details of discussions in the closed sessions.
“While I really can’t talk about the detail, it really boiled down to I think I made a mistake,” Swan said. “We shouldn’t have made the appointment (in July) because, in my opinion, we didn’t really have a qualified candidate.”
In an interview last month, Swan said he and the other board members were aware ahead of time that the recruitment process might not produce a result.
Flores said she removed herself from the recruitment process after telling the board behind closed doors in May about her decision to seek the position, though none of the directors were aware of her intentions before that and she has never publicly disclosed the information.
“The fact that my name is out in the public shows that there are Brown Act violations and someone is discussing it in public,” Flores said.
Swan, Wemmer and GCSD Director John Armstrong, who is currently serving his third term on the board, all denied telling anyone about Flores applying for the GM job.
Armstrong went a step further and referred to the leak as “disgusting.” He also said he was weary of accusations that the board had secretly colluded to hire her while going through the recruitment process.
“I’m real tired of this conspiracy thing,” Armstrong said. “I think it stinks.”
Wemmer said if the board had been conspiring to hire Flores, he and Swan wouldn’t have voted to hire Coyan in July. Armstrong was the only director who voted against the initial selection of Coyan.
Ron Selvey, of Pine Mountain Lake, remarked that the district could potentially save money in the long run by promoting Flores and hiring Sterling as a consultant when needed. Swan replied that’s a possibility.
Ultimately, the board will not decide on whether to make an appointment or continue another round of recruiting for the job until after the two open seats are filled.
The district is accepting applications until Nov. 10 and will host a public meeting to interview candidates on Saturday, Nov. 18, at the Groveland Community Hall, where the board will also present a public workshop pertaining to an ongoing study of monthly rates for sewer service.
A consultant from the public-finance advisory firm Bartle Wells Associates, which is working on the study, gave an update to the board Monday via telephone about the progress and potential options for rate increases.
Six potential scenarios were presented Monday that involved increasing the monthly rate on the district’s 1,536 sewer customers by between a low of about 29 percent and a high of about 75 percent gradually over the next five years, depending on whether the board opts to rely on borrowing, paying up front and how much grant funding it will seek to leverage the costs.
The average ratepayers monthly bill for sewer would go from $92.11 to $161.41 by 2022 if the board seeks $2.8 million in borrowing and little to no grants, or to $118.44 if it seeks up to $1.3 million in borrowing and enough grants to cover 75 percent of the costs.
About $5 million in needed upgrades for the district’s aging sewer infrastructure was cited as the primary driver of the need to increase rates.
Wemmer and Bert Canepa, of Pine Mountain Lake, were the only people present Monday who said they pay for sewer service from the district. Canepa said the relatively small customer base will continue to be an issue for the district without grant funding.
“It’s an unsolvable problem,” Canepa said.
Wemmer said he favored the scenario for seeking grants to cover most of the costs because the district has been successful in the recent past.
Later in the meeting, Wemmer gave an update on the district’s status in which he pointed to several grants the district has received and millions more dollars that the district is currently seeking for upgrading water and sewer infrastructure in the downtown Groveland and Big Oak Flat areas.
Wemmer’s update also covered other accomplishments the district has made in the past five-plus years, which included stabilizing the district’s finances, restructuring the fire department to save money, reducing labor costs by more than $400,000 by reducing the number of employees from 23 to 16.
“I understand that drama sells, but maybe, just maybe, we can report on the positive things this district has accomplished,” Wemmer said.
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.