Groveland Community Services District plans to disagree with most of the findings from an investigation by the Tuolumne County Civil Grand Jury that was critical of the organization’s past leadership.

The GCSD Board of Directors spent more than two hours of a public meeting on Monday discussing responses to the jury’s annual report released June 30 that detailed a monthslong probe of the district.

Pete Kampa, the district’s general manager since March, prepared responses to the report that disagreed or partly disagreed with six out of the seven findings and dismissing two of the 10 recommendations for improvement.

Differences of opinion became apparent between the three directors who have been appointed to the board since November and the two who have each served for five or more years, particularly in the response to jury’s finding that “disrespectful behavior by directors at board meetings and negligent management practices” had eroded public confidence and trust in the district.

While all agreed that disrespectful behavior by directors had occurred at past meetings, Board President Bob Swan and Director John Armstrong pushed back against the notion that management practices had hurt the district’s reputation.

Armstrong defended a sentence in the response proposed by Kampa stating the district had “no significant indication or means to measure whether public confidence and trust has been eroded” as a result of the board’s behavior in the past.

Director Spencer Edwards, who was appointed to fill a vacancy in November, said he believed the finding in the report about public trust had merit because the jury conducted 24 interviews with past and present GCSD employees, board members, management, contractors and customers.

“Twenty-four people out of about 3,000 that live in the district is hardly a study,” Armstrong replied.

Swan also argued that the board doesn’t know who the jury interviewed to reach the determination.

Linda Johnstone, foreperson of this year’s jury, and jury member Richard Haratani spoke briefly before the board’s discussion to explain that the jury is sworn to secrecy to assure all individuals that their testimony will be confidential.

It’s a misdemeanor to violate the confidentiality of any person or evidence brought before the jury.

Director Janice Kwiatkowski, who was appointed to the GCSD board in December, said she didn’t believe the district attorney or superior court judge would allow the jury to put information in the report that’s not factual.

“This is not made up,” she said.

Kampa added that the industry generally judges the level of public confidence and trust based on whether the district has had any recall elections, failed tax measures, or majority protests to rate increases, none of which has happened.

Director Nancy Mora, who was appointed to the board in February, said the fact that three board members resigned within the span of four months over the past year “has to indicate something,” which caused one person at the meeting to chuckle and say “good point.”

Former directors Maureen Griefer and Nick Stauffacher resigned together in September over a dispute with the rest of the board at the time about the process of hiring a replacement for former GCSD General Manager Jon Sterling, who left the district at the end of December to work as a consultant in the private sector.

They were followed by former Director Scott Wemmer, who resigned in early January over public scrutiny on his family’s past business dealings with the district.

The board ultimately voted 4-1 to delete the sentence about lacking ways to gauge public confidence and trust from the district’s response, with Armstrong opposed.

Edwards said this was the first step to repairing the board’s reputation in the community.

“Right now is where to start the process of reinstating confidence and reestablishing trust with the public,” he said. “It’s having these small discussions and being able to change your mind or disagree in a civil manner.”

The board was also split on the district’s response to the jury’s finding that previous GCSD management used legal communications from the district’s attorney to “intimidate public individuals without full board knowledge.”

According to the report, a community member and the jury itself received letters from GCSD’s attorney that contained “over-exaggeration or complete untruths” and threatened to use the legal system to protect district employees from the community member’s alleged “constant and unreasonable harassment.”

While the district’s response acknowledges that the letters were sent, it doesn’t agree that the intent was to intimidate the community member.

“That’s a really strong statement,” Kampa said in reference to the jury’s use of the word “intimidate.”

The board voted 3-1-1 to approve the response, with Kwiatkowski opposed and Edwards abstaining. Kwiatkowski said she felt the letter was threatening, while Edwards said whether a person feels intimidated is a matter of perception.

One of the jury’s recommendations was for the board to inform all board members of legal communication before action is taken, though Kampa advised against the policy because there’s some legal communication involving personnel matters that’s supposed to remain confidential.

Kampa said the district would implement a policy by the end of the year requiring legal communication to be distributed to the board only when appropriate.

The board’s proposed responses to the jury’s report also disagree with findings that qualified and experienced employees quit over work conditions created by past management practices, employees have used district equipment for personal reasons, and inadequate staffing have increased environmental and safety risks.

Several employees didn’t agree with the finding that lower staffing levels have created any safety issues.

Greg Dunn, chief plant operator at the district, pointed to how the GCSD staff was able to keep service going during a March 22 storm that flooded Groveland for the first time in decades and nearly collapsed Moccasin Dam.

The board also directed Kampa to find documents related to a vehicle purchase last year that the jury determined did not follow the district’s policies and procedures for purchasing vehicles.

According to the report, management at the time allegedly received only one quote for purchasing two vehicles and presented it as the lowest quote to the board and public. Furthermore, purchase orders provided to the jury were generated after the vehicles were already ordered from the dealership.

“That’s something we can substantiate,” Swan said.

The only finding that the board fully agreed with was that union pay negotiations between management and union workers were conducted by relatives, though some directors questioned the veracity of the term “relatives.”

Wemmer was part of a committee that negotiated with Wemmer’s future son-in-law, Luis Melchor, GCSD operations and maintenance manager.

This wasn’t the first time the jury has investigated the district.

In 2012, the jury found that the district’s general manager and administrative finance manager were compensated more than what other districts and Tuolumne County does for similar positions.

The jury’s investigation of GCSD last year determined the board had violated the Brown Act, which guarantees access to public meetings of governing bodies, while exploring the possibility of selling the district’s water system to a private company in Southern California.

This year’s report wasn’t all bad news for the district, concluding that the new leadership had fostered a more positive and transparent environment at board meetings and had made “great strides” toward regaining the public’s trust.

Every year, the jury is required to investigate all jails and state prisons in the county and can then investigate other public entities based on complaints or information it receives.

Entities that are investigated by the jury are required to submit responses to any findings or recommendations within 60 to 90 days of the report’s release.

The GCSD board plans to approve the final responses at a meeting in August.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.

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