Is it time for a forensic audit of the South County sanitation district?

March 31, 2014
John Wallace

John Wallace

By KAREN VELIE

Amid allegations of mismanagement, the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District’s former administrator stepped down, and less than a year later the plant is operating cleaner at less than 50 percent the cost, according to financial reports obtained from the district.

Under former administrator John Wallace, the district regularly exceeded its more than $6 million per year budget and ran at a deficit. Currently, the district is running at less than 50 percent of its budget, with overages being placed in a reserve account.

In addition, levels of fecal contamination remaining after treatment are dramatically lower than was the case under Wallace’s leadership, according to district officials.

For decades, Wallace acted as chief administrator of the district, and also as owner and president of the Wallace Group, a private engineering consulting firm located in San Luis Obispo. For years, the Wallace Group received between $50,000 and $80,000 a month from the district for a variety of engineering services. Even so, Wallace Group employees did not include a sanitation engineer, a district official confirmed.

In a 2010 exclusive, CalCoastNews detailed allegations that Wallace had been funneling thousands of dollars to his private engineering company, while concealing environmental violations. For example, Wallace would secure board approval to repair a piece of equipment, charge the district for the engineering through a payment made to the Wallace Group, and then not implement the repair. Several years later, the sequence would repeat, with Wallace Group again getting paid to do the engineering and the repairs never being done,  according to district staff.

Amid reports to state regulators from employees detailing mismanagement and alleged illegal acts, the district board terminated two employees who viewed themselves as whistle-blowers.

In Sept. 2010, the district board voted 3-0 to eliminate Devina Douglas’ lab technician position, after her complaints to the water board resulted in the plant receiving a notice of violation that included allegations that the plant discharged dirty water into the Pacific Ocean. Douglas says she refused to throw away a sample showing high levels of bacteria after being instructed to do so by plant management.

In Feb. 2011, the district terminated shift supervisor Scott Mascolo after he told state and local regulators that the district had violated laws. Prior to his termination, Mascolo reported incidents of suspected misuse of public funds and problems with the plant complying with safety and health requirements to several government agencies.

In June 2011, the San Luis Obispo County Grand Jury said that the district board failed to recognize the conflict of interest between Wallace’s administration of the district and his private engineering firm, and that Wallace’s contract had never been competitively bid as required by law. The three-person district board fired back a response saying that the Grand Jury’s allegations of district mismanagement “were largely inaccurate.”

The sanitation district, which serves the residents of the Oceano Community Service District, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, is governed by a three person board consisting of one representative from each community. In June 2011, the board included Arroyo Grande Mayor Tony Ferrara, Grover Beach Councilman Bil Nicolls and Oceano Community Services District Board Member Lori Angello.

Shortly after the board’s battle with the Grand Jury, Oceano Community Services District Board President Matt Guerrero replaced Angello and began to question expenditures, though little change occurred.

Then in Jan. 2013, Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson replaced Nicolls on the board. Peterson poured over reports, examined accounting records and demanded action.

In Feb. 2013, at a closed session meeting set to discuss Wallace’s performance, Wallace announced plans to resign. Though he stepped down a few months later, he continued to have some influence over the district for several more months, distract staff said.

The last four months of Wallace’s full administration – Nov. 1, 2012 through Feb. 28, 2013 – the district had $1,313,167 in expenditures, according to district board packages. During the past four reported months – Oct. 1, 2013 through Jan. 31, 2014, – the district had expenditures of $782,385, a reduction in cost of $530,782, according to district board packages.

Nevertheless, the district owes the state a $1.1 million fine for a 2010 sewage spill determined to be the result of Wallace’s mismanagement. In addition, under Wallace, the reserve account — which previously held more than $10 million — was completely drawn down.

Following Wallace’s resignation, Peterson requested a forensic audit of past practices in an attempt to possibly reimburse ratepayers for misappropriated funds. However, Ferrara and Guerrero voted against Peterson’s proposal, and it failed 2-1.

 

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30 Comments

  1. Sore Throat says:

    Miss Velie, a lot of reporter packed into a very short body, has a new title—- “Miss Tidy Bowl”.

    Did I hear a flushing sound at the end of the story?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. TheNekkidTruth says:

    my significant other used to work for that slimy bastard. i’d love to give karen an inside “anonymous” interview that details what’s currently going on with the AG’s office investigation/prosecution. she should contact me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 9 Thumb down 1

  3. Sebastes says:

    Is there such a thing as a forensic enema? This tape worm is holding on.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  4. SLOBIRD says:

    Wallace has had this County in his pocket for so long, he thought he was above reproach. The County, Cities San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Arroyo Grande, Morro Bay, Paso Robes, Atascadero, etc. have all used his services and was the go to guy for solving their problems. He would sit in on meetings when initial discussions were held about what was needed and how to write the spec’s and then we would bid on them. He had this County tied up, and that is the truth of the matter. Check local agencies and see who got most of the contracts for the past 20 years for water and wastewater engineering projects.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 1

  5. pismo20 says:

    John Wallace endorsed Caren Ray, another Ray supporter with project approval needed from the board.

    On her Elect Karen Ray Facebook page, Ray knocks CCN claiming reporters did not look up the financial statements and she claims that Compton’s donation numbers are wrong on CCN and that Compton has only raised a little over $80,000.

    To look up the donations pull up the last two 460 forms and add the totals for all donations, which includes monetary, loans and non-monetary for both reporting periods. You can pull up forms here: http://ssl.netfile.com/Pub2/AllFilingsByCandidate.aspx?id=148316944&candidate=Compton%2c+Lynn

    First, how does she know what CCN staff does? She appears to act more like Adam Hill every day. On her Facebook page, most of the posts are trashing her opponent, with untruths. Our community disserves better.

    Will Caren Ray call her inaccuracies a lie or another clerical error or will she stand by them?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 3

  6. jms3211 says:

    Cheney and Halliburton!!!!! Look familiar?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 19 Thumb down 3

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