Sanitation staff fails to follow board direction
February 18, 2015
OPINION By JULIE TACKER
Tonight the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District (SSLOCSD) will be considering the audit that has been asked for repeatedly since December, when Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill suggested that it be agendized. Once agendized, fellow board members, Grover Beach Mayor John Shoals and Oceano CSD Director Matt Guerrero, agreed in the spirit of transparency, to move ahead with preparation of a Request for Proposal (RFP) for an “operational audit.”
This item was expected to be on the board’s last agenda – Feb. 4. When asked why it wasn’t, staff suggested they needed more time and more public input on the scope of work for an RFP to be circulated among auditing firms.
The direction to prepare an RFP for the board’s review was clear weeks earlier, so this excuse that staff needed more time and more public input was curious. As much as we, the public, would like to think staff works for the people of the district, they don’t, they work for the board.
The board gave direction and the resulting staff report before the board tonight is disappointing. Staff presents four possible options; all of which are designed to delay or dissuade the board from proceeding with an audit. Staff’s options range from forming a public committee to assist in developing the RFP (taking weeks to prepare) to ceasing work altogether.
In 2012, the district was under fire from the state water board for the raw sewage spill of Dec. 19, 2010. At that time, the state performed an audit of sorts as they poured over the district’s budgets, annual financial audits and files. They found evidence of “negligence” and handed down a $1.1 million fine. The district has spent nearly that amount fighting the fine and at one point challenged the state, asking the court to compel communications be turned over. The State refused.
“Records are part of an investigatory file compiled by Respondents/Defendants for law enforcement purposes, with a concrete and definite prospect of criminal enforcement,” the state’s response said.
The term “forensic audit” has been bandied about, but because of its negative legal connotation has been frowned upon as if it was a fishing expedition for legal wrongdoing. OCSD Board President Mary Lucey spoke at a recent SSLOCSD meeting wherein she suggested an audit is going back to “regurgitate and beat people down” and didn’t “see the point.” She also said, “I get very nervous when I hear ‘forensic audit’.”
Fellow OCSD board member and SSLOCSD representative, Guerrero has said repeatedly he would personally take any criminal evidence to the district attorney if presented to him. Evidence has been presented, former Grover Beach Mayor, and former SSLOCSD Board member Debbie Peterson presented the board 10 years’ worth of spreadsheets of expenditures that detail what the district’s annual financial auditors identified as “material weaknesses” and “significant deficiencies that merit attention by those charged with governance.”
Additionally, an audit of managerial practices has also been considered, but it too has been characterized as “unnecessary” since the positive turnaround in practices since former administrator John Wallace’s resignation. With knowledgeable staff, mostly new, plant operations have improved dramatically over the past two years with reductions in operating expenses.
The options presented by staff are all nonstarters; the board has the ability and authority to define a scope of work for the RFP and should direct staff to circulate it immediately. The intent of an audit is to review actions of the past management; if the apparent missteps can’t be recognized and identified they could happen again. Boards come and go, staff comes and goes; an auditor may be able to bridge the informational gaps and make recommendations as to what to watch for in the future and prevent the district’s costly history from being repeated.
The public is invited to participate at the meeting in the Arroyo Grande City Council Chambers at 6 p.m. on Wednesday.