FAIRFIELD — Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District directors still take taxpayer-funded trips like one this month to a hotel near Palm Springs attended by the mayors of Fairfield and Suisun City, says Fairfield Councilman John Mraz.
Several directors of the Fairfield-based sewer district “like to go on junkets,” Mraz said.
“They refuse to give it up,” Mraz said.
Fairfield Mayor Harry Price, Suisun City Mayor Pete Sanchez and Suisun City Councilman Mike Hudson attended a Jan. 15-17 winter conference at the Renaissance Esmeralda in Indian Wells that Mraz said will cost taxpayers up to $3,000 for each director.
Directors are paid $143 a day at the conference, compensation that Mraz said comes “along with a luxurious hotel and luxurious meals.”
“They come back like Hudson does and give you this baloney story,” Mraz said of Hudson’s account about the value of the California Association of Sanitation Agencies three-day meeting. Price has long taken advantage of the trips, Mraz said.
“He’s the junket king,” Mraz said.
Price said Wednesday that a junket “is a paid vacation at somebody else’s expense.”
“I’ve never been on a junket,” the Fairfield mayor said. “I don’t see the CASA conferences as fun and games.”
“I see CASA as the most influential wastewater entity on the West Coast,” Price said.
He said informed policymakers make good decisions and top-notch speakers from around the country appear at the conferences.
“One of the reasons the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District has such a stellar record is because some board members have been able to take advantage of the CASA conferences,” Price said.
Hudson responded to Mraz’s comments this way: “He’s going to say what he’s going to say.” Sanchez could not be reached Wednesday.
The Solano County grand jury in a report last May said that costs to the sewer district for directors and staff to attend conferences between 2010-12 totaled $135,169. Conferences took place in cities that include Monterey, Newport Beach and Palm Desert.
An Aug. 21-24, 2013 sanitation agency conference at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego cost a total of $7,139 for Price, Sanchez and Hudson to attend, according to the sewer district. Hudson’s costs were $2,561 and included $986 for lodging and $152 for meals. Sanchez’s total was $2,432 while Price’s trip cost $2,145.
Mraz said people think government junkets only happen with federal agencies like the General Services Administration and its expensive 2012 training conference at a resort hotel south of Las Vegas.
“When it happens in Fairfield and Suisun, you know it happens everywhere,” he said.
Mraz said directors laud the value of the conferences but that if they had to meet in Modesto, stay at a Motel 6 and eat at Denny’s that no one would participate.
The Fairfield councilman said he has stopped attending district board meetings, which usually last about an hour and for which directors are each paid $143. He said he doesn’t expect the people of Fairfield and Suisun City “to pay me money to show up and do nothing.”
“I’m not going to play the game,” he said. “I’m not going to do that.”
“I have to sit and listen to a bunch of idiots,” Mraz said of district meetings.
He also questioned programs at the conferences put on by the California Association of Sanitation Agencies. “They’re so low-tech, so low information – it’s laughable.”
Bobbi Larson, executive director of the Sacramento-based California Association of Sanitation Agencies, disputes Mraz’s description and said speakers have included a Washington, D.C., official who runs the largest sewage treatment plant in the country.
“We do our best to get timely, quality presentations,” Larson said. “The content is extremely valuable.”
The association has reduced the number of yearly conferences from three to two, added Larson, who said she would not describe the locations as particularly luxurious. Smaller sites cannot accommodate conferences that attract up to 300 people, she said.
Next year, the association will meet in Palm Springs because it’s a more central location than Indian Wells, she said. The group is embracing new technology such as webinars, she said.
A 10-member board, composed of city council members from Fairfield and Suisun City, governs the local special district created in 1951 for wastewater and stormwater management.
Fairfield Councilwoman Catherine Moy was elected Monday to the four-member executive committee for the sewer district, a post she said had been denied to her because she criticized the number of people who attend conferences. Moy said she will not attend such events. Fairfield Councilman Pam Bertani, who is also a sewer district director and attended no conferences in 2013, said Wednesday, “I don’t believe that every trip is a junket.”
“That term shouldn’t be used loosely,” Bertani said.
The councilwoman said she believes in continuing education but that the number of people who attend conferences should be limited.
Reach Ryan McCarthy at 427-6935 or [email protected]