Mraz blasts junkets, says travel takes advantage of public

By From page A1 | January 30, 2014

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]

Ryan McCarthy


Discussion | 27 comments

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  • boomJanuary 30, 2014 - 1:02 am

    This guy sounds like he's losing it. You don't say “I have to sit and listen to a bunch of idiots,” when you are speaking about our elected officials(although I certainly agree with him)AND your own constituents who attend these meetings. And if you are so high and mighty that you wouldn't accept the $143 payoff to attend, then attend and donate your $143 Back to the city of Fairfield!

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  • PaulFebruary 02, 2014 - 9:11 pm

    Still having a hard time understanding The Conflict Of Interest....a Mayor or Councilman on A Sewer Board?

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  • MikeJanuary 30, 2014 - 1:50 am

    This article is sickening and foolish.. To hear one of our sitting council members to carry on like a "thug" is unpardonable. This man is not an example, an asset or a leader for our community. He is a ignorant and pompous politician that seeks personal gain. Mraz must be retired people! What an ignorant man...

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  • Rich GiddensJanuary 31, 2014 - 4:10 pm

    Why should Mraz have to retire so those porker politicians can continue to stick their snouts in the junket pig feed bag? If you want to change their feed bags and diapers, be our guest.

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  • FDCJanuary 31, 2014 - 7:09 pm

    Mike who?

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  • The MisterJanuary 30, 2014 - 6:27 am

    A little exposure might have some local politicians changing their travel plans.

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  • Mayor SanchezJanuary 30, 2014 - 8:33 am

    I'm a retired accountant, Mayor Price is a retired educator,Vice-Mayor Vacarro is a school administrator. Mraz calls us a "bunch of idiots". He had the same travel info that the Grand Jury read and investigated. The Grand Jury report never mentioned the word "idiot". Who is the real "idiot " now?

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  • FDCJanuary 31, 2014 - 7:11 pm

    Pete, this is your answer? Is that the best you can do to justify your living high at the rate payer's expense?

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  • woodstockbillJanuary 30, 2014 - 12:52 pm

    Mraz is right on target, junkets at luxurious locations st taxpayers expense. Need 3 people from here to attend? I smell a rat! It's refreshing to hear of a council member looking out for his constituents, the taxpayer. Here's one guy that doesn't go along to get along. How refreshing.

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  • George Guynn, JrJanuary 30, 2014 - 1:29 pm

    As someone from the public that has attended a lot of sewer and council meetings, it is very apparent to me that there is major waste in government junkets here. Kudos to Councilman Mraz for speaking about this problem. Mayor Price may not like the term, but he is definitely the junket king with over $100K in junkets from just the sewer board, not counting $20K plus from the City of Fairfield in the last ten years! Mayor Price also claims to save Travis with these junkets, but that is hot air too! Mayor Sanchez would love to take his crown. Unfortunately, he claims to eat only rat sandwiches on these junkets, but Council Mraz showed a receipt that Mayor Sanchez spent over $50 on a meal and even took his family along. Then, the Mayor claims that he was forced to eat more expensive food due to having guests! Mayor Sanchez tries hard to waste the most money on junkets, but Mayor Price is the King! Mayor Sanchez, however, is the King in voting himself, along with Councilman Hudson, a $35K plus pay package for council meetings!!!! This is more than both the Cities of Fairfield and Beverly Hills! Mayor Price only gets about $20K for that. Some staff might be a justified expense, but politicos definitely do not need to go on these very wasteful junkets! Please remember this come election time! And I hope The Mister is correct about the shining light changing travel plans.

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  • toni toddJanuary 30, 2014 - 2:28 pm

    I also agree with the two comments above me. junkets yes , tax payers money yes! Coucilman Mraz I do agree.

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  • William SandersJanuary 30, 2014 - 2:25 pm

    Maraz is on target. There is no need for three persons from the same district to go on these "fact finding mission" It should only take one. Our Council should not be paid to go to meetings. If they cannot go to these meetings without getting paid, then do not run for office. Why do we need to pay a Sewer board? It is part of the job in serving.

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  • General Fadi BasemJanuary 30, 2014 - 5:24 pm

    Solano Community College offers classes in Wastewater Technology. Wouldn't it be cheaper for the junketeers to take a class at Solano?? Maybe El Presidente can send his personal driver and taxpayer-funded car to give the junketeers a ride to class.....

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 30, 2014 - 9:50 pm

    Do we have to have this conversation AGAIN? The district board represents 125,000 people who don't have to go to conferences to learn about the business and network because we expect them to do it for us. I EXPECT them to go to appropriate conferences (as these are), and therefore am disappointed in those who don't. I'm especially disappointed in those who refuse to go and politicize it for the rest. I can understand the anti-conference stance of anti-government activists who have never served in public office, but the only explanation for Mr. Mraz's stance is he wants to damage politically his fellow board members. He needs to be quarantined.

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  • really???January 30, 2014 - 10:06 pm

    wow,, what a leader. we elected you to manage our city and our sewers and you call us idiots. oh, and you don't even bother showing up to do your job. can't wait to vote you out.

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 30, 2014 - 11:55 pm

    Fortunately, I save a lot of my comments, so I don't have to compose new ones. Here's what I wrote in response to an opinion column Glen Faison wrote on this subject: "Add up all of these costs and tell us what percent of our rates pay for them. It's not zero of course, but it's also not a very big percentage out of a $20+ million per year operation. I like the idea of written reports from conferences, but that obscures the fact that there is no substitute for ATTENDING a conference. I wish all the members would go. They are serving so we don't have to; I want them to be as well-informed and connected as they can be. I'm more interested in the Board having a reasonable policy for travel expenses, like no first class air fare, alcoholic beverages, or meals over a certain amount paid by the District. They can do all those things, but have to pay the extra themselves. The DR would do us a service by publishing such policy as exists so we can converse about it. And as for quoting the promotional information from the web sites of the resorts where conferences are held, that's a bit of a cheap shot, don't you think? Of course those spots are going to make the place sound great, but that doesn’t mean conferees go primarily for that reason. The organizations that put on conferences want and need people to attend, so the always pick someplace nice. There are only a few locations in California that can accommodate conferences made up of board members and professionals as large as these. Most organizations move them around for geographic equity. But they are always going to be locations that attract attendees, or at least don’t discourage them. What’s more important is that the organization puts on a good program and uses its negotiating power to get the best deals possible for its members."

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 30, 2014 - 11:58 pm

    And here's what I wrote in response to a similar column by Kelvin Wade: "This column is like a comedy with a laugh track; almost a guaranteed response. It’s a too-easy-to-write piece, with all the information available online, both for the expenses (a public record) and the resort. You’ve never been to the resort, have you Kelvin? That was all from the resort’s online Web page, wasn’t it? At least you resisted using the word “junket” this time. I mean, who is in favor of junkets? One hardly has to think! Allow me to present the other side, because there is one, an important one: Groups like CASA exist for two purposes, to bring elected board and staff members from local agencies together for education and action. The education is an end in itself, to make better board and staff members. But it also fuels the action, which is lobbying, mostly, and other forms of individual and group advocacy on behalf of their organizations. That means speaking for us in Sacramento, Washington, and elsewhere, and I want them to be good at it, don’t you? There is no substitute for the networking and teambuilding that can go on in face-to-face meetings like conferences. When I attend conferences, I find some of the most valuable interactions I have are over the lunches, in conversation with someone I’ve not met before, or meeting people right after a session breaks up and we ask questions or discuss what we just heard. It’s these chance encounters that provide difficult to measure added value from a well-organized conference. Organizations like CASA tend to hold their conferences at nice places for a simple reason: They want people to attend. These “resorts” are generally conference centers with a resort attached. They have to be to accommodate a group as large as a CASA conference. I don’t advocate public attendees spending money on first class air fair or $100+ bottles of wine at public expense, but I don’t begrudge them staying at the conference hotel, having some nice meals, and socializing after the day is done. All that can add to the networking, teambuilding, and chance encounters. We don’t pay them much, and the least we can do for the time they commit is to not force them to go third class or stay home. They serve so you and I don’t have to become sewer system or governance experts. I feel board members who refuse to attend conferences out of some effort to appear populist are doing us a disservice, as is, therefore, this column."

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 31, 2014 - 12:11 am

    This column would have been significantly better if the DR had only put the word "junket" in quotes, because Mayor Price is right: These trips aren't junkets. If he's the "king of junkets" as Mr. Mraz says, it's because Mr. Price has taken the time and energy to become the president of CASA and consequently serves on it's board of directors and other influential positions in the organization. We should be proud to be so represented in the state's premier organization for sanitation districts. It's embarrassing he has to take such harassment when he gets home. It says much more about the harassers than the mayor.

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  • George Guynn, JrJanuary 31, 2014 - 2:34 pm

    Rick Wood, there you go again. Did you ever see a government waste program that you didn't love? Could it be because you get over $100K a year from PERS and don't have to work now? I have attended Sewer Board Meetings and have yet to hear one new original idea at the meetings. I don't recall seeing you there, either. Also, there are lots of people in the public that are barely getting by income wise and you want them to pay for junkets of those that are wasting the public's money big time? Shame on you! Did it ever occur to you that giving politicos access to other politicos on junkets gives them a chance to make crooked deals at public expense? I can see giving minimal staff a chance to go to conferences, if shown to be of help, but not politicos. They come and go much sooner than staff. Furthermore, politicos get paid for the job they were elected to do. Why should they get paid for being on boards? I don't get paid for watching them. Mayor Price and Sanchez may not like the word junket, but I don't like seeing them waste public money on these trips with nothing to show for it. I have a simple solution, if they and others don't like hearing me complain, don't go! And finally, saying that junkets help the public is like Mayor Price saying that he saves Travis, especially when he goes on a junket. It is total hot air!!!!

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  • FDCJanuary 31, 2014 - 7:08 pm

    George, Rick Wood is one of the Three Little Prigs who flood the Commentary section with thousand of well chosen words designed to impress the reading public. Mr. Wood never met an overpaid bureaucrat he didn't just love.....Oh, I forgot, he is/was one. He never met a tax hike to expand the bureaucracy he didn't love. He never met a junket he didn't just love. It is a waste of time to answer his filibusters; he is a hopeless bureaucrat living in his own ivory (?) tower.

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  • Rick WoodJanuary 31, 2014 - 9:32 pm

    That's well-reasoned words designed to persuade the reading public AND to provide balance to the predictable rants by the predictable others. Our elected leaders need to know that there is a large public that doesn't want to attend meetings and are glad they do it for us. It's called the republican form of government. If Mr. Mraz doesn't want to do the job, he can come back and join us.

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  • Politically Incorrect VetFebruary 01, 2014 - 11:19 am

    Based upon my experience in government, if they call it a workshop it is 50% work and if they call it a conference it is probably a junket. I only attended workshops and paid hotel, food and other travel expenses from a daily travel allowance that sometimes did not cover basic expenses. Shame on the council member for trying to ruin a good time for the elected officials that are watching our tax money.

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  • George Guynn, JrFebruary 01, 2014 - 1:53 am

    Rick Wood, did it ever occur to you that a lot of the public have to work at their job and don't have time to attend the tons of meetings that politicos love to control? Irregardless, the politicos need to be watch and controlled. Councilman Mraz is doing his job to cut out the junkets. You just don't like the result! FDC, thanks for your comments.

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  • Rick WoodFebruary 01, 2014 - 4:47 am

    What you call "politicos" are our elected representatives, and I hope and expect them to control their own meetings, again so we don't have to be there. It's that pesky republican form of government that you apparently don't like. We also expect them to participate in those meetings without calling the people there "idiots" and announcing they won't be coming back.

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  • Rick WoodFebruary 01, 2014 - 11:21 am

    Our elected representatives SHOULD control their own meetings and not be overly influenced by those who show up. We didn't elect the gadflies, we elected people who we thought best represented us. They do us no service if they sacrifice their judgment to whomever shows up. Mr. Mraz had said his peace and lost. Now he refuses to attend meetings that are part of the job. He needs to take defeat with greater grace.

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  • George Guynn, JrFebruary 02, 2014 - 11:15 am

    Rich Wood, you still don't get it. The politicos work for the public, not the other way around. If they don't do the public's bidding, they need to be told at public meetings. Apparently, you want a dictatorship and hopefully the public doesn't! And no, Mraz didn't lose. This issue isn't over till the junkets STOP!!!!!

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  • Rick WoodFebruary 04, 2014 - 10:22 am

    Our elected representatives aren't supposed to be pollsters who only do the "public bidding." They are people we elected because we trust their judgment. They will not always do things that are popular, but we should expect them to make decisions based on all the information, experience, and training they have. People who show up at meetings only represent themselves or groups they are in. That's not "the public."

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