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Local opinion columnists

Sewer board flushes interests of residents down drain

By From page A8 | July 28, 2013

To members of the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District governing board I say: Well played.

Whether we like it or not, the cost of doing business tends to rise over time. The trick for local governments is to keep those rising costs in check to the greatest extent possible.

In the case of the sewer district, rate increases are likely justified to bank the millions of dollars it will cost to repair and replace big-ticket items as they age and ultimately fail. Better to pay as much of those costs as possible with available cash, rather than incur greater debt, which in turn would drive up rates. I say this as a Fairfield resident and ratepayer.

Where the sewer board failed the community isn’t with the rate increase that kicked in July 1, but with the board’s unwillingness to take the action its own members suggested within the past year to rein in costs in other areas.

First, some background.

This is a board whose members opted twice in 2012 to forgo rate hikes pitched by staff. Some called for a review of district operations to ensure, among other potential outcomes, that public-sector sewer district employees were not overpaid or the beneficiaries of better benefits than their public-sector counterparts in Fairfield and Suisun City.

Conference travel by sewer district board members became a thorny issue for the board. From 2010 through 2012, nine sewer district board members attended at least some of the conferences in Palm Desert, Napa, San Diego, Sacramento, Newport Beach, Monterey and Washington, D.C., for a total cost of nearly $100,000. Seven board members went to the 2011 Palm Desert conference. Five went to the 2012 Palm Desert conference. Six went to the 2011 San Diego conference.

A move to limit board conference travel to posh California destinations failed to gain traction, in spite of public criticism and a critical assessment by the Solano County grand jury. The board’s final concession, taken Monday and in response to the grand jury? The board agreed to develop a policy to require written conference reports.

That should have been happening already.

Board members and district staff throughout the months-long discussion of conference travel have cited the importance of these regular excursions. They have said board members must remain current on such things as technological and legal developments in the realm of sewer district operations in California. These conferences provide that knowledge, they have said.

So why wasn’t that critical knowledge being shared?

I suspect there’s truth to the argument in favor of conference travel. I also suspect that a requirement that board members pay strict attention and take notes that are sufficient enough to base written reports on may sound too much like work during these working vacations. I use the term “working vacations” because on the one hand our elected city council members are there on our behalf, serving as our representatives to the local sewer district board; while on the other they are drinking in the lifestyle of high-end resort living that many of us could not afford on such a regular basis.

Who wants to take and review notes or pen a report when the poolside lounge or golf course beckons? The trip’s bought and paid for anyway – by ratepayers, I hasten to add – so why not drink it all in?

We need not worry about our elected leaders missing out on this valuable education, even as the grand jury was preparing its critical report and the public was starting to feel the pinch of various tax increases passed in November at both the local and state levels. That’s because our interests were well-represented in January at the California Association of Sanitation Agencies’ three-day conference the Renaissance Esmeralda Resort & Spa in Indian Wells, near Palm Spring in Southern California.

Fairfield Mayor Harry Price, Suisun City Mayor Pete Sanchez and Suisun City Mayor Pro-Tem Mike Hudson broke away from their daily responsibilities to suffer the harsh environs of Indian Wells in winter.

The Renaissance Esmeralda’s website describes a stay there as “a journey, an adventure, a place of magic where a lifetime of memories can be made in a single day.” Wow! That sounds like a nice destination for those who want a break from the East Bay’s winter weather. To Mayors Price and Sanchez, and to Mayor Pro-Tem Hudson, who I’m sure each enjoyed that little vacation, – I mean endured that business trip – I say, you’re welcome – I mean, thank you for your sacrifice.

Sanchez and Hudson were joined in April by Suisun City Councilwoman Lori Wilson for CASA’s three-day spring conference at the Newport Beach Marriott Hotel & Spa, which according to its website promises “unparalleled beauty and relaxing luxury.” Spring break, anyone?

To their credit, each reported on the conferences during subsequent board meetings.

This board of Suisun City and Fairfield council members is savvy in the ways of the world. How does a board maintain the perks of the job during tough economic times while mitigating pushback from public employees who want more money and better perks? Simple: Give those public employees a raise.

In this case, it was a 2.2 percent raise and only minor tinkering to other benefits. Board members also will keep their supplemental health insurance coverage, paid for as well by ratepayers. All that in spite of the grand show made by board members just last year to get their economic house in order before imposing greater costs on area residents.

Well played. The game of politics and the fleecing of the public is alive and well in Fairfield and Suisun City.

Reach Managing Editor Glen Faison at 427-6925 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GlenFaison.

Glen Faison

Glen Faison

Glen Faison joined the Daily Republic as managing editor in September 2009. He previously worked as a reporter and editor for daily and weekly newspapers in the San Joaquin Valley for 20-plus years. His experience includes time as editor of the Golden Eagle, a military paper serving the Lemoore Naval Air Station. He graduated from Fresno State University with a bachelor's degree in journalism and bleeds Bulldogs red. He is an avid fan of the NFL's Washington team, and attended the 1988 NFC Championship Game against the Minnesota Vikings at RFK Stadium. He's a member of the Fairfield-Suisun Twilight Rotary Club and a board member for the Solano County Library Foundation. He married his wife, Jill, in 2005, and has three children: Courtni, Tyler and Hayli.

Discussion | 8 comments

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  • The MisterJuly 28, 2013 - 9:54 am

    Agenda 21

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  • Rich GiddensJuly 28, 2013 - 11:47 am

    Thank you Mr. Faison. Those junkets are of little value ans are the tip of the ineficiency government iceberg at the sewer plant.

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  • Rick WoodJuly 28, 2013 - 12:34 pm

    OK, Glen. But there is one thing missing from your report. 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 as they can be. I'm more interested in the Board having a 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 some place 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. 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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  • Mayor SanchezJuly 28, 2013 - 1:46 pm

    Subway in Monterey ,burrito in San Diego, chow mein in Palm Spring , hot dog in Newport. Check out the details of meals I claimed in "vacation trips" . As for pool lounging and golf, I don't do either. Easy to write up essays that sell papers based on googled hotel advertisements. But the world keeps turning....

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  • freemanJuly 28, 2013 - 7:02 pm

    These are the same wonderful gang of stalwarts who listened to the public and voted NO to a multi-year rate increase. Then when the public wasn't looking, they poked their fingers in our eyes and voted YES. Don't bother to respond, Rick Wood, we already know what you will say. The rest of us, however, can only shake our heads at the perfidious behavior of our elected representative. If they can't be trusted to keep their solemn words, then what surprise do they have in store for us next? Remember them come time to vote!

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  • Rick WoodJuly 29, 2013 - 1:15 am

    f: Don't bother to respond? So you get the floor to yourself? That's exactly what you want when you go to those meetings claiming to represent "the public." You don't. The people elected to office do. I expect them to take in your input, but not to assume it is the "the public's" wishes, only yours and any group you are authorized to represent.

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  • freemanJuly 29, 2013 - 6:23 am

    OK, Rick, I guess it's just business as usual for you when politicians make a solemn promise then when no one is looking break that promise. You overlooked that part when you jumped to your usual fawning approach to supporting those politicians now running things in Fairfield.

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  • Dan TJuly 28, 2013 - 7:55 pm

    Glen, $100,000 over three years for conferences? Was that an actual figure or published budget numbers? From my experience, trade conferences are usually a pretty good value to the organization. Typically, the fancy hotel facility is partially paid for by the association coordinating the conference (through dues) and the vendors participating. The resulting cost to the agency ends up being lower than the surrounding less expensive facilities. Not attending the conference and falling behind on technology or missing out on some of the latest information on policy could cost magnitudes more in the long run. The one thing that actually made sense to me was the idea of requiring a trip report on what knowledge was gained from the trip.

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