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The Ukiah Valley’s Latest Effluent

The audio of the on-line video recording of the meeting of the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District on November 13 was poor, so we weren’t always sure what people said. Further, the two speakers who rose during public expression were not identified.

One of the unidentified, a together but disgruntled, articulate, professional-looking woman began the meeting by complaining about the management and expenses of the district. Her initial litany of critical observations was hard to understand, but she clearly concluded by saying, “A century ago this board would have been tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail.”

A disabled man unable to come to the podium complained about the high sewer rates, calling the District’s rates “a joke.” He also said their rate calculation formula was “a joke” and “a bunch of garbage.” As best we could tell, he said his sewer bill was an unbelievable $1600 a month. 

The District’s unidentified manager (who may also employed by the Willow Water District because the Sanitation District has had difficulty hiring local qualified staff) said the man’s rates had something to do with his allegedly profligate water usage. (It sounded like the complainer operated a car-wash in the Ukiah area, but outside the city limits.) 

The Board defended their extortionate rates and then responded that they’d look into it and discuss it with the City of Ukiah (because of the possible connection with the man’s water usage.)

The Ukiah Valley Sanitation District is an entirely unnecessary organization as has been pointed out in various ways in the last few years by a wide variety of critics. They are an artificial anachronism created in the 50s when local authorities decided to hook up sewage lines to residents and businesses outside Ukiah’s City Limits. Their main purpose has been to extend the city’s billing reach to their outlying connections. They operate no facilities, and have no responsibility for the actual treatment facilities, just some intermediate hook-up plumbing. The City of Ukiah does all the system operational treatment plant work as well as running an overlapping billing system for both city and district hookups.

That was ok for several decades until somebody (perhaps former Supervisor, former Local Area Formation Commission manager Frank McMichael, who became the District’s “manager” after his stint at LAFCO in the early 2010s), figured out that the artificially complex billing system was shortchanging the District by several million dollars to the benefit of the City. 

The Grand Jury agreed that there were billing problems, so after some half-hearted attempts to get the City to discuss the problem, the sanitation district hired Ukiah attorney Duncan James to sue the City. A multi-year lawsuit costing millions of dollars in attorney’s fees ensued until last year when a settlement was reached in which Ukiah had to pay several million to the District. (The actual numbers and reasons are still in some dispute and would require engaging in way too much boring minutia to discuss here and are not particularly relevant to the current situation. Unless, of course, you’re a ratepayer in the Ukiah Valley.)

Instead of forcing the parties into arbitration discussions which should have kept legal bills relatively low, the local courts abdicated their responsibility and the case somehow ended up being dragged out in Sonoma County for years as legal bills piled up and up and up.

As the legal bills mounted, sewer rates rose and more and more people in Ukiah — and the Grand Jury — were getting angrier and angrier about the impact the lawsuit was having on their sewer rates (in the City proper and especially in the District).

Among the people who found the entire situation egregious was Ukiah Daily Journal Editor K.C. Meadows who editorialized several times during the lawsuit. After the settlement Ms. Meadows agreed with the Grand Jury that the District was poorly managed and he mess was costing way too much. Over the years the Journal also ran several stories by local reporter Justine Frederiksen who studiously followed the Board’s turnover and machinations — including highlighting their problems and internal disputes.

The Grand Jury issued a report of the District in June of this year entitled “Change and Transparency Needed, noting in their summary, among many other things, that: “The lawsuit legal and administrative bills have approached $9 million and continue to escalate. An estimated $14 million could have been saved by the ratepayers if the existing bond had been refinanced at a lower rate of interest. The refinance could not occur because the District failed to produce State required audited financial statements for 2014-2018. Ultimately, the $23 million (combined legal costs and interest savings) must be paid by the citizens of the City and the District via their monthly sewer bills. The City and District are already engaged in arbitration which involves the additional expense of attorneys for both sides.”

There’s no point trying to detail the entire Grand Jury report here either. It’s available on line, as well as the District’s nearly unreadable and grotesquely overlong response (which reads like it was prepared at great hourly expense to the District by former County Counsel Doug Losak who works for Duncan James).

Here’s just one example: The Grand Jury found that: “In the absence of staffing continuity with technical and financial expertise, the District has used expensive attorneys and consultants to conduct day-to-day business and negotiations with the City.”

The District (probably Losak) replied that: “…The District’s legal counsel has been present with staff or other representatives at meetings for the same pupose when needed. These services have saved the District hundreds of thousands of dollars since October 2018, as described above, demonstrating not only the need for, but also the utility of, these services. Expenses are decreasing, as illustrated in the District’s latest budget, and will reduce further as outstanding issues, such as the budget dispute, which has long-standing implications, resolve.”

This evasive attempt to answer a complaint about millions of dollars in legal expenses by saying they saved hundreds of thousands is typical of the style Mr. Losak used when he drafted Grand Jury (non-)responses for the Supervisors when he was (acting/interim) County Counsel.

Soon after the Grand Jury report was released UDJ Editor Meadows wrote an editorial titled “Grand Jury Right About San District.” She began, “The Ukiah Valley Sanitation District is being mismanaged, is about to stick it to their ratepayers, violates the Brown Act and has acted irresponsibly over its lawsuit against the city.” Then she continued with example after example from the Grand Jury report.

Last month Sanitation District Director Andrea Reed (who had run with two others in 2016 on a slate that called for ending and settling the lawsuit with the City) resigned with a pointed resignation letter saying, “My intentions during the election … were to bridge the communication gap between the UVSD board and members of the Ukiah City Council and to work toward ending a lawsuit that had gone on for far too long. After being elected, I was excited to begin working as one with members of the city and to make the best possible changes for ratepayers of the district. I see now that members of the UVSD board have zero interest in conducting meetings that will end in compromise, growth and positive change for our entire valley. During meetings I feel bullied and silenced by at least one member of the UVSD board and members of UVSD legal representation. I am saddened by the interactions between members of the UVSD board and members of the public. We are to be held by a higher standard than most and should conduct ourselves in this manner.”

The Ukiah Daily Journal, of course, published Reed’s letter with some basic background context.

Which brings us back to the November 13 meeting.

Ms. Reed’s call for a “higher standard” was unceremoniously ignored about 40 minutes into the meeting during the discussion of appointing a board member to replace Ms. Reed. Holdover board member Ken Marshall (a Ukiah realtor who’s been on the Board since 2012 and was one of the two remaining Board members responsible for continuing the multi-million dollar lawsuit) grumbled that Ms. Reed’s resignation letter “was published in the Urinal as well. There was a letter and a write-up.”

“The Urinal”?

This slur — particularly ironic coming from a District responsible for dealing with human waste — is the best the District can do in response to justifiable outrage and criticism of their operations? Not one person in the room of directors and staff batted an eye at this stupid slur, indicating that they share the sentiment.

It’s one thing for a few locals in Ukiah to complain about their paper with this trite and sophomoric insult, but an elected official trotting it out in a public meeting is far from Ms. Reed’s “higher standard,” and nicely demonstrates exactly what she was talking about. 

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