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December 2, 2021

Business as Usual at Water District?

The Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors will
once again be faced with the question: should they pay themselves
more money?
Morgan Hill – The Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors will once again be faced with the question: should they pay themselves more money?

The vote couldn’t come at a worse time with criticisms that board members go out of their way to spend the public’s money. Board President Tony Estremera and others have been taken to task by the local media for publicly funded perks such as conference trips to San Diego and Tahoe, among other things. The board oversees the work of 824 employees, and the district, with a $364-million budget, provides services such as flood protection and water service to 1.8 million people in 15 different towns and cities in the county.  

The board will determine whether to give themselves a 5 percent raise following an Oct. 23 public hearing at the district’s San Jose headquarters. Officials are currently paid $236 per meeting, up to 10 meetings a month. That amounts to $28,000 a year. The $12 raise would bump the salary up to $248 a meeting, with potential for $30,000 a year. The process occurs annually, and last year the board approved a 5 percent pay raise on the $225 per meeting salary they had at the time.

Board member Rosemary Kamei voted against that increase and said she will vote against this one as well.

“One of the things I always say is that I don’t do this for the money, it’s never been my source of income. I have a full-time job. I’m very conservative when it comes to the public’s money.”

Board members Tony Estremera, Joe Judge, RIchard Santos, and Gregory Zlotnick voted for last year’s raise. In addition to Kamei, who represents South County, Sig Sanchez and Larry Wilson voted against it. Patrick Kwok replaced Zlotnick in August after the former member left for a district job that pays $184,000 yearly. Kwok did not participate in last year’s vote.

In addition to serving on the board, Kamei is the vice president of development for Planned Parenthood, an occupation that she says is her “real job.” Despite having two different employers, she doesn’t think the pay raise would make that much difference in terms of improving the quality of her life.

“It isn’t that much of an increase where you could give up a full-time job. I think that most of us are very dedicated, especially those of us who have full-time jobs because you have to do both to survive,” Kamei said.

That possibility has not gone over well with at least one person in the community.

“As far as I’m concerned, they don’t deserve any more money at all. They have put us in a situation where my children will be paying the debt of the Central Valley water project,” longtime department critic Bob Cerruti said, referring to the plan that moves Central Valley’s water supply to Southern California. “They failed to pay that off for the last 20 years. They don’t owe themselves any more money at all. They haven’t earned it.

“There’s no need for any more raises until they get their house in order. There is no one on that board who knows anything about fiscal responsibility.”

Because they are paid by meeting, instead of on a consistent salary, there is a concern that members label casual get-togethers as ‘official meetings.’ The other concern is travel expenditure. Board Chairman Tony Estremera went to 15 conferences in San Diego at a cost of $18,667 in recent years, according to a San Jose Mercury News columnist.

Though the board has not yet approved another pay raise, Cerruti is skeptical that enough members will vote it down. 

“They’ll pat each other on the back,” he said. “It’s going to get passed, and they’ll crank out as many meetings as they can to make that money.”

WATER DISTRICT MEETING

  • What: Public meeting for people to voice their opinion about a potential raise for all officials serving on the Santa Clara Valley Water District board

  • When: 9:40am, Oct. 23

  • Where: Santa Clara Valley Water District

headquarters, 5750 Almaden Expressway in San Jose

Water board passes on new hiring process

Morgan Hill – Antsy job prospects have inspired overseers of the Santa Clara Valley Water District to momentarily cede hiring authority back to the agency’s scandal-tainted chief administrator.

On Tuesday, the agency’s seven-member governing board agreed to let Chief Executive Officer Stan Williams exercise final say in the hiring of a new Sacramento lobbyist, a position that carries a salary between $111,000 and $150,000. The decision, intended to allow the board more time to sort out its exact involvement in the hiring of top-level “unclassified” employees, comes just two months after officials stripped Williams of his hiring powers for appointing former board member Gregory Zlotnick to a $184,000-a-year job as special counsel.

“This was kind of a special situation,” said Sig Sanchez, an at-large board member from South County. “Obviously those people working in Sacramento that might be interested in a job like we’re offering, if they’re name is exposed and they’re bosses find out, it makes it pretty rough for them.”

Two of the five candidates vying for the lobbyist job expressed concerns about their names being aired in a public meeting, according to district spokeswoman Susan Siravo. And despite waiving their newfound hiring authority this time around, she stressed that board members did not revert to business as usual.

“For this particular position, once the board was assured that staff had followed the proper hiring procedures, including the recruitment process, and that the salary was in line with similar positions at like agencies, then they went ahead and (decided to) allow the CEO to do the appointment,” Siravo said, adding: “Under the old system, they wouldn’t even have been involved in asking if the procedures were followed correctly.”

The board chose in July to exercise final say in the hiring of unclassified employees, now numbering 33, in the wake of the Zlotnick scandal. Board members agreed that their colleague and 10-year board veteran was ideal for the position as pointman in high stakes water politics surrounding the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. But they chaffed at Williams’ failure to hold a competitive hiring process for the job or even notify them of the appointment. In the face of widespread public cries of cronyism, the board agreed to pass a series of changes that includes having the district’s chief counsel directly report to the governing body as well as instituting a “revolving door” policy” banning board members from accepting district jobs until they have been out of office for a year.

But their newfound hiring powers have proven to be the thorniest of the changes to put into practice. District board members have spent weeks trying to understand the exact nature of their role in the hiring process.

The typical hiring process for the Sacramento lobbyist and other unclassified jobs involves a public request for applications, followed by vetting of applicants by a panel composed of HR representatives and a mix of other district employees, according to Siravo. The candidates that pass the initial screening then move on to a separate interview panel with a similar mix of district employees. The top candidates then interview with the manger overseeing that position and with Williams.

“They didn’t actually delve into how deep into the process they’d get,” Siravo said of district board members. “Would they interview candidates or just approve staff’s recommendation? I think they hadn’t really outlined what the board’s involvement would be in the process. They’re not a (Human Resources) department, but at the same time they do want to have final say on the candidates that get hired for unclassified positions.”

Sanchez said he and colleagues agreed Tuesday to avoid “micro-managing” the hiring process and instead focus on decisions centered on the number of employees, the nature of the work, and the salary associated with the job.

“There was some misunderstanding on the part of my colleagues as to what we originally intended to do,” Sanchez said Tuesday after emerging from the all-day board meeting at the agency’s San Jose headquarters. “There was a lot of discussion today about whether we’re trying to micromanage the district in who (Williams) should or should not hire, because some of us want to reduce, and hopefully not add to the unclassified positions when a vacancy becomes available…. But if every applicant is submitted to us and we’re interviewing the guy, that was not in my opinion the intent.”

The board plans to clarify its role in the hiring process at an Oct. 23 meeting.

Staff Writer Serdar Tumgoren covers county government for the Times. Reach him at 779-4106 or [email protected]

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