Alleged Brown Act violations force revision of La Mesa water district rate increases

Active citizens won a reprieve on water district rate hikes claiming the Helix Water Board violated the requirement that the public be given adequate notice of any rate increases. The board voted to cancel a hearing and revise its rate hike proposal to accommodate public concerns about its fairness. -DB

East County Magazine
May 24, 2009
By Dennis Moore

LA MESA, Calif. – Following a joint investigation by East County Magazine and Channel 10 news into allegations that Helix Water Board violated open government laws, the Board has voted to cancel a May 27 hearing and revise its rate hike proposal.

“We won this round. They’re starting from scratch with a new plan and a new day–they’ll have a new study and a whole new [rate]schedule,” said Kirstin Kjaero, a La Mesa resident who sent a letter threatening legal action if the Board did not take steps to “cure and correct” actions she believes violated state law.

A notice posted at the HWD website offers this explanation of the revised rate study ordered: “To help focus the revised rate study, the board directed staff to apply water conservation goals across all user classes equally, maintain the current three-tier system for the Domestic Class, raise the commodity charge by the same percentage across all user classes and all tiers, implement water budgets for the Irrigation Class, maintain a single unit cost of water for Commercial and Multi-Family classes (no tiering), and prohibit irrigation meter pricing on single-family lots. Within the Irrigation Class, Tier 1 pricing will be full cost recovery, and pricing exceeding the target water budgets will be used to offset conservation activities. The plan will allow single-family lots two meters if they wish to install them, but both will be billed at Domestic Class rates.”

The Board asked staff to return in 90 days with a plan to review alternative water conserving rate structures, develop a rate study schedule, and prepare a public outreach plan for the future. The Board also stressed that customers need to continue to conserve to avoid huge fines for the water district. The district’s water supply has been cut by eight percent; the wholesale cost will increase 15.4 percent on September 1 and 19.6 percent on January 1, 2011.

At a special meeting of the Helix Water District (HWD) Board of Directors convened Friday, May 22, members met in closed session with general counsel to discuss allegations that the Board violated Brown Act and Proposition 218 requirements and faced “significant exposure to litigation” according to the agenda. (For our joint investigative report, see .) Following the closed hearing, the Board voted to postpone Monday’s session and revisit its rate increase proposal, assuring that proper notice is given to ratepayers. Many have complained that proposed rate hikes are disproportionately high for big families and owners of larger residential lots.

After the closed session, HWD general manager Mark Weston made a Power Point presentation defending the need for steep rate hikes. “We still are going to have significant cost increases,” he stated. Other water districts in San Diego County are also raising rates as a result of a 19.7 percent rate increase from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) which supplies water to the County through the San Diego County Water Authority.

Weston noted, “This year has been a challenge for water rate structure” and added that there are a “lot of perceived inequities.” (For excerpts from ratepayers’ letters detailing those perceived inequities, see ; additional objected were raised in a hearing of the Grossmont-Mt. Helix Improvement Association last week, as ECM reported: ).

Following Weston’s remarks, board member Charles Muse recommended option 2 from the Revised Helix Water Rate Study, while chairman Richard K. Smith recommended option 1. Board member DeAna Verbeke then motioned that the May 27th hearing on whether to raise rates for East County customers be cancelled, and the motion carried.

Dexter Levy, who signed one of two cure-and-correct letters sent to the Board, said the Board made a mistake in its Proposition 218 notifications. “If they, the Board, are going to change the rates they need to send out a notice, which is required by Prop 218.”

He also objected to higher rates proposed for residents than for commercial water users. “The Board should not be charging more or less for irrigation, it should be the same across the board,” Levy told East County Magazine. It would take signatures of 31,000 citizens to overturn a vote or action of the Board, he added, a goal that is daunting at best and would have been impossible to attain by Monday’s scheduled hearing.

The Board was also accused of violating provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act, a law designed to protect citizens’ rights. Former Attorney General Bill Lockyear, in a written 2003 explanation of the Brown Act, stated, “Throughout California’s history, local legislative bodies have played a vital role in bringing participatory democracy to the citizens of the state. Local legislative bodies such as boards, councils and commissions – are created in recognition of the fact that several minds are better than one, and that through debate and discussion, the best of ideas will emerge.

The law which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies is the Ralph M. Brown Act.” What occurred at the special meeting of the Helix Board of Directors on Friday is a clear example of just what Lockyear envisioned.

Copyright 2009 East Country Magazine