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Gov. Brown overhauls L.A. County water board in response to allegations of mismanagement, financial misconduct

Central Basin Water District avoided competitive bidding for contracts, had six general managers in five years and spent thousands of dollars on potentially illegal gifts of public funds to support community events, a state audit found. Above, the district office. (Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)
Central Basin Water District avoided competitive bidding for contracts, had six general managers in five years and spent thousands of dollars on potentially illegal gifts of public funds to support community events, a state audit found. Above, the district office. (Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Gov. Jerry Brown on Wednesday signed two bills aimed at overhauling operations of the Central Basin Municipal Water District in Commerce after years of political scandal and allegations of ethical lapses at the agency.

One of the measures, by Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), will expand the district’s governing board from one of five elected members to four members elected by residents and three with technical expertise who would be appointed by water purveyors in the district beginning in 2022. It also imposes new ethics rules on the district.

The second measure, by Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), restricts the use of sole-source contracts and requires a two-thirds vote of the board to approve changes to its ethics rules and to the compensation and benefits of board members.

“Today is a win for Central Basin ratepayers who deserve accountability and transparency from their leaders,” Lara said in a statement, adding his bill will improve contracting by “ensuring that the process remains untainted and competitive for all interested, qualified parties to apply.”

Lawmakers were concerned by news reports and lawsuits that alleged misuse of district funds and inappropriate contracting and employment practices. A state audit last year found widespread mismanagement of the agency, indicating that the board had failed to provide the leadership necessary for the district to fulfill its responsibilities to provide water to 2 million people in 24 cities and six unincorporated areas throughout southeast Los Angeles County.

The audit noted that a former general manager, Arthur J. Aguilar, was fined $30,000 by the state for attempting to steer work to a contractor that had given him almost $3,500 in gifts, an amount in excess of legal limits.

Garcia predicted the bills “will better protect consumers and begin to restore the public’s trust.”

 The legislation was welcomed by Central Basin General Manager Kevin Hunt, who said the agency has carried out all but one of the audit’s recommendations in the last year.

 “The legislation coupled with our efforts will make impactful changes to the benefit of the residents and stakeholders in our service area,” Hunt said.

UPDATED at 3:55 pm: to include response from district general manager.

 

 

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