Water, Politics and Propriety


San Fernando City Councilwoman Joanne Baltierrez claims she did nothing wrong when she left her water bill unpaid for eight months last year. Her critics on the City Council, however, argue that she acted improperly by not refusing the preferential treatment that kept her city water running--even though other residents got their service cut off after just one month of delinquency.

Both are right. And both are wrong.

The debate over Baltierrez’s water bill hit the boiling point last month when council members voted 3 to 2 to formally censure their colleague, a move Councilman Silverio Robledo said was necessary “to restore the honesty and integrity of the council.” The censure was appropriate, but the council still has a way to go before it can start trumpeting its honesty and integrity.

Baltierrez’s troubles came to light in October when a former City Council candidate showed up at a council meeting with a city document listing 32 San Fernando residents behind in their water bill payments. The document presumably was leaked by a city employee. Unlike many of the others on the list, Baltierrez’s water had not been shut off, sparking cries of political favoritism.


In fact, the city has long had an informal policy that allows the administrative services director to grant extensions to normally responsible residents having a hard time paying their bills. Baltierrez apparently fell into that category. Did she have a right to accept the extension? Yes. Should she have allowed it to drag on for eight months? No. Did she get special treatment because of her position? Probably.

To that end, Baltierrez’s council critics have a point. Elected officials must always strive to keep the trust of the people they serve. That means avoiding even the appearance of impropriety or special treatment. Constituents rightly get upset when they see politicians enjoying undue benefits--whether they are lucrative book deals, tropical junkets or special breaks on a water bill. Those feelings can be even more intense when the politician in question lives next door. Baltierrez made a bad call, but she has since apologized and paid her bill, with late fees.

Her council critics have more to do before the affair can be considered water under the bridge. The leak that revealed Baltierrez’s delinquency stinks of politics, but an investigation did not even look into how the list got out. City employees have an obligation to point out questions in the work they do, but not to take part in the kind of cronyism that guides sensitive and potentially damaging documents into the hands of political opponents. The council should have investigated further.

In an effort to formalize the casual policy of payment extensions, the council last month approved an official program that gives needy residents more time to pay. The hitch: City employees and elected officials are ineligible. Councilman Doude Wysbeek correctly points out that the new program is unfair. City employees who live in San Fernando deserve the same treatment and benefits as any other resident--just not any special treatment or benefits.