At a meeting about brown water pouring from taps, congresswoman says people were paid to speak out in favor of water district

Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-San Pedro), right, tries to calm the concerns of Compton resident Maria Villarreal during a Water Quality Town Hall hosted at George Washington Elementary School.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)
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At a town hall Monday, Congresswoman Nanette Diaz Barragán alleged that people were paid to pose as residents to speak out in support of an embattled water district, marking a strange twist in the ongoing controversy over discolored water pouring out of taps in Compton and Willowbrook.

The Sativa Los Angeles County Water District serves about 1,600 ratepayers in a half-mile area of Compton and Willowbrook. Residents have been complaining about brown-colored water with a foul odor.

Last week, local officials began the process of dissolving the water district. But the district and L.A. County officials insist the water is safe to drink.


Before taking questions about water quality at Monday’s meeting, Barragán (D-San Pedro) showed a Craigslist ad offering jobs in political advocacy to African Americans and Latinos, with pay up to $40 and an additional bonus. The ad did not mention posing as residents of the areas served by Sativa.

“Did anyone come because of this?” she said looking around, her arm raised.

Compton resident Maria Villarreal holds up a bottle containing brown water that she said came from the tap in her home.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times )

The crowd of more than 50 people gasped and looked around. Most turned to a small group of six people holding signs defending the water district. One seated man waved a sign at the cameras. It read: “No Compton take over.”

Other signs read: “Bad water myth created, sue for millions” and “No dissolution, no higher rates.”

Barragán told the crowd it was a shameful tactic that people were paid to come to a meeting intended to address real concerns.

“If you’re paid to be here tonight and you do not live in the Sativa district, I ask that you to sit quietly and do not participate in the Q & A part,” she said.


Sativa General Manager Maria Garza denied knowing about people being paid to attend the meeting or that a Craigslist ad existed. She said Barragán did not ask her about the ad.

“I don’t know anything about it,” Garza said. “I have no idea what that is about, but I’ll check with my district staff.”

Most residents came to express concerns over the quality of the water. Some said brown and yellow-brown water has been coming out of faucets for about two years but worsened earlier this year. Others wanted to know what the water district was doing to fix the issue.

When it was Maria Villarreal’s turn to speak, she pulled out a water bottle with dark brown water and complained the district wasn’t doing enough to address the water problems in the city. She said she had complained to the water district many times.

“I’m tired and they don’t do anything,” she said, before storming away.

Villarreal said she was disturbed that people were paid to attend the meeting. She said people have real issues and felt the tactic was taking the spotlight away from the real issue: water quality.

Sitting next to her was Patsy Williams, who said she was upset to hear about the Craigslist ad.


She said the water district “doesn’t do enough and this is just their tactic to keep people from talking about the problem. I’m very upset.”

Eddie Lewis, 72, said he wasn’t surprised by the ad and believes that the water district paid people to pose as residents at the meeting in support of the district.

“They think we’re fools but we’re not,” he said. “They’re spending money on having people come to the meeting rather than spending it on fixing our pipes.”

He said the water district is trying to make it seem as if residents are the problem.

“We’re not the troublemakers,” Lewis said.

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