Representatives of four local sanitary districts lambasted a last week, with several people saying the merger would dilute local representation, not improve sewer service and not save as much money as the proposal estimated.
The Marin Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is considering a plan (attached at right) drafted by LAFCO staffers to squeeze the , Alto and Homestead Valley sanitary districts, as well as the Richardson Bay Sanitary District, which cover Strawberry and part of Tiburon, into an as-yet-unnamed consolidated district.
Those districts would then have one representative on a three-person board of the (SASM), the joint powers agency that runs the treatment plant. The proposal doesn’t involve the City of Mill Valley and the , the other two SASM members.
A public hearing on the issue drew about a dozen attendees Thursday, most of whom were affiliated with one of the districts. Each of them made it clear that if the consolidation occurs, they wouldn’t be willing participants.
“I don’t think that any of the boards of the districts are in favor of it,” Almonte board member Kevin Reilly said.
The proposed merger largely seeks to address problems in the sewer system that led to a pair of sewage spills in 2008 that sent 3.4 million gallons of raw and partially treated sewage into Richardson Bay. The spills cost the agency more than $1.5 million in fines and fees.
After the spills, the U.S. Environmental Agency issued an administrative order calling for an audit of SASM’s operations, and a 2009 Marin County civil grand jury recommended merging all of the SASM agencies. Marin Assemblyman Jared Huffman’s bill allowing LAFCO to force the agencies to consolidate was signed into law later that year.
The LAFCO report, presented last Thursday by executive officer Peter Banning, focused on the lack of accountability after the 2008 spills, an issue that has sparked the by the Richardson Bay district against the City of Mill Valley. The accountability void, particularly with 30 elected board members and eight managers operating the existing sewer system, “dilutes responsibility and accountability for sewer service to the point of near inconsequence for single purpose sanitary district members,” the report stated.
The number of member agencies and boards has also suppressed public interest, according to the report, “because so little is at stake within each jurisdiction when that jurisdiction is responsible for only a small part of a small sewer system.”
Banning noted several times that the report didn’t find fault with the agencies themselves but with their organizational structure. He noted that none of the elections for the four districts’ board seats have been contested in the past decade.
“The value of the job they do is not in question,” he said. “It is their separateness and their scale and the value of their political subdivisions is what is in question.”
Bonner Beuhler, who has spent his nearly 30-year career at sewer agencies in Marin, said the merger would harmfully dilute the representation for each district. He rejected the proposal’s premise that the spate of uncontested sanitary district elections over the past decade was a symptom of apathy caused by too many districts and board members.
“It’s better to have 30 people who’ve spent 20 years dealing with issues that nobody wants to deal with,” he said.
Almonte board member Kevin Reilly agreed, saying the 30 board members represent the public on issues that few people are interested in.
“It’s unglamorous and we get our work done,” he said. “The public doesn’t show up much until there is a rate increase. The ratepayer understands that when they flush the toilet it works.”
Several district representatives disputed data from the report about costs and potential cost savings. Bruce Abbott, a member of the Richardson Bay District’s board, pointed to the report’s indication that Richardson Bay customers pay $436 a year for sewer service, when they actually pay $246 a year, he said.
“And we have no intent of increasing our rates unless it’s imposed on us because of the spills, which we don’t think are our fault,” he said.
The commission didn’t vote on the proposal, but it didn’t pepper Banning and some district reps with questions. Commissioner Jeff Blanchfield, a Mill Valley resident, asked Banning if the City of Mill Valley and TCSD supported the eventual consolidation of all the districts within SASM. TCSD opposes full consolidation. Although Mill Valley City Manager Jim McCann was not available for comment, Banning said the city is taking a wait-and-see approach, hoping to evaluate the status of the consolidated district before it takes the next step.
Former Mill Valley City Councilman Cliff Waldeck urged the commission to expand the parameters of the consolidation to include the City of Mill Valley.
“There is a kind of institutional lack of understanding on the City of Mill Valley’s part about the importance of running a good sanitation agency,” he said.
Waldeck criticized the city’s response to the 2008 spills, saying, “Instead of having open meetings where they brought people into the process, they basically lawyered up with an attorney from Sacramento and cut a deal at a cost of $2 million.”
Waldeck said the current structure of SASM is such that “nobody’s taking any responsibility.”
Almonte district board member Lew Kious said he opposed the consolidation but suggested some changes to make it successful if it does happen. He said the board of the consolidated district should include 11 members for a period of time after the merger to lean on the institutional knowledge of the members, and also recommended that the new SASM board include 5 members, not the proposed three.
“That would be more effective,” he said.
Banning emphasized to the commission that there was no urgency to the proposed consolidation, saying the process was currently in a planning phase and that an approval of the merger wouldn’t happen until later this year. The commission considers changing the districts’ “sphere of influence,” the first step in the process, at its Sept. 6 meeting.