Silicon Valley’s largest drinking-water provider faces a wide variety of challenges — from retrofitting aging dams to funding flood control projects from Palo Alto to San Jose to Morgan Hill.
But for the six candidates running to fill two seats on the board of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, the issue most commonly mentioned is improving public trust.
The district is a government agency based in San Jose that provides drinking water and flood protection to 1.8 million people in Santa Clara County. Among the largest government agencies in the county, the water wholesaler has a $285 million budget, funded mostly by water rates, parcel taxes and federal grants.
In recent years, grand jury reports, media investigations and audits have criticized the agency for its rich staff benefits and salaries, mission creep and questionable spending. Among the issues: the seven-member board voting to spend $1.4 million to build a gazebo in Alviso; board members charging softball games, interviews and visits to community festivals as “meetings,” reimbursable at $286 per event; and a failed attempt last month to provide lifetime pension and health-care benefits for board members, who serve part time.
The district’s leaders say significant reforms have taken place under new CEO Beau Goldie, including reducing the number of jobs from 853 to 746, limiting practices such as paying employees for accumulated sick leave, and better oversight of projects.
Also, three new board members elected in 2010 — Linda LeZotte, Brian Schmidt and Don Gage — have worked to make changes.
“I’m really proud of what I’ve been able to help do,” said board member Patrick Kwok, of Cupertino, who is seeking re-election in District 5. “It’s heading in the right direction, but there is still some work to do.”
District 5 includes Cupertino, Saratoga and parts of Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and West San Jose.
Kwok, 71, is a civil engineer who worked 23 years at the San Jose wastewater plant and served on the Cupertino City Council from 2001 to 2007, including a stint as mayor. He was appointed to the water board in 2005 after former member Greg Zlotnick was given a newly created, $184,000 job at the district without it being advertised.
That controversy led to the board forcing out CEO Stan Williams, and eventually Zlotnick’s job was eliminated.
Kwok, a Democrat who won election to the water board in 2008, said if he’s re-elected he wants to further cut the staff by 5-10 percent through attrition. He said he also hopes to place a priority on seismic upgrades to Anderson Dam and other reservoirs, and expand the use of recycled water.
Kwok’s primary challenger is Nai Hsueh, a Saratoga engineer who worked at the water district for 31 years. Hsueh rose through the ranks to become chief operating officer, supervising 200 people. She said her expertise in water projects will help rebuild aging pipes, levees and dams in a cost-efficient manner, but also will help restore the agency’s reputation.
“We need to bring integrity and public confidence back,” she said. “The board has not been effective for more than a decade.”
Hsueh, 59, is a Democrat endorsed by former county supervisors including Sig Sanchez and Susie Wilson. But Hsueh has been stung by a mailer from Kwok that noted she is paid an annual pension of $133,000 from the water district and failed to vote in several recent elections. The mailer also criticized her acceptance of a large amount of unused sick time — $184,000, according to district records — when she retired in 2008 at age 54.
She has pushed back, noting that Kwok charged his Rotary Club dues to the district and voted for several of the controversial measures, including the Alviso gazebo.
A third candidate, Mary Amanda McChesney, did not return calls.
In the other race, three candidates are seeking election for the District 2 seat, which includes Willow Glen, downtown San Jose and parts of Santa Clara. That seat was held by Joe Judge, who retired this year.
The two most prominent candidates are deputy county assessor David Ginsborg and retired engineer Barbara Keegan, both Democrats. Ginsborg, 46, has served for five years as chairman of the oversight committee for the water district’s parcel tax.
A Willow Glen resident and former Eagle Scout, Ginsborg worked for former San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales when he was a county supervisor, as well as U.S. Rep. Bob Filner, D-Chula Vista. If elected, Ginsborg said, he will push for more independent audits, reforms in the way board members are paid, retrofitting dams and removing mercury and other contaminants from local creeks and lakes.
“There is not a sense of accountability in the way that we have it in the assessor’s office,” he said. “They had a ribbon-cutting in September for a flood control project on the Upper Guadalupe River. They printed up a glossy, four-color brochure. They had a mariachi band. There were tents up. There’s not an ethos there that focuses on costs. Couldn’t we just partner with the local neighborhood association and bring some cookies and cut a ribbon?”
Keegan, also a Willow Glen resident, worked from 1984 to 2003 as an engineer in San Jose’s Public Works Department, ultimately overseeing 100 people as division manager supervising road, rail, bridge, traffic and storm drain projects. She served as assistant public works director in Sunnyvale from 2003 to 2007, ending her career as a construction manager at the water district until 2009.
Keegan said if elected she would work to better prioritize and streamline projects, place all budgets and audits online, fix the dams and expand recycled and gray water programs.
“I think they are a top-heavy organization,” Keegan said. “I don’t think they have a sense of urgency, and I think they spend too much money. I’m someone who can correct those things. With my technical background, I have the ability to ask the deeper kinds of questions.”
Also running for District 2 is Drew Spitzer, a 25-year-old financial planner from downtown San Jose.
Spitzer, who doesn’t state a political party preference, advocates cutting directors’ pay in half, reducing the overall budget by nearly 10 percent and dropping district plans to fluoridate the area’s drinking water.