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Umberg Pushes Special District Disclosure Bill


SACRAMENTO — Responding to recent revelations of excessive spending and gift-taking at an Orange County water district, Assemblyman Tom Umberg began pushing legislation Wednesday that would toughen disclosure requirements for special districts throughout the state.

The Garden Grove Democrat said he decided to author the legislation after reading accounts in The Times about extravagant business expenses rung up by two top officials at the Santa Margarita Water District.

Umberg introduced the legislation, which would tighten expense- and gift-reporting requirements for employees and directors of special districts, and immediately presented it to the Assembly Local Government Committee, which approved the bill on a unanimous vote.

It marks the second effort undertaken by an Orange County lawmaker to contend with problems at the district, which placed General Manager Walter W. (Bill) Knitz and his longtime assistant, Michael P. Lord, on paid leave two weeks ago amid a public furor over excessive gifts and spending.

Assemblyman Mickey Conroy (R--Orange) is sponsoring legislation to change the way directors of the district are elected. Currently, each landowner in the district gets one vote for every dollar of assessed land they possess, but Conroy is attempting to change it to a one-man, one-vote system.

As bills from the two Orange County lawmakers begin winding through the legislative process, the FBI and Orange County district attorney's office are jointly investigating reports that Knitz and Lord accepted gifts from contractors far in excess of state limits, and then recommended that contracts collectively worth millions of dollars be directed to the same contractors. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

The two men disclosed nearly $60,000 worth of gifts from the contractors.

In their official capacities as members of various district committees, Knitz and Lord recommended that the district's board award contracts to contractors from whom they had accepted gifts worth several thousand dollars within the previous 12 months. The state's Political Reform Act of 1974 forbids government officials from using their influence on behalf of any gift-giver who has given them more than $250 in the previous year, and flatly prohibits gifts worth more than $1,000.

Among the more questionable business expenses racked up by the pair were stays at luxury hotels, room service tabs as high as $1,500, and a $245 sightseeing tour of Manhattan in stretch limousine.

Umberg called the situation at the Santa Margarita Water District "outrageous" and said his bill is an attempt to create a system of "one-stop shopping for someone who wants to scrutinize the gifts and expenditures" at special districts. Such districts typically handle water, sewer or waste disposal duties, often in unincorporated regions.

The bill would require that districts each year produce a list of any employees or elected directors who received a gift valued at more than $50 or gifts totaling more than $250 from any single donor.

Under state law, certain district employees or officers must report gifts, but Umberg contends his legislation would shove the disclosures "out into the public spotlight," making it easier for the average citizen to spot potential problems.

The legislation would also require that a district produce a list each year of the names of employees or elected directors reimbursed with public money in excess of $100 for any meal or other expense.

Umberg said he ruled out putting an even tighter lid on the disclosure of such expenses out of fear that the law would prove too onerous on districts around the state that are already strapped for operating cash.

"I didn't want to impose any extra burden," he said. "I just wanted to shine some light to make sure the public has the ability to scrutinize expenditures they may deem inappropriate."

While the Santa Margarita Water District recently established a policy requiring a two-thirds board approval of any out-of-the-ordinary expenditure, Umberg said, he fears the abuses may be even more widespread than has been revealed.

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