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Orange County Focus

MISSION VIEJO : Field Narrows in Quest for Manager

April 24, 1993

Four candidates were interviewed Friday for the job of interim manager of the Santa Margarita Water District, which suspended its two managers after state and federal investigations were launched into published reports of excessive spending and gift-taking by the two men.

District General Manager Walter W. (Bill) Knitz and his assistant, Michael P. Lord, were placed on indefinite administrative leave April 9 and continue to draw their salaries and benefits. Both men have denied any wrongdoing.

Between 12 and 15 men applied for the position, and the field was narrowed to four candidates, water district spokesman Scott Hart said. The interim manager must be from Southern California and be free of any conflict of interest involving local water districts or engineering firms, he added.

Hart said such requirements are needed to restore public confidence in the district. Water users have expressed outrage at the expenses racked up by Knitz and Lord, which include a $1,500 room service tab and a $245 limousine sightseeing tour of Manhattan.

A decision on an interim chief could be made as early as Monday, Board Chairman Don B. Schone said.

Both men also have received in excess of $46,000 worth of gifts from contractors. Records show that Knitz and Lord later recommended awarding contracts to some businesses that gave them more than $250 in gifts or meals the previous year, a violation of the 1974 state Political Reform Act.

The Orange County district attorney's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are exploring whether the men traded gifts for contracts.

"One of the objectives of the interim manager will be to manage an audit of the district and how they've been operating and how it can improve," Hart said. "We need a third party, objective opinion."

The interim manager likely will be paid on a contract basis, meaning "no perks," said Hart, who declined to reveal the candidates' names.

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