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Some Big Water Agencies Are Awash in Perks and Benefits

Budgets: Part-time directors of obscure, little-scrutinized districts have been paid for such things as acting classes. But several boards have new limits on spending.

April 24, 2001|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Albert Robles went on a self-improvement campaign over a two-year period, taking acting and voice classes, flying lessons and seminars by motivational guru Anthony Robbins.

He has the Central Basin Water District to thank for that.

Robles, an elected member of the district's board of directors, received nearly $15,700 from the water agency to attend those classes.

The district, which sells wholesale water in southeast Los Angeles County, also has paid Robles a stipend of nearly $200 a day to attend scholarship dinners and prayer breakfasts, and picked up the tab to send him to water seminars in Costa Rica and Spain. On top of that, Robles gets a $300 monthly car allowance and medical, dental and life insurance.

Such expenses are examples of the generous perks and compensation packages offered by a few Southern California water districts that manage hefty budgets with little outside scrutiny.

Robles, a financial management consultant who is also the elected treasurer of the city of South Gate, defended his expenses, saying the pay, benefits and tuition reimbursements conform to water district policy and are justified by the long hours he keeps.

"I availed myself of educational opportunities to improve my education skills for my constituents and for myself," said Robles, a brash and astute politician who was elected to the water board in 1996.

But some water districts' officials are upset that ratepayers were burdened with the cost of such classes as "Basic Simulator Flight Training" and "Acting for the Nonprofessional" for a part-time official.

"I don't think it's the public's responsibility to pay for that," said Ron Singleton, general manager of Meiners Oaks County Water District, a small, fiscally conservative district in Ventura County.

Critics say such expenditures violate the public trust and go unchecked because voters, the news media and government agencies rarely scrutinize or understand water districts.

"There is always a potential for abuse when there are large amounts of money available and no one is keeping an eye on it," said Robert Terzian, chairman of the state's Little Hoover Commission, a watchdog group that has been critical of spending at special districts that handle water, trash, recreation and other services.

A survey of the 84 water districts in Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties found that such generous spending is limited to a few large urban water districts.

And several of those large agencies have recently adopted strict spending limits, including the repeal of the tuition reimbursement policy at the Central and West Basin water districts.

For the most part, water districts are obscure agencies whose elections often attract a voter turnout as low as 10%. Board members are typically elected to four-year terms to manage the bulk sales of water to cities, farms and private water companies, among other duties. In most cases, the districts act as middlemen, selling water to agencies that collect fees from ratepayers. Some districts also replenish underground aquifers and test for contamination.

Water board members have wide latitude in controlling their own pay, travel budgets and benefit packages.

For at least two years, the Central Basin Water District and its sister agency, the West Basin Water District, reimbursed board members for 90% of the cost of tuition for "course work directly related to field of employment." The policy was repealed in August 1999, after such spending became an election issue that year.

Robles was the biggest recipient of tuition funds, charging the district $15,685 to take a dozen courses.

In January 1998, the district reimbursed Robles $426 for the aviation class he took at Long Beach City College, according to expense reports.

UCLA Courses in Acting, Production

In July 1998, records show, the district reimbursed Robles $855 for two UCLA Extension courses: the acting class and another called "Craft and the Art of Voice-Over." The district also reimbursed him for UCLA Extension courses on finances and basic video production.

In 1998 and 1999, Robles charged the district $8,653 to attend four Anthony Robbins seminars: "Unleash the Power Within," "Life Mastery," "Date With Destiny" and "Wealth Mastery," according to records.

In September 1999, Central Basin board member Charles Trevino charged the district $1,638 to take an education class at Point Loma Nazarene University.

Trevino said he now regrets charging the district for the course and has since paid for additional courses with his own money.

"We felt the perception would not be what we wanted to put out to the public," he said.

In June 1999, West Basin Water District board member Carol Kwan billed the district $5,040 for 40 hours of speech classes by Beverly Hills voice coach Bill Dickson.

Kwan, who was born in Hong Kong, said she took the course at the suggestion of a previous district manager because she had difficulty expressing herself in English.

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