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O.C. Sewage Unit: No Place to Breathe Deep

The agency's manager resigns amid criticism over hiring a spiritual-based consulting firm.

October 22, 2005|Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writer

So much for bringing a little spiritual awareness to Orange County's sewage workers.

The head of the Orange County Sanitation District resigned Friday after coming under fire for spending about $400,000 on a spiritual-based consulting firm to improve working relations at the agency.

Dharma Consulting uses Eastern-inspired teachings and specializes in "awakening the corporate soul," according to its literature.

Blake Anderson resigned as general manager on the condition that he receives the six months' severance he is entitled to under his contract, said Bradley Hogin, the district's general counsel.

Anderson's resignation and performance evaluation will be considered Wednesday at the next board of directors meeting, Hogin said.

Criticism of Anderson surfaced over the summer after news reports questioned a $180,000-a-year contract he arranged with Dharma, a Leucadia-based firm.

Founded in 1989 by yoga priest Eric Klein, the firm uses Eastern philosophy to approach business. Leaders must "renew" themselves and take four journeys -- of self, contribution, craft and community, according to the company's website.

The district's board renewed the contract in May, agreeing to spend up to $15,000 a month and $180,000 a year, according to meeting minutes. Since 2002, the district has paid Dharma consultants about $400,000, board officials confirmed Friday.

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore (R-Irvine) also weighed in by writing an editorial entitled "Holy Sewage" for the national conservative news magazine Human Events.

"What if a local government decided to bring in a representative of a nearby Catholic diocese to help coach their city employees on spirituality, teamwork and ethics?" DeVore wrote. "Now, imagine if that government entity signed a yearly contract with the diocese for $180,000 per year. The ACLU would sue more quickly than you could say, 'Establishment Clause.' "

Steve Anderson, board president and mayor of La Habra, and several other board members declined Friday to discuss the resignation or the Dharma contract, saying it was part of an ongoing personnel issue.

"Maybe it was because of the Dharma contract. Maybe he was getting pressure from the board," said board member Harry Sidhu, an Anaheim councilman.

On Wednesday, the board had been scheduled to discuss the results of Blake Anderson's six-month performance evaluation. The board also expected to hear the results of a financial audit and review of the Dharma contract.

Anderson did not return a phone call Friday. Dharma Consulting could not be reached.

In a note to employees, ratepayers and directors of the sanitation district posted to the district's website in July, Anderson defended Dharma Consulting.

He said the district did not use Klein's book, "Awakening Corporate Soul," but instead relied on Klein to help with team-building, executive training, coaching, conflict resolution and communication.

"I believe that we are on the right track," Anderson wrote. "Today, we have an agency that is doing many things very well. We are efficient and effective while we deal with tremendous change, maintain compliance with all of the state and federal regulations, build for the future."

The Orange County Sanitation District serves about 2.5 million residents in central and north Orange County. It processes about 250 million gallons of wastewater each day and has the sixth-largest wastewater treatment plant in the United States.

The district's annual operating budget is $117.8 million.

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