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Fate of Maywood water companies rests with Brown

Companies serving Maywood oppose a bill creating a public agency backed by a water district involved in an FBI corruption investigation.

September 20, 2013|By Patrick McGreevy
  • Legislation by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) would require three private water companies in Maywood to operate more like public agencies, with open financial books and audits.
Legislation by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) would require… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

SACRAMENTO — Maywood residents have complained for years about brown, smelly, bad-tasting water, and now a feud over the problem has landed on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.

Legislation by Assemblyman Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) would require three private water companies in Maywood to operate more like public agencies, with open financial books and audits.

It also would also provide $7.5 million for water quality projects in the city. It states the Legislature's intent "to create a public agency that can consolidate drinking water services" there.

Managers of the three companies have called for Brown to veto the bill. They say that the city's water is safe, that they have made significant progress in making it more palatable and that efforts are underway to address the remaining problems.

The real purpose of the bill, they say, is to pave the way for a takeover of their operations by politicians who could use the resulting public agency to dole out contracts to their cronies.

A leading backer of the bill is the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a public agency with jurisdiction in Maywood. The agency has been served with federal subpoenas twice this year as part of an FBI corruption investigation involving state Sen. Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello).

"In recent years, officials of Central Basin Municipal Water District and their consultants, which are under a federal corruption investigation, made unsuccessful attempts to 'take over' Maywood Mutual No. 3," Robert C. Rohlf, director of operations for the firm, wrote in a letter to Brown.

The bill, he wrote, "may in fact encourage a culture of corruption in Southeast Los Angeles."

Rendon says his proposal is intended to bring transparency and accountability to the water companies, and his opponents are using the federal investigation as a red herring.

"The residents of Maywood have waited far too long to drink, cook and bathe in clean water," Rendon said when the Legislature approved his bill last week.

In response, the managers of Maywood Mutual Water Cos. Nos. 1, 2 and 3 have released scientific reports showing the city's water is safe and has been made significantly cleaner in recent years.

In June, officials at the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control told residents at a meeting that the water was significantly better, though there was more work to be done.

The officials said the naturally occurring mineral manganese was responsible for brown or tea-colored water from the spigot, but the levels of the mineral in Maywood are not a health risk.

Sergio Palos, general manager of Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 1, said that in 2010, Central Basin officials tried to exert control over their operations.

He and managers of the other Maywood water companies say they were called to a meeting in July of that year with Art Aguilar, then general manager of Central Basin, and Tom Calderon, the senator's brother, who at the time was a consultant for the district.

The Maywood managers said Tom Calderon told them at the meeting that more than $20 million was available from the state to help their companies.

"We were directed to hire the same consultant(s) Central Basin employs if we wanted to eliminate the threat of retaliatory legislation," Rohlf wrote to Brown.

He noted that Central Basin district records sought by federal subpoenas include those involving controversial consulting contracts, including one with Tom Calderon that has since ended. Aguilar left Central Basin last year.

Tom Calderon did not answer a request for comment made through his lawyer.

Aguilar could not be reached for comment.

Rendon said his bill is not intended to benefit Central Basin. He noted that the money would go to another public agency in the area.

"I'm flabbergasted," he said of the opposition. "I don't understand why they wouldn't want money to essentially clean up their water."

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Times staff writers Hector Becerra and Ruben Vives contributed to this report.

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