District seeks to oust 3 on tiny water board - Tucson Local Media: Pima Pinal

District seeks to oust 3 on tiny water board

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Posted: Sunday, December 21, 2008 12:00 am

Animosities have reached the boiling point in the Marana Domestic Water Improvement District, where a recall election has pitted governing board members against one another and employees.

Disaffected residents recently filed paperwork to initiate recalls against three governing board members.

Board members Luis Castaneda, Donald Peetoom and Louis Preston have been targeted for removal.

“It’s like a Hatfields and McCoys kind of thing,” district employee Donald Perry said of the infighting that has plagued the water provider. Board members Teresa Ball-Cummings, Lillian Payne and Peetoom were among the supporters of the recall aimed at Castaneda and Preston. In response, Castaneda’s father initiated the recall effort against Peetoom.

Peetoom was unavailable for comment. Someone who answered the phone at his house said the board member was out of town.

Castaneda and Preston are up for recall in a March election; Peetoom’s recall vote is set for May. To date, no candidates have stepped up to challenge the sitting board members.

“What it boils down to is our employees were upset that we didn’t give any pay raises,” Castaneda said.

Castaneda said the district’s five employees had grown accustomed to annual raises. This year, for financial reasons, Castaneda and Preston did not think the utility could afford raises.

Despite the decision to not offer the pay hikes, Castaneda said each employee was given a $5,000 year-end bonus in 2006.

Employees were paid in cash, Castaneda said. District employee Perry, however, said Castaneda doesn’t have all the facts.

For years, Perry said, employees opted to have 2 percent of their paychecks withheld and placed in a savings fund. Employees then collected their individual shares every December as a bonus.

“No one here is getting rich,” Perry said.

But for recall-targeted Preston, the issues at the district go deeper than how much employees get paid.

Preston said he and Castaneda worked to trim $80,000 from the budget last year. The pair also has fought proposed rate increases.

“We did everything we could to help the people of the district,” Preston said.

He added that many of the district’s customers are poor and would find it hard to pay more for water service. But Perry said the district would have to raise rates to maintain the level of service customers expect.

“The bottom line is, rates eventually have to go up,” Perry said.

Preston, who wants to enact district-wide reforms, said the 850-customer water district has for years suffered from mismanagement.

“The whole water district, with board and general manager, is in disarray,” Preston said. He cites numerous grievances, mostly implicating district manager Sigfrid Danielson. That list includes misuse of district credit cards, using district resources for political purposes and running roughshod over the board.

“He’s the one who creates most of the problems,” Preston said.

According to Preston, Danielson has a history of unapproved charges on district credit cards. Danielson denies that charge.

“One time I inadvertently put a personal purchase on the district card,” Danielson said.

He quickly repaid the district and brought the issue to the board’s attention, he said. Danielson questioned why Preston would bring it up now.

“To me, that sounds like vindictiveness,” Danielson said.

The issue of using district money for politicking extends from a letter to customers that accompanied November bills.

Board member Ball-Cummings wrote the one-page letter, which, in part, reminded district customers to vote in the November election. Two board members, including Ball-Cummings, were up for re-election.

Preston considered the letter an effort to promote Ball-Cummings’ candidacy, but said it was delivered to customers too close to the election for the board to do anything about it.

Now, he wants the district reimbursed for the printing costs, about $800 according to his calculations.

“We’re in the process of trying to get that letter paid for,” Preston said.

District manager Danielson said the letter cost less than $100 to print and contained nothing political.

Ball-Cummings explained that past boards always included similar letters in customers’ bills without any complaints.

“It wasn’t to benefit me, it was for the public,” Ball-Cummings said.

She wants the board to write a monthly newsletter to inform customers of district happenings.

“At this point, (Castaneda and Preston) still don’t want a newsletter,” Ball-Cummings said.

As to the allegation that he controls the board, Danielson said that’s just not the case.

“I do assist and have always assisted the clerk of the board with preparing the agendas,” he said.

Perry, however, said it’s Castaneda and Preston who have tried to exert control over the board and district operations.

“Instead of coming in here like board members should, they came in here and wanted to run the office,” Perry said. “They’ve been going around trying to micromanage.”

Perry said he objected to what he sees as the two board members’ heavy-handed approach to district business.

“For the most, board members have no idea about water,” Perry said.

Perry also has had personal disputes with Preston.

In June 2007, Perry filed a complaint against Preston for allegedly making insulting comments to him. Preston countered that Perry used profanities when speaking with him.

In January 2008, Perry filed a separate complaint against the board for allegedly trying to suspend him without pay for making threatening statements to a customer. Perry has denied the accusation.

Another district employee has filed a pair of complaints against the board, specifically targeting Castaneda and Preston.

The current recall isn’t the first for the rural water provider.

In 2003, Castaneda led an effort to oust former members Anthony Sostarich and Thomas Knagge and current members Payne and Peetooom. The attempt failed.

“Boards come and go,” Perry said. “We’ll (the employees) be here as long as people need water.”

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