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The Nevada County Grand Jury released their report on the Nevada Irrigation District (NID) titled “Troubled Waters.” Two complaints were received by the Grand Jury, one regarding the special district’s rates for both untreated and treated water, the other regarding actions by the Board failing to follow the requirements outlined in both the Government Code and NID’s own policies and procedures. During their investigations, the Grand Jury also found fault with the process and vote drawing new district boundaries between the five NID divisions.
Water rates – robbing Peter to pay Paul
The Nevada County Grand Jury found that there is a significant disparity in the price of raw water provided by contract to the cities of Grass Valley and Nevada City, and to “agricultural” customers of raw water for irrigation. There is no policy or procedure for which customers of the raw, untreated water are required to show income from agriculture on their property.
The Nevada County Grand Jury has found that the combination of the low rates for “agricultural” customers, coupled with a historical reluctance of the Board of Directors to raise these rates, have forced water operations to now operate at a deficit. The Nevada Irrigation District transferred monies from reserve funds in other operating areas to supplement water operations. This may force the Nevada Irrigation District to forego needed infrastructure repair and replacement, and affect the investment rate for potential bonds, according to the report.
NID is in the final stages of relicensing their facilities with FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which will require significant upgrades to their hydroelectric projects.
Redistricting – Tabled at first, then rushed through
During the Board of Directors’ discussions over the course of several meetings in 2019, the legal counsel for the district advised the Board of Directors that not reapportioning placed the district at risk of a lawsuit based on California Election Code law and the Voting Rights Act. However, the Board of Directors tabled the reapportionment process in October 2019, ostensibly waiting for the 2020 Census information.
In January 2022, three maps were presented to the Board. The Board requested a fourth map. At their February 9th meeting, directors had four maps to review, labeled A through D. No member of the public provided comment on the proposed maps. Director Karen Hull then requested a fifth map, that would combine the top of map A and the bottom of Map D, “for variety.”
On March 9th, a fifth map was presented and adopted by a 4-1 vote. It precludes the current District 4 director from running for re-election since she no longer lives within the newly created boundaries.
According to the Grand Jury report, “a motion was made to adopt Map E. Map E was approved on a 4-1 vote even though the requirements of the California Elections Code were not met to provide time for public comment.
The Jury reviewed the map options and the staff reports, and found Map E had a deviation greater than that of some of the other maps which were considered and rejected by the Board. Additionally, in all considerations, the residences of two Directors who were placed in the same district in the 2019 reapportionment effort, remained safely in their respective districts. One of those Directors had brought forth the motion to table the reapportionment process in 2019.“
California’s Open Meeting laws aka Brown Act – More training needed
During the inquiry, the Jury found a pattern of violations of open meeting laws by the Board. Interviews and written communications show that on several occasions, the Board was offered advice by NID management and legal counsel regarding the appearances and violations of the Brown Act, the report states.
The Brown Act does not allow discussion among Directors at a scheduled meeting regarding items that are not on the meeting’s agenda. This precludes responding to a public comment on an item not on the agenda, or voicing support/opposition on an item that may come before the board at a later date.
The Brown Act requires openness in government. An improper “serial meeting” may occur by a “hub and spoke” sequence. In this scenario, Member A (hub) contacts Member B (spoke) regarding an issue on an item within the legislative body’s jurisdiction and scheduled to come before the Board for discussion and/or a vote. Member A (hub) then separately contacts Member C (spoke) regarding the same item. In the process, information about the members’ respective views is revealed. The Grand Jury found a pattern of violations of open meeting laws by the Board, detailed in their report.
Fear and loathing all around
Finally, “the Jury learned of discord, mistrust, and acrimony among the Directors and between NID Board, management, and staff. The Jury was told that the Board was trying to “micromanage” the staff by going around management and giving orders directly to staff. The Jury learned that some Directors felt that the former management did not like them or was trying to “get” them. Similar statements were made regarding current management…The Jury found a pervasive sense of dysfunction in the NID which affects the health and stability of the organization.“
Findings and recommendations – responses required
The report concludes with ten findings summarizing the issues determined by the Grand Jury. It also contains seven recommendations to improve the highlighted deficiencies. NID’s Board has 90 days to respond to the findings and recommendations. The responses can agree, partially agree, partially disagree or disagree with any finding or recommendation.
The full report is available for download from the Grand Jury website.