The California courts have released two opinions regarding cases of bad behavior at California water districts. They illustrate two problems that can occur in district governance.
First, the Court of Appeal for the Sixth Appellate District released an opinion in People v. Collins, denying an appeal by Steve Collins related to his felony conviction for conflicts of interest while serving as a director on the Monterey County Water Resources Agency. The trial court denied a motion to reduce his conviction from a felony to a misdemeanor, based on his failure to pay restitution to a client in a separate charge of theft by fraud. The appellate court upheld the decision by the trial court, holding that payment of restitution was a valid consideration. This likely concludes the latest legal proceedings against Mr. Collins, who was working as a paid consultant on a proposed seawater desalination project, while at the same time holding public office with the agency responsible for the project. It was a clear conflict of interest, and was one of the more egregious examples of bad behavior by public officials in recent years.
Second, the US District Court for the Eastern District of California released an order dismissing the case of Harrell v. Hornbrook Community Services District. The court held that Mr. Harrell, a former general manager of Hornbrook Community Services District who had filed numerous pro se complaints against the district over a period of three years, was abusing the court process through “purposeful overloading of the court with pleadings which take up more than warranted judicial attention, but which simultaneously demonstrate a desire to wage a war of attrition on the opposing parties.” The court dismissed the case with prejudice under Rules 12(b)(6) and 41(b), concluding that Mr. Harrell had shown no interest in having the court reach the merits of his complaints, but only sought to harass the district through the imposition of burdensome defense costs.
The cases represent two of many challenges for governance of local water districts. In the case of Mr. Collins, he was serving as a director on the governing board of an agency, while earning money as a consultant with projects being considered by that same board. His was a crime of an individual public official. In the case of Mr. Harrell, he was an ex-employee of a water district who engaged in a protracted legal battle for the purpose of harassment. Districts often face a small number of critics that attack the district on a regular basis for every action they take. Those critics require a large expenditure of management time and sometimes money, and can prevent a district from moving forward on its essential mission of providing clean, safe and reliable water supplies in an expeditious and efficient manner.
Luckily, these examples of bad behavior are not the norm. Most officials and district residents are sincerely motivated to serve the public interest, and most disputes concern the proper setting of goals and strategies.