Thousands of Little Governments in California and No One Watching Them

Hung out to dry.
| Illustration by MS Images

California has lots of little governments. It's hard to tell how many, perhaps more than 3,000. Each of them is nominally equal in legal status; each with an elected board and all the trappings of officialdom.

California's little governments operate under the shield of the legislation that created them. And when long-ago governors signed enabling bills that created the little governments, governors promptly forgot about them.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District is one of California's little governments. Until the past few years, nobody but water wonks knew or cared about what the district did. The district's sovereignty was strictly limited to matters of water management, but the legitimacy of the board's decisions went unquestioned ... because there was no one who did.

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And that's the problem with California's thousands of little governments, for which the Central Basin is as much an object lesson in miserable oversight as the cities of Bell and Vernon. The Central Basin may be a "creature of the state," as my former boss wryly said of California's local governments, but there's no one in state government to corral it.

On Thursday, as the members of the Central Basin board gathered to meet, this little government went rogue. Board Member Leticia Vasquez began with a news conference calling on fellow Board Member Art Chacon to resign because (among other irregularities) he accepted a board member's auto allowance while not having a valid driver's license.

DMV records indicate that Chacon's license has been suspended several times for various offenses; he may not have had a valid license since 2003.

Chacon also is at the center of a disputed traffic incident in 2010 for which the district paid one claimant $16,000 for injuries Chacon caused and the state workers compensation fund paid Chacon $63,000 for the injuries he suffered in the same accident.

The district also paid some of Chacon's legal expenses associated with the accident.

Vasquez's press conference melted down when Ron Beilke, who was fired from his job as the district's assistant general manager, berated Vasquez with accusations about her own political past. Chacon then stepped in to threaten a recall campaign against Vasquez.

When the board later met behind closed doors to consider firing district General Manager Tony Perez, the legitimacy of Chacon's auto allowance and payments for his 2010 traffic accident were the issues. The board ultimately retained Perez as general manager, but censured Chacon (by a vote of 3 to 2) for accepting the auto allowance money and for apparently giving false information to the arresting officer when Chacon was stopped for drunken driving in 2011.

The snarling at Thursday's meeting came from a bitterly divided board dealing with worse things. In court documents she filed in August, Board Member Vasquez alleges that former Assemblyman Tom Calderon received thousands of dollars from a secret, $2.75 million fund controlled by former district General Manager Art Aguilar. In depositions, Aguilar has admitted that the fund existed.

Based on the findings of an FBI investigation, it's likely that some of that money went to state Senator Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and members of the Calderon family.

Last month, Tom Calderon was charged with money laundering and conspiracy. Ron Calderon was charged with bribery involving an insurance scam in Long Beach and influence peddling in Sacramento. The brothers' ties to the water district and millions of dollars in district contracts are still under investigation.

The district's relationship with Pacifica Services and Ernest Camacho, the company's owner, is part of that investigation. The politically connected Camacho contributed to the campaigns of current and past board members who later voted on construction contracts that went to Pacifica Services.

The district is suing the company for upwards of $5 million.

California has no end of "clean government" commissions and legislative oversight committees. But no agency regularly evaluates the effectiveness of California's little governments or routinely audits their decisions for compliance with state law.

Oversight is supposed to be the job of conscientious voters, aided by open meeting laws and the requirement for transparency in the public's business.

If voters are the only watchdogs, then voters have done an awful job. The result is a perfectly squalid little government, sovereign of all the mess it's made.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles." He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times.
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