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Board members ousted amid probes of Central Basin Water District

June 6, 2012 |  4:09 pm

Two incumbents were ousted from their seats on the board at the Central Basin Municipal Water District on Tuesday after a year of scrutiny over agency practices.

Directors Rudy Montalvo and Ed Vasquez lost by large margins in an election that was dominated by allegations of misconduct at the district, which serves more than 2 million residents in southeast Los Angeles County.

“This speaks volumes about the perception of the public,” said James Roybal, who defeated Vasquez.

The district attorney’s office is probing Central Basin’s reimbursements of travel expenses as well as the campaign finances of one board member, Art Chacon. State officials are auditing the agency as part of a review of rates at several local water districts.

Last year, The Times found that millions of dollars in Central Basin contracts had been awarded to politically connected recipients. The newspaper also reported on an unusual public relations campaign at Central Basin, in which an outside consultant received a contract worth more than $170,000 to produce positive Internet articles about the agency “written in the image of real news.” After the program was revealed, the district halted it.

Central Basin officials have denied wrongdoing in any of the cases. A third board member, Phillip Hawkins, survived a challenge by former state legislator Tony Mendoza, winning by about four percentage points. In public appearances, Hawkins had strongly defended the district and said the accusations of corruption were unfounded.

Controversies involving Central Basin also spilled into an Assembly race.

One of the water district’s top consultants, Tom Calderon, fell Tuesday in a primary contest for the 58th District of the state Assembly. Calderon’s role at Central Basin was highlighted by his opponents in the campaign.

In a brief phone interview Wednesday, Calderon called The Times's coverage “libelous” and said it was the main reason he lost in the primary. Calderon took issue specifically with a recent Times story about criticism Central Basin received over its recommendation to award a $1-million federal stimulus contract to Water2Save, another company where he holds a consulting contract.

“I’m getting a lawyer and I’m going to sue you, and you can print that,” Calderon said before hanging up.

Calderon suffered a narrow defeat, falling to third place behind Democrat Cristina Garcia and Republican Patricia Kotze-Ramos. Those two will face off in November.

Garcia, who was a co-founder of BASTA, a civic group that formed in response to the salary scandal in the Bell, said she’s concerned about how Central Basin spends public money.

Leticia Vasquez, the challenger who beat incumbent Montalvo by nearly 30 percentage points, voiced similar concerns about the water district.

“There needs to be some change there, and I believe that I can be a part of that,” said Vasquez, a political science professor from Lynwood. “For too many years, people haven’t known enough about what these water agencies do with taxpayer money.”

Roybal is a high school teacher who served on the board of a Pico Rivera water district that buys water from Central Basin.

He said his top priority was to increase transparency at Central Basin and stop its ongoing legal battles with other water agencies, namely the Lakewood-based Water Replenishment District. The two districts have been locked in a turf war over groundwater management in recent years, which has led to increased legal costs.

Last month, Central Basin filed an unusual libel lawsuit against the authors of an anonymous email that was critical of the district’s leaders.

“The word is litigious,” Roybal said. “Central Basin is too quick to call up the law firm and take things to a level they just don’t need to be at…. We need to get back to basics and making sure these districts work together smoothly.”

Donald Waldie, an author who has written about Southern California politics, said that in the last two decades local water districts have become “safe landing spots” for politicians and that few voters or news media monitored their operations. But the attention paid to Central Basin in recent months had an effect on Tuesday’s race, he said.

“The bad behavior of the Central Basin, which parallels the bad behavior in other similar districts, was finally noticeable enough to have an effect with the electorate,” he said.

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-- Sam Allen and Hector Becerra

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