A utility that serves portions of Eastvale and Jurupa Valley is in the process of improving policies and practices Friday to strengthen accountability and safeguard rate-payers’ funds, largely in response to a state audit that uncovered discrepancies, according to officials.
“Our future is certainly much brighter, but there is still so much more to do,” said West Valley Water District Board of Directors President Channing Hawkins. “The report (issued by the California State Controller’s Office) represents a very dark time for the water district, but I’ve heard our community loud and clear, and that is why we’re making significant improvements.
“From day one, since being sworn in December 2019, the West Valley Water District has taken swift and decisive action to increase accountability and transparency for our rate-payers,” he said.
According to the Rialto-based WVWD, six months ago, the agency retained the services of Los Angeles-based law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore and Sacramento-based Special District Leadership Foundation to conduct assessments of the district’s operations, netting improvements in transparency and governance.
“Our water district has seen its turning point to ensuring financial responsibility and accountability,” said Chief Financial Officer Rickey Manbahal. “We are taking all the necessary steps to ensure rate-payer funds are invested responsibly. As directed by the board, I will hold our board, management and staff accountable for their actions because it’s what our rate-payers deserve.”
Some of the changes that have been implemented include a temporary hiring freeze, retention of a “risk manager” to scrutinize promotions and salary modifications, a tighter rein on travel and requirements for extensive documentation of expenses for which board members and other staff request reimbursements.
There has also been a new ethics training program put in place, and an outside public accounting firm is producing a set of guidelines to bolster internal controls on spending, according to the WVWD.
According to findings released Thursday by State Controller Betty Yee, the WVWD, which serves about 80,000 customers over 30 square miles, was the subject of a detailed review that probed the utility’s accounts between fiscal years 2015-16 and 2018-19.
The investigation revealed West Valley had “entered into millions of dollars in financial, legal and consulting contracts” without seeking competitive bids.
The controller also alleged members of the utility’s Board of Directors had overspent on travel and lodging. In one instance, $1,897 was expended on an election party for three board members, and auditors also discovered $4,563 was reimbursed to a single board member for unspecified travel expenses, officials said.
There were cases in which board members were paid while attending meetings that may not have been directly related to agency business, including a get-together at a farmers’ market, according to the controller’s office.
Officials also questioned hiring decisions and promotions, with little or no documentation regarding why unnamed parties were added to the payrolls or sent up the career ladder within the utility.
According to Yee, of 48 federally recognized components and principles intended to ensure “effective internal control systems” for the benefit of rate-payers, West Valley showed only 27 were in use and functioning.
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