Pleasanton Weekly

Column - January 10, 2014

Excellence rating for a model agency

by Jeb Bing

I spent several hours last week reviewing the Transparency Certificate requirements of the Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) at the request of the agency's District Secretary, Nancy Gamble Hatfield. The 100-plus page binder provided a detailed look at all aspects of the agency's work, including financial reporting, operations, community outreach and the way its staff and board of directors conduct public meetings. The binder and its contents contain what's necessary for another Certificate of Excellence for the water and wastewater agency.

The district's operating budget for fiscal 2013 is $50.5 million, a hefty sum involving services in the Tri-Valley. Its certificate of excellence checklist which I reviewed shows DSRSD to be a model of transparency and government conduct. If all elected officials and the agencies they represent were so open about their operations and work, taxpayers would feel better about how their money is being spent.

I was particularly impressed with the agency's emphasis on public meetings and the guidelines it follows in scheduling, noticing and conducting them. Adhering to the Open Meeting Law and California Government Code, DSRSD makes sure advanced notices are sent to all interested parties, including the media, of public meetings, with a report in advance about the business to be discussed. Agendas of the meetings are posted in advance at public places as well. All meetings last year were conducted in open session, except for a few that dealt with personnel issues, and speakers were allowed 5 minutes to make presentations, which is more generous than local school board and City Council meetings where speakers are often limited to three minutes. At a recent Pleasanton school board meeting, only one minute was allowed.

In fact, before delving into financial, employee compensation and regulatory issues, the Transparency Certificate document focuses for half a dozen pages on the Brown Act, a government code that requires governing boards of local agencies to hold their meetings and take action in public except under specified limited circumstances. The law, named for Ralph M. Brown, a state Assemblyman, was adopted in California in 1953 to guarantee the public's right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. Originally a 686 word statute, it has grown substantially over the years, and DSRSD's board embraces it wholeheartedly, even requiring special training programs for key employees and newly-elected board members.

A highlighted part of the agency's Transparency Certificate report is the Brown Act's admonition that meeting agendas or any other writing, except for records specifically exempt from disclosure, are disclosable to the public upon request "and shall be made available without delay." The DSRSD says this includes all materials distributed to staff and board members at a public meeting, material that often in other government meetings sometimes gets hidden or withheld. At DSRSD meetings, anyone providing materials to the board must also make sure there are ample copies for the media and general public attending.

To avoid conflicts of interest at the DSRSD, an agency that deals with many outside contractors, members of the board must also disclose if they or someone in their family has a connection with the contractor. Again, as Lynda Cassady of the state's Fair Political Practices Commission told the agency, failure to make that connection known "could lead to possible violations, a result that both of us want to avoid."

Also in its showcase binder seeking an excellence certificate is the agency's mission statement: "Our mission is to provide reliable water and wastewater services to the communities we serve in a safe, efficient and environmentally responsible manner." Even more responsible, from the material I reviewed, is DSRSD's focus on transparency and best business practices.

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