Is DSRSD deaf, dumb, and blind? | The Observer | Roz Rogoff | |

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By Roz Rogoff

Is DSRSD deaf, dumb, and blind?

Uploaded: Dec 12, 2011

I received an email from Jimmy Huang that the Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) will be voting to "limit free speech" at a meeting of the Finance Committee on December 12th. Huang and John Zukoski write the Around Dublin blog. Zukoski wrote a story on the meeting including creative photos of three DSRSD Directors.

Board Present, Pat Howard, is shown with headphones on (hear no evil). Rich Halket, Vice President, is shown with a gag over his mouth (speak no evil), and Director, Georgean Vonheeter-Leopold is shown with darkened sun glasses (see no evil).

Pat Howard sees evil in Around Dublin and called John Zukoski a liar on the Around Dublin Facebook page. Howard demanded an apology to Staff for calling them "pigs." That story, actually written by Jimmy Huang, featured a photo of pigs at a trough with the headline "Dublin Water Agency to Pay Top Brass Over Quarter Million in Bonuses Through Rate Increases."

On the one hand it's valuable that the Around Dublin blog reports on what is happening at DSRSD, which most residents do not pay any attention to (more on that below), but by sensationalizing the Board's decisions with hostile imagery and name calling Huang and Zukoski incite hostility instead of explaining how the District works in order to improve it.

I lost my bid for DSRSD last year, but the District has implemented or is considering several of my suggestions. I campaigned on subsidizing water rates for low income residents, which was passed last year. I asked about videotaping Board meetings, which will be discussed at a meeting on December 14th. I also asked for the meeting packages to be put online. In August 2011, the District started posting complete meeting packages on DSRSD's website.

In addition to regular Board meetings, subcommittee meeting packages are also online now. That's where Jimmy Huang saw what he called a threat to Free Speech in the Finance Committee's item on protesting fee increases.

"The Board welcomes input from the community at any time, including during the public hearing on the proposed charges, but only written protests will be counted as formal protests.

A valid written protest must identify the affected property by assessor's parcel number or by street address, including the original signature of the record property owner or tenant-customer, and may not be altered by anyone other than the signatory."

These rules appear to stifle public input on proposed rate increases. Maybe so, but public input isn't the same as a legal "Protest" according to Proposition 218.

Here's what Proposition 218 requires the District to do before it can increase water and/or sewer fees:

* Identify the parcels upon which a fee or charge is proposed for imposition.
* Calculate the amount of the fee proposed to be imposed on each parcel.
* Provide written notice by mail to the "record owner of each identified parcel."
* Conduct a public hearing on the proposed fee not less than 45 days after the mailing.
* Consider "all protests against the proposed fee or charge."
* If written protests against the fee are presented by a "majority of owners of the identified parcels," the fee cannot be imposed.

According to these rules, formal protests are like votes against the increase. There's also some ambiguity about whether a "record owner" is the landlord or a tenant. In the unlikely event that the District received protest letters from the majority of "record owners," the number of valid protests must be accurately counted. So the Finance Committee is preparing a procedure to keep track of all "valid protests." Here's the proposed procedure on Item 3-D:

The Secretary of the District shall determine the validity of all written protests. The Secretary shall not accept as valid any written protest if the Secretary determines that any of the following conditions exist:
o The protest does not properly identify by assessor's parcel number or by street address a property served by the District.
o The protest does not bear the original signature of the record owner or tenant-customer of the parcel identified on the protest.
O The protest does not clearly state its intent to be a protest to the proposed charges or does not apply to a specific charge.
o The protest was not received before the close of the public hearing on the proposed charges.
O A request to withdraw the protest is received prior to the close of the public hearing on the proposed charges.

While this process makes it more difficult to submit a protest, it doesn't stifle free speech or objections to the fee increase. Instead it puts the responsibility for "voting" against it with a "valid protest letter," on the property owner or tenant.

The Finance Committee cannot approve this policy at their meeting on December 12th. After the Committee approves the item, the package will go to the full Board of Directors to vote on the Resolution at their next agendized meeting.

In a related meeting on December 14th, the External Affairs Committee will consider providing video or audio of Board meetings. You might wonder how this is related, but most residents in the District, whether property owners or renters, are fairly oblivious to DSRSD and their water and sewer rates.

The District surveyed 52 customers in person at Farmer's Markets and 23 filled out web surveys. Here are the results of this very small sample. Fifty-four percent of both groups said they would NEVER watch a video of a board meeting. Forty-six percent of the in-person group said they would watch a few times a year. The web group split in half again with 26% saying they would watch a few times and 26% saying they would watch all the time (I know these numbers don't add up but that's what is in the report).

Most replies from both groups said the minutes are sufficient and it isn't worth spending the money ($100,000) to upgrade the Boardroom for audio and video and pay to have meetings taped and broadcast.

The minutes were not very helpful until the District put the meeting packages online, but now there's something to relate the minutes to.