One of the most hotly contested races in the November election is that of the East Palo Alto Sanitary District Board of Directors. Six candidates are vying for three open seats, with some trying to shake dubious allegations of misconduct.
Incumbents Glenda Savage, Bethzabe “Betsy” Yanez and Goro Mitchell have filed for re-election, and are joined by newcomers Edrick Haggans, Matias Varela and Sani Wadunia.
One of the primary concerns raised by Menlo Park residents in the Willows neighborhood is the rising cost of draining wastewater, in light of the fact that the sewer district has a surplus in the budget.
The people who monitor that budget are unfamiliar to most voters, given the low profiles kept by board members as of late.
The pipes have not always been so quiet.
In 2002, members of the board of directors were accused of misappropriating district money for personal gain, such as using expense accounts to treat themselves to lavish trips and dinners. Two former board members were recorded discussing a murder-for-hire plot that targeted a fellow member that year.
Yanez confirmed that investigations into members of the board for such crimes had taken place, but she believes the board has purged itself of such negative influences.
"I can assure you that no one in the board is spending the taxpayers' money in personal expenses," she said. "Furthermore, the members that used to have this behavior are not with us anymore."
She called the recent relations between board members peaceful and effective, due to mutual respect.
Yanez, who identifies herself as a community volunteer and business owner on her candidate statement, believes in keeping rates low, ensuring sewer pipes are in good condition, utilizing technology to maintain pipes and providing the best service possible to residents.
Yanez was the board's president last year, also sitting on the board for the YMCA, the Chamber of Commerce and the organization One East Palo Alto. She said during her tenure on the EPA Sanitary board, the district turned in a different direction from the past indiscretions of some former members.
In general, the board is expected to establish the operating policies of the district, providing safe, efficient and cost-effective sanitary sewer services to portions of East Palo Alto and Menlo Park in the process.
Adhering to this goal was highlighted by most of the candidates as important, although not each one was willing to discuss rates in the context of the district's budget.
Incumbent Mitchell, 44, is an urban planning specialist who has served on the city's planning commission. He was also appointed to the .
He said some of his greatest accomplishments during his time as a board member were saving $270,000 in infrastructure costs, reducing per-meeting stipend payments to the directors, and capping their travel expenses, which are paid by the city. He said the sanitary district has the best service and environmental record of all similar districts in the region.
Savage, who served for the last four years, says during her term, the board found innovative ways to raise money, which in turn has kept rates for residents low. She also said she helped oversee the district's financial stability, playing an instrumental role in stimulating the local economy by implementing a mandate that five percent of all the district's contracts go to small, local businesses.
Haggans, a retired marketing manager, said he has a cost-effective strategy to updating the older components of the district's system. He believes the district's rates are too high, and would like the opportunity to enhance efficiency and reliability of infrastructure while keeping costs low.
"My first task as director will be to reduce these excessive rates and eliminate waste," says Haggan's candidate statement.
Haggans, who has lived in East Palo Alto for 35 years, was elected to the board director in 2001 and served two consecutive terms.
Varela, a 30-year resident of East Palo Alto, hopes to be elected in order to bring customers the lowest rates possible.
A plumber by trade, Varela believes his work experience combined with extended residency in the city "will be invaluable when it comes time to consider rates and providing leadership for the future," says his candidate statement.
Wadunia is also a longtime resident of East Palo Alto, having lived in the city for 35 years. He believes he can bring the increased transparency to the board that is currently lacking. He said the district's budget is operating on a surplus, but rates continue to increase without justification.
He also claims that customers are not being properly noticed of rate increases, which is a violation of residents' rights.
According to a district report, the budget shows nearly a $5 million surplus. Customers pay about $485 annually.
Yanez said the increasing rates paired with the current surplus is part of an ongoing effort to raise money in order to pay for capital improvements to the system's previously outdated equipment. She said that once the construction project is complete, customers can expect improved service.
"After four years, the East Palo Alto Sanitary District is a modern district, able to face any unexpected situation," she said.
Yet Wadunia says more transparency is needed.
"Essential to this is total honestly as to how the rate payers' money is being spent at the East Palo Alto Sanitary District," he said, "Currently, that is not so clear."
Directors serve a four-year term. Election day is November 8.