District told to handle "perceptions" of nepotism

A long-awaited Kern County Grand Jury report on allegations of nepotism and unfair treatment of employees in disciplinary matters will be discussed at Tuesday night's 6 p.m. meeting of the West Kern Water District Board of Directors.
The meeting will be held in the board room at the district office located at 800 Kern St.
The jury also addressed the district's fiscal policies.
The jury report included three findings and three recommendations.
Findings include:
•The District financial reserve policy lacks quantitative standards regarding minimum or maximum levels of the reserves.
•Despite a District “anti-nepotism policy,” perceptions of nepotism exist among District employees and the community.
•District legal costs appear excessive when compared to comparable agencies.
The district is being sued by a former longtime employee stemming from his firing after he was involved in an accident in a district vehicle.
Recommendations include:
•The District should develop a written policy regarding the size of the reserves.
•The District should avoid perceived violations of the District “anti-nepotism policy,”
•The District should examine legal costs and explore options for obtaining legal counsel.
Based on interviews with current and former employees – including a former board member – allegations have included mishandling reserve funds, abusing the nepotism policy and employee disciplinary procedures.
Specifically, the charges focus on an employee whose wife is in the district administration.  The accusations included padding of overtime hours and other inappropriate activities.
The jury, however, sidestepped those issues.
“Resolution of personnel issues is beyond the purview of the Grand Jury; however, the (County Services and Special Districts) Committee urges both management and employees use the advent of a new General Manager to alter the tenor of the dialogue between the two sides,” the report said.
Much of the criticism that led to Grand Jury involvement appears to have stemmed from feuding with former General Manager Jerry Pearson, who retired last May.
Regarding the district's reserve funds, the Jury concluded they are adequate even though they have grown six-fold since 2000.
The report also criticized the district for what it perceived to be excessive spending on legal counsel, noting that legal costs have averaged $8,000 a month for general counsel and $3,365 a month for special counsel.
The district has 60 days to file a formal response to the report, but new General Manager Harry O. Starkey and the board are expected to address the report publicly tonight.  It is on the agenda under administration committee summary report.
The Grand Jury sent the report to the district for review more than a month ago, unlike the way it handled an alleged violation of the state's open meetings law by the Taft City Council.
In that case, the Jury published the report on its website before city officials had an opportunity to see it, touching off an angry response from the three councilmen accused of violating the Brown Act.