Bridgeport utility users in the dark regarding possible embezzlement
“You’re not doing yourselves any favors.” That comment, directed by Terry Padilla at the Bridgeport Public Utility District Board, echoed the sentiments of a group of users who packed the room Wednesday for the PUD’s regular meeting.
The remark came in light of public dissatisfaction with the way the Board has so far chosen to handle what could be an emerging embezzlement case.
Locals have reportedly been talking amongst themselves for the past 2-3 weeks about a former employee, hired by the Board, who worked in an administrative capacity. This employee may have embezzled an undisclosed amount of PUD funds over a period of several months, dating back to last year. The employee has since been terminated.
Board Chair Jan Huggans explained that the Board has been conducting its own internal investigation into possible misappropriation of funds. The PUD’s accountant, she added, is “going through things,” but that wasn’t enough for members of the public, who were critical of the small, three-member board taking on such a task.
Responding to requests for a letter or some type of formal communication as to what might have happened, Huggans acknowledged the Board needs better public relations. “Obviously we’re not on the right track with PR,” she said, adding the Board is consulting with legal counsel (newly hired) “as to what we can put out [to the public] until we resolve the situation.”
“You know the rumor mill, it’s hard not to jump to conclusions,” Sherry Sorensen pointed out. “You should get some help, save your reputation as a board and show you’re actively engaged.”
Padilla similarly suggested the Board turn over the matter to the authorities, particularly the Mono County Sheriff’s Department and the District Attorney’s office, to avoid any public perception of sweeping things under the rug, a notion which the Board vigorously denied.
Huggans said the Board still needs time to assess for itself what’s happened, if anything, and has a responsibility to look into everything it can before going to the law. “Some things are not clear yet,” she said. “We’re taking our time, we need time. We’re lay people, trying to do a tough job, and we have tough decisions to make.”
All the more important to bring in the proper authorities, many in the room agreed. “You don’t need to take all this on by yourselves,” Sorensen advised.
“You can bring in someone [i.e. from the District Attorney’s office] for free,” Padilla recommended, referencing the recent arrest and charging of a person in conjunction with another embezzlement case that occurred at a branch of the Eastern Sierra Community Bank, also located in Bridgeport.
Huggans said not taking a previously suggested meeting with the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t mean the Board is somehow averse to contacting the authorities, but is looking to counsel for advice as to its legal options.
“We also want to consider how much it might cost users if it goes to trial,” Huggans noted. “We’re trying to protect users from any undue attorney’s fees and other costs.”
The Board was quick to agree that it is woefully undermanned, with 2 vacant seats, even though it is legally allowed to operate with 3 members. Board member Hank Cole issued a call to the public for volunteers to fill the two empty seats, adding that the Board would be open to adjusting its meeting times to accommodate potential new members.
The Board said it has set an April 15 deadline for its own investigation, and would issue a statement shortly thereafter with any details and information that can be made public at that point.
The Board also discussed Community Development Block Grant options to close a 20% funding gap needed for a new arsenic treatment plant that the state is requiring. “We’re looking good for an 80% grant,” Huggans said, “but we realize users can’t pay any more.”
One missed grant opportunity involved a simple errant filing of the wrong type of grant application.
The PUD needs $400,000 to meet the fully-funded mark for the new plant. At that point, a public hearing might be called to consider a possible rate increase that might be needed to offset operational costs, but Huggans said a hike isn’t a certainty.