What job would pay $1,100 per hour? At more than $2 million in annualized pay, one would think it would require a high level of skill, education and experience. One might think a ballplayer, surgeon or top tech talent would fill the bill.
One would be wrong. To make $1,100 per hour all one needs to be is a part-time politician.
That’s right. As reported last fall, one San Mateo County harbor commissioner in 2012 received pay and benefits working out to $1,100 per hour for attending commission meetings.
Of course, attending meetings actually required some work. A former harbor commissioner received $18,348 in benefits, and she’s dead. Lifetime benefits for commissioners require payment to her son, who is on her health insurance policy until he is 26.
The San Mateo County Harbor Commission is one of the more egregious examples of special district dysfunction. As reported in this newspaper, the Harbor Commission has devolved into a morass of personal recriminations, finger-pointing, dueling harassment complaints and public outrage. Things have gotten so bad that armed sheriff’s deputies must attend their meetings.
In just one example of district dysfunction, the newly hired finance director found almost $38,000 in uncashed tenant checks in the desk drawer of an employee. Due to the mismanagement, some tenants were wrongly charged with being in arrears while others weren’t billed for their berth fees at all. The district is one of 24 independent special districts in the county. These exist to provide such services as sewer, water and fire protection, as well as health care, vector control and more. They have their own elected board members and employees.
Because they are small and provide obscure services (vector control?), the districts avoid scrutiny and board members are re-elected with little or no opposition. Yet they collectively spend a large amount of tax dollars, many times in outrageous and incompetent ways.
Overseen by the Local Agency Formation Commission, they are to have a service review every five years. Yet, the San Mateo County LAFCo has just one full-time employee and, as the civil grand jury points out, it is behind on timely reviews and those it does perform can be perfunctory at best.
As a result, the civil grand jury has stepped in to investigate mismanagement, incompetence, malfeasance and other issues in special districts across the county. In the last two years, the civil grand jury issued investigative reports on five separate special districts.
Reportedly in the middle of a Harbor Commission investigation, the civil grand jury has already investigated the commission twice since 2000. The Los Trancos County Water District was investigated five years ago for continuing to exist, but no longer providing water to customers. Moreover, the Sequoia Healthcare District has been investigated five times since 2000.
The Sequoia Healthcare District has a history of questionable expenditure of the tax payments extracted from homeowners. Recently, the district gave its CEO a raise, increasing his salary to $192,800 retroactive to April of last year. The CEO supervises one full-time employee.
The SHD has spent more than $11 million on a nursing program at Cañada College in conjunction with San Francisco State University, which made the district’s taxpayers the largest single donor to San Francisco State last year, according to the San Francisco Business Times. Yet, there are no requirements that students live in the district or that graduates work there.
The SHD can only point to 50 graduates employed in the county, let alone in the district. That means district taxpayers have shelled out $220,000 per the locally employed, with no guarantee that any actually provide services to those who paid for the program.
In another case, the civil grand jury found that the San Mateo County Mosquito and Vector Control District so incompetently run that it did no background checks on potential employees. The result was hiring a finance director convicted of previous embezzlement. Management granted her family and medical leave while she was in fact serving prison time for embezzlement charges.
It comes as no surprise that she and an accomplice embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from district taxpayers before being caught.
Special districts play an important role in our county, many times delivering vital services. However, their small size should not let them escape oversight and public scrutiny. It’s up to voters to pay attention. Otherwise, part-time politicians will continue to earn $1,100 per hour and convicted embezzlers will be hired to oversee your tax dollars.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.