Audience members at a Novato Sanitary District board meeting in July protest a plan to privatize management of a new $90 million wastewater treatment
Audience members at a Novato Sanitary District board meeting in July protest a plan to privatize management of a new $90 million wastewater treatment plant, which recently was approved by the board. (IJ archive/Robert Tong)
Until this year, the five board members of the Novato Sanitary District had rarely seen the spotlight. The board's quiet, twice-monthly Monday afternoon meetings drew nary a crowd.

"We were the loneliest people in town," said Jim Fritz, a two-term board member.

But a turbulent 2009, capped by a Nov. 3 election that serves as a referendum on the majority of its board of directors, has changed all that.

In the past year, the district has coped with the electronic theft of $500,000, a surprise federal raid for alleged environmental violations, the controversial privatization of its new $90 million wastewater treatment plant and the accidental electrocution of a subcontracted construction worker.

The board's once docile meetings - moved to the evenings to accommodate more people - have become shout-fests, with current and former district employees saying management should be fired and the board must be replaced. Novato police have attended several meetings as the board sought to prevent confrontations from escalating.

"This certainly has been unusual," Fritz said.

And now seven candidates, including three incumbents and four challengers, are vying for three seats on the five-member board that oversees the district.

Board President Mike Di Giorgio is seeking re-election, as are 83-year-old Art Knutson, a retired geotechnical engineer who has served on the board for 25 years; and 72-year-old, three-term incumbent Bill Long.


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They are being challenged by former 13-year board member Sam Renati and a slate of three first-time Novato Sanitary District candidates: former district employee Dennis Welsh; labor-management consultant Bill Scott; and former Novato City Councilman Dennis Fishwick.

The election is littered with contentious issues, not the least of which is the board's decision in July to privatize operations of its new wastewater treatment plant. The board has said the decision to outsource will save ratepayers $7.2 million over what it would cost to run the new plant with current employees and the consultants it said would be needed to make the transition.

The challengers reject that claim and say the board is simply handing over the reins to a private company on the heels of a tumultuous year.

"They've gotten a little wild with all this negative publicity and they've got to get back on track," said the 73-year-old Renati, a semi-retired property manager who spent 40 years in the construction industry.

"It's been one thing after another," said the 60-year-old Welsh, who retired in July 2006 after 23 years at the district and has become a vocal board critic. "This board needs to go."

Welsh is running on a ticket with Scott, the 61-year-old head of the Marin Building Trades Council, and the 63-year-old Fishwick, who has lambasted the board on environmental grounds.

"As a board, they don't feel that they are competent in managing the district," Fishwick said of the decision to outsource the new plant to Veolia Water, a company headquartered in France. "They've been a financial and environmental disaster, and now they're holding up their hands and saying they can't do it. The team I'm running with is saying, 'Yes, we can do it.'"

Di Giorgio challenged that claim, saying the decision to privatize was financial. "The district ought to be run like a business, and we should keep the ratepayers in mind more than anything else," he said. "If the ratepayers want to save money, they should stay with the people that are going with the contract."

His fellow incumbents agree, saying that outsourcing the new high-tech treatment plant was the right thing to do.

"We've got to keep the plant running as well as it can be, and privatizing is the way to do that," said Knutson, who was hospitalized recently after suffering a stroke, but said his health is improving.

The opponents of outsourcing are eyeing the referendum process, hoping to gather enough signatures to get the privatization decision placed on a ballot next year. Welsh said his group must gather about 2,300 signatures, or 10 percent of the district's total voters, by Oct. 21 to get a referendum on a 2010 ballot.

Renati resides between the incumbents and the opposition slate on the issue, saying the board's decision can't be undone without a penalty and the best strategy is to closely monitor Veolia's performance. The district plans to set up an oversight committee to do just that.

"You have to have people on the board who will keep Veolia's feet to the fire," Renati said.

Another issue that has dominated debate so far remains unresolved. In May, federal agents with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's criminal investigation unit raided Novato Sanitary's offices, confiscating boxes of paper printouts and copying the hard drives of numerous computers. The agency has yet to reveal the findings of its criminal investigation, which stems from environmental violations that occurred in 2006 and 2007.

The district and its board have insisted that they know little about the investigation but have cooperated fully with it. The agency's affidavit to obtain the search warrant for the raid remains sealed and none of its findings have been revealed. Welsh and his slate allege that thousands of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage were dumped into the bay in 2007 and that district management attempted to cover it up.

"They've covered this up and that's criminal," he said. "They're going to get huge fines for this, and the management needs to be fired."

Di Giorgio, a former two-term Novato councilman, said his opponents' allegations are premature. "They somehow seem to be a lot more aware of what went on than we are," he said. "We have long held that if there had been something done that was wrong or illegal, the board would like to know what that is and we'll deal with it."

In April, the district received a report from Luthy Consulting that found that while there was some discharge into the bay from the facility in both March and October 2007, the calculation of the amount spilled was undetermined and allegations of a cover-up were unproven.

Regardless of the outcome of the federal investigation, Long said that the high stakes of fines for environmental violations support the idea of putting the new plant in the hands of an international company with the experience of running such operations.

"The penalties for messing up in this business are huge," he said. "There are a lot of agencies around the country that have gone with contractors because they are thought to be more reliable and better informed on the technology of the wastewater treatment. We did the right thing."


Read more Election stories at the IJ's Election section.

Contact Jim Welte via e-mail at jwelte@marinij.com