RICHMOND -- Three candidates are running for two seats on the West County Wastewater District board in the midst of contentious negotiations between the agency and its 50 union employees.

West County Wastewater provides wastewater collection and treatment for San Pablo, parts of Richmond and Pinole, El Sobrante, Rollingwood, North Richmond, East Richmond Heights, Montalvin Manor and Tara Hills.

Talks between the union and the bargaining team, which includes the five-member board, were at an impasse as of Oct. 1, according to Scott Brown, supervising business agent for Public Employees Union, Local 1.

Contracts for management and nonmanagement union employees expired June 30.

The major issue is the workers' pension system, said Fred Granzella, an incumbent who has served on the district board since 1985.

"We cannot go on with the increases we have to go through with the pension system," Granzella said. "If costs get too high, we have to have some participation from our members."

Granzella said he takes pride in the district's finances and performance. It has retired all of its construction bonds and has money in the bank to do an upgrade to its approximately 250 miles of sewer lines.

It's been more than 11 years since the district had a sewage spill, he said.

The district is environmentally friendly in other ways, he said. Its treatment plant in North Richmond is powered by an array of solar panels.

Despite his 37 years of service, Granzella is not the senior member of the board. Leonard Battaglia, whose term ends in 2014, has served since 1975.

"We have an excellent plan for today and the future as far as finances are concerned and where we spend our money," Granzella said. "We have funds in the bank to complete our (sewer line) construction program."

Granzella said he's also proud of the district's low rates, although they are subsidized by a $304-per-parcel property-tax increment.

Fellow incumbent Michael Caine is completing his first full term. He was elected in 2008 after being appointed to fill a vacancy on the board in 2006.

Caine agreed with Granzella that the district's biggest challenge is keeping up with employee pension and retiree health care benefits.

"Historically, we've had a good relationship with our unions," Caine said. "These are the most contentious labor negotiations the district has had in many years."

Caine would also like to help the district's planned infrastructure upgrade.

"We're going to be taking a look at the sewer pipes we maintain, making them bigger and looking at bottlenecks," he said.

Caine cited his background in finance, having been a sales controller for Constellation Brands, the largest premium wine producer in the world, where he managed a $20 million budget for his region.

"I'm used to working with some pretty large numbers," he said.

Challenger Sharon Thygesen, a 30-year El Sobrante resident, said she would bring an open mind and clean slate to the board if elected.

She said she got the urge to become more involved in local politics after joining the El Sobrante Municipal Advisory Council.

"I really don't have any preconceived notions (about the board)," she said.

"I want to get more involved in my community."

Thygesen said she manages a $9 million budget in her job as an information technology manager for a local government agency, which she declined to identify.

If elected, she would become the district's only female trustee.

West County Wastewater board members are on the high end of compensation for special districts in 2010, according to a Contra Costa COunty Civil Grand Jury report.

Compensation that year totaled $93,934 for the five members, with $44,277 for health care, $18,823 for pensions and $18,220 in other costs.

Brown questioned the need for that much total compensation for what he said is a part-time job.

The union's field operations unit and plant operators have endorsed Caine, while the unionized administrative team decided not to make an endorsement, Brown said.

"Although we did not agree about some things, (Caine) was listening to (the workers') concerns," he said.

WASTEWATER BOARD CANDIDATES

Name: Fred Granzella
Age: 86
Occupation: Retired district engineer for Pacific Telephone
Civic background: First elected to the board in 1985; seeking sixth term
Personal background: Married with three adult children; El Sobrante resident
Education: Richmond High School

Name: Michael Caine
Age: 58
Occupation: Retail manager for AutoZone
Civic background: Appointed to the board in 2006 and elected in 2008
Personal background: Married with four children; El Sobrante resident
Education: B.A. in accounting from San Francisco State University

Name: Sharon Thygesen
Age: 51
Occupation: Information technology manager
Civic background: Challenger
Personal background: Single; no children; El Sobrante resident
Education: B.A., Saint Mary's College; M.B.A., Cal State Stanislaus