April 27, 2001

Otay Water Board Caught In A Rip Tide

By Yvette tenBerge

Ex-president of the Otay Water District, Jaime Bonilla, won his election campaign in November 2000 by sticking to a simple message: "Lower the Rates... Stop the Waste!" Judging by the events that occurred at the Wednesday, April 18th water board meeting, however, it seems that fellow board members felt the need to rush in and repair the damage caused by Mr. Bonilla's leaky, 4½-month rein.

Members of the Board of Directors for the Otay Water District sent shock waves through the standing room only meeting last week by adding four, unexpected items to the agenda just moments before the meeting was scheduled to begin. By the time the meeting was adjourned, Mr. Bonilla had been unanimously bumped from his seat as president, and he was replaced by the district's now ex-treasurer, Tony Inocentes.

These two board members were not the only people who would play musical chairs that afternoon. Mateo Camarillo, who was brought in by Mr. Bonilla to serve as the acting general manager, was terminated. He was replaced by Jim Gunstinson, a long-time employee of the district, who served as the Chief of Operations and Engineering prior to last week's meeting. Ex-Director Jose Lopez was elected vice-president of the Board, and Fred Cardenas moved in to become the Board's treasurer. The Board voted to terminate the services of the law firm Burke, Williams and Sorenson, a firm that was retained for the district by Mr. Bonilla. Directions were given to have an outside firm audit their billings, which had reached an access of $120,000 since January.

Although Mr. Bonilla appeared to have been taken by complete surprise by these additions to the agenda, his votes helped to pass the above decisions unanimously. According to Mr. Inocentes, Mr. Bonilla's voting reaction might have had more to do with "saving face" then anything else, and he believes that the Board had no choice but to come in and put their foot down.

Included among the issues that led to Wednesday's wipe-out was Mr. Bonilla's previous submission of an agenda package that dealt with reorganization. Part of this package included the deletion of what Mr. Inocentes describes as "two highly specialized and important positions." Unbeknown to the other board members, the district's procurement manager and security and safety manager had already been put on a leave of absence.

"One of these employees had been with the district for 14 years and the other had been with the district for nine years. [During Mr. Bonilla's presidency] we also had over 10 high-level, experienced people let go. Most of the time these employees were dismissed and board members did not find out until after the actions were taken. In addition to this, many high level positions went to people who were closely associated with Bonilla," says Mr. Inocentes, who also states that the board's director received numerous complaints from personnel about the incompetence of these newly hired employees. "[What Mr. Bonilla was doing] is something totally unheard of for this district. This was not even about promoting people. He brought completely new people into the district."

Since January when the new majority was sworn in, Mr. Bonilla is said to have lead the district on a "lightening path of reorganization." Over 10 high-level positions were handed to people closely associated with him, including the ex-Acting General Manager, Mateo Camarillo. Mr. Camarillo was one of the founders of Chula Vista's KURS 1040 AM radio station, a company of which Mr. Bonilla once assumed control. Mr. Camarillo was hired in February to occupy the newly created position of Chief of Administration and Finance, a position from which he was slated to earn in excess of $100,000 a year. Just two weeks ago, though, he was appointed as acting general manager when the former general manager, Bob Griego, resigned to prepare himself for next year's run for Chula Vista City Council.

Mr. Inocentes explains the Board's decision to temporarily replace Mr. Camarillo with Jim Gunstinson as a move that they hope will soothe the frayed nerves of district employees. "Jim [Gunstinson] has been with the district for over 29 years. He is one of the most trusted and respected employees here, and we hope that he will act as a stabilizing force from the top of the district." Mr. Gunstinson began his career with the district as a landscaper and worked his way up. According to Mr. Inocentes, his first instruction to Mr. Gunstinson was to bring back the district's procurement manager and security and safety manager, the two employees who had been placed on administrative leave.

"One of these employees walked up to me and said, `Thank you Mr. Inocentes, I get to keep my house.' We would hope that [Mr. Bonilla] has gained something from this experience. We hope that he has learned that you have to work with your board, you can't leave them in the dark. You need to at least have the support of the majority at all times," says Mr. Inocentes. "The Otay Water District is one of the premiere water agencies in the state of California, and the board members who took this action want to retain that position."

From the looks of the tidal wave that just hit the Otay Water District, Board members will have a lot of cleaning up to do to before regaining their previous status.

The next Otay Water Board meeting has been scheduled for May 2, 2001.

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