By Yvette tenBerge
Over the past month, most San Diegans have either read or heard about reports that the Otay Water Board has been sinking quickly. Despite the fact that accusations have been hurled between board members, it appears that the majority of the blame has been loaded onto the shoulders of Otay Water Board President, Jaime Bonilla. We at La Prensa felt that our readers should be given the opportunity to hear Mr. Bonilla's side of the story ...
La Prensa: You have been targeted as the bad guy this past month. Can you explain to our readers why you decided to run for the Otay Water Board in the first place?
Jaime Bonilla: "It was a combination of things, not only one reason. I have lived in the community [of Chula Vista] since late 1977 or early 1978, so it has been a quarter of a century now. I started my business here, and I have a lot of things to be thankful for. My businesses have flourished. I started with one radio station, and I now I have ten. I felt that it was time to give back to the community. I also wanted to give an example to my three daughters Alma Isabel, Lizeth and Patricia, and my son Jaime Alberto."
LP: Many people have wondered why you spent such a large amount of your own money on your election campaign. How much money did you spend, and why did you spend it?
JB: "I never lied about the money that I spent. Many politicians disguise the money that they spend on their campaigns, but I made a point never to do that. I ended up spending about $90,000 of my own money. First of all, we did not run just a single campaign. Even though I was well-known within the business community, rate payers really did not know who I was. Basically, the rate payer in my division did not know who I was because I have always been a private business person. So, I hired a political consultant and I asked him to put together a budget that would accomplish three things: I wanted a political campaign, a community relations campaign and a public relations campaign. I also went out and I contracted with newspapers, which a lot of people would not have done. Print is expensive, as you know. So that is what I did, and even though the budget was originally less than $90,000, once I was in, I was in. I was running against the incumbent, Susan Price, and Chula Vista is notorious for re-electing people."
LP: Why was it important for the current board to be sworn in early? Why did your board find it necessary to break the natural timeline and get sworn in on December 1st? By doing this, the public perceives that you intentionally created an environment of chaos in the district from day one.
JB: "We had a council opinion that, according to the water code, we should have taken office on December 1st. So even though we did not actually take office on that date, we were sworn in. We just wanted to be on the safe side, and to be sure that were sworn in at the proper time. The usual practice is that you are sworn in at the same time that you take office. The reason we did this differently is that there were some illegal contracts given [by the previous board] to some of the employees called golden parachutes. Golden parachutes give someone a really good package before they leave. I did not agree with those contracts, and I did not want the old board to ratify them. So, all we did was get sworn in and make a public statement that we did not agree with those contracts. In the end, the four employees got the contracts anyway."
LP: It has only been five months since you have been in office and the place is in turmoil. It had to come from somewhere. Can you give us your take on the situation?
JB: "This will happen when you have directors with personal agendas, and directors who are trying to live off of the district. We have directors who use the district as their place of employment. They try to squeeze in every perdiem they can and go to every meeting they possibly can. Tony [Inocentes] would come in for meetings and would want to get paid. The problem with Tony and Fred [Cardenas] is that they do not have jobs. Fred claims to be a consultant for an Los Angeles company, which is not a full-time job. Tony has not held a job for the past six years. When you start squeezing [Tony and Fred] and stop allowing them to do this, they get mad. This battle [between Otay board members] is not going to be won politically, it is going to be won legally. This is why even though I do not like what [the media] prints, sooner or later the truth will come out. Mr. Inocentes has abused company vehicle usage. He had a company vehicle for over a month, and he would not return it. He does not own a credit card, he does not have a checking account. He deals directly with cash. You tell me how much confidence you are going to put in a person like that? Fred does not even live in the district. You tell me how much interest he will have in this community? Bringing business into the company he consults for is his interest."
LP: How much are board members paid for their work?
JB: "We do not get paid to be board members, but we do get perdiems of $145 for each meeting that we attend. I have made a point of collecting these perdiems and donating them to a foundation that I have set up. I have also included my rebate money. The foundation is called the Jaime Bonilla Family Foundation and we provide scholarships, donate to the Cancer Society and donate to help with Parkinsons disease. Obviously, not only this money goes into the foundation. My company contributes about 99% of the money that is in the foundation."
LP: Why has so much hiring and firing occurred since you took office? To the public, it appears that board members became way too involved with the hands-on operations of the water board. Why such a big shake up?
JB: "The general manager is responsible for running the district, not the board members. We set policy as directors, and that is all that we do. One of the biggest mistakes that I made was to set up committees. Fred Cardenas came to us and said that we needed to have committees set up that would support the general manager. Little did I know that he wanted to micro-manage the district. By setting up these committees, he was undermining the general manager. Bob Griego [the current general manager] can confirm what I am saying. This will not happen, not while I am president. You have a former general manager [Fred Cardenas] as a director who thinks that he is the general manager, and I will take on Fred anytime on these issues. Fred was the general manager for eight months, and within that time, he almost completely destroyed the district. Jose Lopez and I were new, and I barely knew the personnel who either left or who were fired. Fred and Tony are the ones who had this vendetta against people. Fred is a person who is driven by hate and I believe he had a black list of people who he wanted to have fired. He always talked to us one-on-one about employees who where "bad," or who were "not doing a good job."
LP: Why was Bob Griego allowed to leave the Otay Water Board only to be rehired as a consultant? Why was he rehired at such a high salary? The impression the public has received is that Mr. Griego was given a year's salary that would enable him to run for Chula Vista City Council.
JB: "The salary that Bob Griego now receives is the same salary that he had as general manger. He was getting $115,000, plus a car and benefits before. Bob Griego had a contract with the district which provided him with an 18-month severance pay. We did not give anything extra to him when we put him on as a consultant. He had an opinion from his personal attorney who told him that [being an employee of the water board and planning to run for Chula Vista City Council] appeared to be a conflict of interest. Bob worried about the perception of what he was doing more than its legality, which is why he agreed to serve as general manager on a consulting basis. As a consultant, he does not make decisions on a daily basis. When you look at the contract that Bob got, the contract was for one year and the severance package he would have gotten was for 18 months. If we would have gotten ridden of him or fired him, we would have had to pay him for six more months."
LP: Why did you hire Mateo Camarillo, a complete novice, to serve as general manager? Most people know that he was a good friend of yours, so hiring him does not leave a good impression. What expertise did he bring to the board?
JB: "The situation with Mateo Camarillo is that I never interviewed him. Fred Cardenas and Tony Inocentes interviewed him. They are the ones that rated him, the both of them. Between 25 and 30 people who I knew called me during the campaign to ask if there were any opportunities at the district. I said the same thing to all of them, `I don't know if there are, but go ahead and apply.' Some people did apply and some people got hired, but some did not get hired. Each and every one of the employees went through the Human Resources Department or through Tony Inocentes and Fred Cardenas."
LP: The perception is that you have been running the Otay Water District based on the old PRIista model of politics, where you hire your friends and fire or run out your enemies.
JB: "This perception is not true. What happened is that the people who got fired were fired by the general manager. I did not know them, and I had no personal vendetta against them. I also did not have anything to do with the people who were hired. If [people who I knew] were qualified great, but it was not my call."
LP: Many people are worried about the moral of the district employees. Can you tell me what affected employee moral the most? Is it improving?
LB: "I think the moral is getting better. I think Tony Inocentes did a lot of damage to the district when he falsely represented himself as president [referring to a surprise board take-over initiated by Mr. Inocentes that was later deemed illegal.] He went out and tried to put a signature [for the district] at the bank. He wants to sign at the district for millions of dollars... Of course the judge did not want to have him do this. I think everyone was very worried that Tony was representing himself as president illegally. This is nothing new to Tony, this is what he does, he acts illegally."
LP: Rumor has it that you had a personal grudge against the district because the former water board refused to lease you land that you wanted for the location of radio antennas. Is there any truth to this?
JB: "Why would I have a vendetta if I got the lease? If I would not have gotten the lease, you would have a reason to say that I had a vendetta. I would not have gotten something that I wanted, but I got my lease. It is a 30-year lease. You know something else? I am not going to end up using the lease. It is a lease for 33 years, but it has a three-year window in which I have to get the engineering rights approved by the FCC. For the first three years, I have been doing tests [on the site.] The test for soil conductivity did not pass. My attorneys and I are now in the process of writing up the letter. If I was really concerned about public perception, I would have done this back in January. But I am not going to do it just because I am worried about public perception. I have a business to run. I will begin looking for another site ... and it will not be one at the district. I was treated very well by the employees of the district, and I have no gripes against them.
LP: Anyone who attends a board meeting or who reads the paper can see that there is a great deal of animosity between you, Tony Inocentes and Fred Cardenas. What happened between you, Tony Inocentes and Fred Cardenes?
JB: "Both of them are childish. Tony Inocentes comes into my office and claims that there is power to be shared. He was complaining that some of the people who were being hired were not friends of his. He said, `I think we should share power.' I said, `There is no power to share here, just responsibility.' Tony's perception is that the district should take care of him. If Fred does not get his projects pulled through, he goes crazy. I told Fred that I would not authorize anything that I did not know about. His focus is on getting business to the company that he is a consultant for."
LP: What are some of the good things that this water board has accomplished in the last six months?
JB: "We did a $5 million rebate, something that has never been done before. We have $100 million in reserves because we sold more water than was projected to be sold. Projects are going to be built, particularly if we let the staff do their work."
LP: How will the conflicts on the board be resolved?
JB: "Things are going to be resolved once we get the fifth member. After this point, things will go one way or the other. What we have had here is a problem that you can have any time there is a lock. Whenever you do not have an odd member on a board, you have the potential to develop a situation like this."
The last two Otay Water Board meetings ended prematurely due to the board's inability to move the agenda forward. The majority of the votes taken ended in a deadlock, with Tony Inocentes and Fred Cardenas voting one way and Jose Lopez and Jaime Bonilla voting another. The last board meeting ended in a decision to allow the fifth seat board vacancy to be filled by a candidate who will be selected by the County Board of Supervisors. They have 30 days in which to fill this seat.