Chaos cuts Santa Nella rate meeting short
SANTA NELLA – A scheduled hearing on proposed sewer rate hikes was canceled last Thursday night after confrontational audience members refused to let the Santa Nella County Water District Board of Directors proceed without a translator present.
Facing a packed meeting room, directors tried without success to move forward with the meeting – but each attempt met with vocal demands that the proceedings be rescheduled to a later date
The board was showered with chants of “No Mas” and “Recall” as audience members disrupted the meeting.
Two Merced County sheriff’s deputies on hand for the meeting intervened without success in an effort to restore order, and at one point advised district staff that additional units were en route if needed.
Board President Thomas Hallinan ordered the meeting room cleared but the audience remained.
After about 40 chaotic minutes, he called the meeting to a halt despite cautions from district General Manager Amy Montgomery that doing so would require starting anew with the costly rate hike process.
The district is required under the terms of Prop. 218 to give the public an opportunity to oppose rate changes – and to block the increases if a majority protest.
Commercial customers would bear the greatest impact from the proposed rate changes, Montgomery previously told Mattos Newspapers.
But it was the residents – some apparently from the mobile home park, who were looking at monthly increases of $3.05 initially and a total of $4.16 over a four-year period, and others in metered homes, who would see no initial increase and a total increase of $1.10 over the four years – who were out in force. The increases would have taken monthly sewer rates to $18.12 in the mobile home park and $28.35 in metered home neighborhoods at the end of the four-year period.
Those increases are needed to erase an operating deficit, Montgomery previously indicated.
Resident Patricia Ramos-Anderson, a district critic who helped organize a community protest campaign, said she came armed with protests from 300 residents, enough to overturn the proposed rate hikes.
She approached the board early on to present the protests, but was told by Hallinan to do so later in the meeting.
It never reached that juncture – but the early adjournment appeared to make the point moot.
The absence of a translator – not the rate hikes – were the focal point of the tension.
Audience members repeatedly demanded the postponement, and rejected suggestions that somebody in attendance could serve as a translator.
“They don’t understand,” Ramos-Anderson said of many in the audience. “Have respect for the taxpayer. I can’t believe the way you treat us people who are paying your stipends.”
“You have a lot of people here who are not going to understand you,” another stated.
The district had received no advance requests to have a translator present, officials noted.
Montgomery said the district was not required to have a certified translator present, and noted that doing so would be an added expense.
One woman in attendance spoke in defense of the board, to little avail.
“One individual has turned this community against one another,” resident Linda Galindez said in urging cooler heads to prevail.
But Ramos-Anderson later told Mattos Newspapers that the showing Thursday night was a result of a campaign launched by several community members concerned about district operations and spending.
“We organized. It was a community together, because they had a common issue of how their money is being spent. We want accountability, transparency and respect,” she commented. “We’ll be back, and we will have our protests again. Things need to change.”
Without a translator present, Ramos-Anderson added, the district board could not truly have a dialogue with all its constituents at the public hearing.
She also asked that the district present future documents and notices in Spanish as well as English.
Montgomery said through a staff member that she would have no comment on the meeting.
Hallinan indicated as he closed the proceedings, however, that the district would go through the process again.
“Watch your mail (for notices),” he told the audience while adjourning.