Image courtesy of NBC San Diego

The city’s water department is going through the second major shakeup in less than a year. At least five senior officials are out, including one who once tried to waive off an audit of the city’s troubled “smart” meter program.

In January 2018, the department’s assistant director, Lee Ann Jones-Santos, said auditing the city’s effort to replace 280,000 water meters might make that $70 million program look bad.

“Even one potentially negative comment regarding [smart meters] could injure the project before we have full liftoff,” she told an oversight committee.

On Wednesday, a city spokeswoman confirmed Jones-Santos is no longer with the city.

Jones-Santos’ comment ended up being one sign of deeper problems in the department that Voice of San Diego and NBC 7 Responds have revealed over the past year.

Department officials had known of a “glitch” with some of the new meters since at least 2016. The meter replacement program also relied, in part, on technology from a meter company that has admitted to making products that prematurely fail.

Officials in charge of the department have downplayed problems and resisted oversight. That became a huge headache for Mayor Kevin Faulconer when hundreds of customers began receiving unjustifiably high water bills. Auditors have since concluded few of those billing problems are related to the city’s water meters but instead are a result of understaffing, employee mistakes and lax oversight.

The urge to resist oversight seems to have come from the top of the department. Though the problems seem to have festered for years under the leadership of several different water department directors, one of them really stuck his foot in his mouth.

Weeks before Jones-Santos made her comment, the then- director of department, Vic Bianes, sent her and several other officials an email urging his staff to be “vague” and not give the city’s Independent Rates Oversight Committee any specifics about how the department was handling ongoing customer service issues.

“No need to allow them to focus on giving us direction on how to improve,” Bianes wrote, according to emails Voice of San Diego and NBC obtained last summer.

After that email became public last summer, Bianes retired amid one shakeup of the department.

Three senior department officials received his email, each is now gone: Jones-Santos; deputy director Michael Vogl, who retired shortly before Bianes; and a program manager who is out amid the current shakeup.

The department’s longtime spokesman, Brent Eidson, is also gone now, as is a deputy director and an assistant director.

This second shakeup brings bigger changes to the shape of the department – namely it attempts to get rid of a confusing organization chart and provide more accountability. At least for those outside the department, known as “PUD” for Public Utilities Department, trying to figure out who outranks who – a manager, a deputy or an assistant – can seem like a scene from “The Office.”

Faulconer’s team concluded that the department’s current structure did not allow for “appropriate managerial oversight,” according to a letter city chief operating officer Kris Michell sent Wednesday to members of the City Council.

“The mayor has directed that all necessary actions be taken to restore confidence in PUD, and we firmly believe the changes described above will make real progress toward the goal,” Michell wrote.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.