What started out as what seemed a straightforward agenda item to fill a vacancy on the Tres Pinos Water District Board of Directors quickly turned into a kerfuffle, as fingers pointed, accusations flew and more than a couple of eyes rolled during the Oct. 25 county supervisor meeting.

Louie Valdez, county analyst, introduced the agenda item by telling the board they had the applications of four individuals before them. He then pointed out that even though one of the applications was deemed insufficient, after consulting with the county counsel, it was decided to include it to give the board all the information it might need to make a decision.

“The Tres Pinos Water Board was unable to come to a consensus on a replacement for the person who had resigned,” he said. “That candidate who had resigned is back before you in the packet. He is Mr. Mike Sargeant. The reason for the resignation was that the board did not have liability insurance, so all of the board members were going to be held personally liable for any action that could potentially be taken against that board.”

Valdez said that in addition to Sargeant’s application, there were two others, along with the fourth, which was considered insufficient. He reminded the board that Sargeant was the last member to be elected to the board and resigned because of the liability issue.

“If you are not able to reach a consensus on a replacement, then it is likely that under the California Governing Code a special election will have to be called to fill that seat,” Valdez said, “which could prove to be costly.”

“So, they couldn’t make a decision and now we’re tasked with making a nasty political decision,” said Supervisor Robert Rivas, only half-joking, it would seem. “Maybe a poor choice of words, but the reason I say that is because these local elections—at least our local elections—can get ugly, and I don’t know any of these candidates. So how am I supposed to make an informed decision?”

He said it would make sense to him to go with Sargeant. Valdez agreed it might be a prudent move, but said, ultimately, it was up to the supervisors.

Supervisor Margie Barrios asked if some of the candidates were in the room. She said she wouldn’t mind hearing what they might have to say. Two, Sargeant and Mike Howard, were present, so Rivas suggested they speak as part of the public comments part of the meeting.

Sargeant, who said he has lived in Tres Pinos for more than 35 years, requested that he be reinstated to the water district board. He said because of litigation in June against the district, the insurance company would not renew its general liability insurance. He said the district works with an insurance agency that will cover the district’s infrastructure, but not the board itself.

“I wasn’t willing to risk the potential personal liability that could have come from a catastrophic event from our own aging system,” he said. “Sometimes, individual board members are named in suits, as well as the public entity that they represent.”

Sargeant said because of the lack of insurance, he submitted his resignation at the end of July after serving a year and a half of a four-year term. He said he made it clear that any time insurance might be acquired, he would be more than happy to return and fulfill his elected term. Since his resignation, he said two insurance companies had been identified and the district’s legal counsel  advised the board to buy one of them.

“I went to the water board meeting when they were attempting to fill my vacant seat and informed it that I would come back now that we could get insurance,” he said. “The board president and another member at the time were willing to reinstate me. Two others, no. The only other candidate at that meeting also had a 2-2 vote. So, you’ve got our domestic squabble.”

Sargeant said the two members who voted against him are the same two who, on three separate occasions, had not agreed to get the insurance. He said if he is reinstated, he was confident there would be a special board meeting and the insurance would be purchased.

“Then we can move ahead addressing some of the really big issues in our district,” he said. “Let me fill out my term. I was elected and I want to continue.”

Supervisor Anthony Botelho said he had heard that Sargeant was an active member in working toward the betterment of Tres Pinos, but went on to mildly rebuke him.

“What concerns me is your resigning,” he said. “I can understand you don’t want to put your assets into a liable situation, but what would happen if all the members of the Tres Pinos Water Board took a similar action? 

Sargeant responded, “It almost sounds to me that you’re asking me if I’m willing to risk my house, my retirement all for a district that I get no money, that I volunteer to be on, and I’ve done it willingly. Am I willing to risk all of that? No. Do I think the other board members should do the same? No. I would have thought, in their own right minds, resigned, as well.”

He said he didn’t know what would happen, but he thought it was unfair for any of the board members to risk their livelihoods. He said he couldn’t figure out why the insurance had not been purchased.

“I’ve seen the rates and they’re not exorbitant,” Sargeant said. “We pay more for lawyers’ fees than this insurance. Two of the board members have been almost apoplectic with why we are leaving ourselves open to liability. I don’t get it and I’m not willing to risk my livelihood and personal resources. That doesn’t seem to make sense. Does it to you?”

“No,” Botelho answered.

Mary Ann Hughes, who is on the finance committee for the water board, pleaded, as a finance person, for the board to make a decision because the community could not afford a special election.

“The district just doesn’t have that much money,” she said. “Also, Mike was elected and I think what has happened, he was chosen by the people of the community. So, I think he needs to get back there. I agree, when he does, things will get done again.”

She wondered if one person (Mike Howard) who has a business in Tres Pinos, but does not live there, qualifies as one of the applicants. Matthew Granger, county counsel, answered that without more details, he couldn’t answer the question.

Howard, owner of The Inn at Tres Pinos, addressed Hughes’ concern about his residency by saying he has owned a home in Tres Pinos for 26 years. He said he found it hard not to become involved in the past dysfunction of the water district, partly because he is one of the largest financial supporters of the district.

“I find it hard to understand how somebody in that town could simply come in and be a renter and have more rights than I currently do,” he said. “I’ve been a member of our community over 25 years. I have a strong understanding of how to run a business. I have a strong understanding of the infrastructure and its assets to its businesses and residents.”

Howard said he is mindful of the community’s current situation and when making tough decisions he said he asks, “Is it fair to all concerned?”

Barrios asked Howard that since he had a business and a vested interest in the water situation, could he be impartial enough to be able to make the best decisions for the community. He answered her with his last question, “Is it fair to all concerned?”

Elia Salinas, who said she was a resident of District 4, asked the board not to make a decision based on three-minute speeches, telling the board they needed to do more homework.

“For someone who is elected and decides he’s the only person that resigns from the board because he’s afraid, I understand that,” she said. “But if he’s the only one to resign, you need to take a second look. Do I really want that person back on the board? What is the next issue that’s going to come up that that person is going to again resign?”

Robert Frusetta, a member of the water district board, said there are five candidates for three open seats. He said he submitted the fourth application and suggested that instead of going through the expense of a special election, an option could be to allow the fourth highest vote-getter in the November election to be assigned to the open seat, which would allow residents of Tres Pinos to decide who would represent them.

Supervisor Jerry Muenzer asked if the board could appoint someone to the seat. Barbara Thompson, county counsel, said there are timelines for making appointments.

“Appointing somebody who is unnamed creates uncertainty, in that you’re appointing somebody outside the deadline for the board to actually appoint an actual person,” she said.

Rivas said since  Sargeant was elected in 2014, the seat would be up for election in two years. He said he wasn’t willing to take the results of an election in 2016. Thompson said the second part of the equation was if the person would even want to be appointed by the board. Granger said he appreciated Muenzer’s suggestion, but said it would create even more problems. Thompson said the time to appoint someone had passed.

Marty Richman, a Hollister resident, reminded supervisors that he took a lot of heat from past comments that they should eliminate the water board and take over its functions.

“I got a lot of nasty words over that,” he said. “I remember Supervisor Botelho, who’s reconsidering what he said at that time. This is the definition of dysfunctional. They are a dysfunctional board. We’ve got to straighten this out and I will point again to the General Plan that says when there is a critical utility that’s not getting fixed, the county shall jump in and work with that board to get it solved.”

Richman said an appointment would not solve the problem.

“It’s obvious from the comments from a previous member of the board who said he has two people who won’t vote for liability insurance, I can detect personal animosity,” he said. “This is not a functioning board. They can’t even get a board seated.”

When the conversation returned to the supervisors, Rivas quipped, “We could display our dysfunction or get this done and go to lunch. My original comment two minutes into this discussion was to just go with the original applicant, Mr. Sargeant, and let him serve out his term.”

He made the motion to reinstate Sargeant, but the vote went against him, 3-2. Then Barrios made a motion to appoint Howard, saying she knows about his business successes.

Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz seconded the motion and said the water district needed a business concept. This time the vote was 3-2, and Howard was chosen for the board.

John Chadwell worked as a feature, news and investigative reporter for BenitoLink on a freelance basis for seven years, leaving the role in Sept. 2023. Chadwell first entered the U.S. Navy right out of...