WHEN:6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 23
WHERE:Diablo Grande Clubhouse, 9521 Morton Davis Drive
A legal complaint that a Southern California attorney filed against Diablo Grande’s water district has stirred up a flood of passions following talk that the community’s water charges could rise more than 700 percent.
Developers of the hillside community southwest of Patterson say they are working with a committee of homeowners to set up a far more reasonable rate. However, Richard Mowery, who works from both Irvine and Diablo Grande, alleged in a Nov. 1 complaint to the Fair Political Practices Commission that the Western Hills Water District violated election laws and illegally undercharged the development for water.
“It’s like there’s no sheriff in town,” Mowery said earlier this month. “My thought, when I was looking through this, is it’s the Wild West. There’s no law up here.”
Members of the homeowners committee say Mowery’s legal complaint is doing more harm than good.
“All this stuff is damaging and has me pretty upset,” said Gary Chase, president of Diablo Grande's homeowners association and a member of the committee.
Chase urged residents to be patient during a homeowners association meeting Tuesday, Nov. 23, saying that the committee is close to determining the actual cost to deliver water to homeowners.
The committee initially planned to release its findings on Tuesday, but it now plans to have that information available by the time of its next homeowners association meeting on Jan. 18.
Both Mowery and committee members agree that a May 7 study on water rates is way out of whack. That report recommends a plan that could boost costs by 740 percent. However, that might be the only point on which they concur.
Homeowners committee members say that Diablo Grande developer World International LLC is working with them on more appropriate water costs and that some rate increase is necessary, although nothing near 740 percent.
Mowery, meanwhile, says the water district has provided residents with nothing but “sunshine.”
Mowery has specifically accused the district of embezzlement by charging Diablo Grande $375 per acre-foot for water while buying the water from the Kern County Water Agency for about $558.59 per acre-foot. An acre-foot is enough water to cover one acre of land one foot deep.
He has also alleged that the Western Hills Water District has held secret elections to allow the development’s owner to maintain power and has operated illegally for five years without any governmental oversight. He notes that all water district directors have some type of business connection with Diablo Grande owner World International — and that previous water board members were all affiliated with the management team under former owner Donald Panoz.
While the water district started under the supervision of Stanislaus County, representatives asked for that relationship to cease in late 2002, claiming that it was a multijurisdictional agency, Mowery said. At the time, the district should have contacted the Fair Political Practices Commission to be placed under its supervision, but it never did so, he said.
That practice continued for about a year after Mexico-based World International purchased the development in 2008, until the water district went back under the control of county supervisors, Mowery said.
He contends that board members should have filled out paperwork stating their business interests with Diablo Grande and have failed to do so until recently.
Mowery’s complaint also alleges that World International committed election fraud in 2009 to allow the company to maintain its power.
The district failed to properly post election notices, according to his complaint. In addition, water district directors changed the rules to require people to vote in person, rather than having an election via mailed ballot, as in the past, the complaint states.
Mowery also alleged that World International knowingly exaggerated the percentage of assessed value it controls to give developer representatives more voting power. Western Hills is a landowner-voted district, which allows one vote for every dollar in assessed value of property within the district. World International agents have said that a district vote to change meeting dates and elections terms was unnecessary, stating that the developer already controls two-thirds of the vote needed to make it happen. Mowery estimates the developer controls fewer than 15 percent of votes based on its property holdings within the district.
Guillermo Marrero, an attorney for World International and director and president of the Western Hills Water District, said he thinks Mowery is merely trying to drum up clients in Diablo Grande. The allegations in Mowery’s complaint are untrue, he said, although he would not respond to them individually.
“Just about every one of the facts in there is inaccurate, misleading or false,” Marrero said. “(Mowery) is an outlier, and I don’t understand what he is doing or what his motivation is, other than self-interest.”
Chase, of the homeowner’s committee, said that World International has been more open with its financial information than it needed to be. He stressed that future water rates are likely to be far less than initially proposed, as World International is working closely with the committee on those costs and is opening its financial books in the process.
“Our job was to get to the truth, and we got to the truth,” Chase said.
Mowery’s complaint is hobbling Diablo Grande's real estate prices and the development itself, Chase said.
“This whole thing has hurt a lot of people, and it’s hurt the wrong people,” Chase said.
Mowery, who has also forwarded a complaint to the Stanislaus County District Attorney’s office, said it is better for the truth to come out than for corruption to go unnoticed, and he figures sky-high water rates would lead to lower home values, as well.
He added that he thinks the citizens’ committee is a ploy by World International to gain control over any grassroots movement that would provide scrutiny.
Both committee members and Mowery attended a water district meeting Tuesday, at which the district raised the sewer rates from $25 to $42.71 per month.
The price hike matches an increase in rates charged by the city of Patterson, which provides sewer services for Diablo Grande. Western Hills customers are charged 1½ times the sewage rate paid by the average Patterson household, in accordance with an agreement with the city.
However, an Oct. 28 letter that the water district sent to homeowners indicated that district officials planned to meet with representatives of the city of Patterson to set sewage rates at $28.47 per month — the same rate Patterson residents pay.
The newsletter indicated that the board was seeking to address residents’ complaints in other ways, as well.
For instance, it stated that the water district would soon host its meetings at the Diablo Grande clubhouse, rather than its offices, with the aims of boosting attendance.
In addition, it advertised an opening on the water board. The district’s directors and volunteer committee members agree that having at least one community member on the board would “help promote communication and confidence in actions taken by the Board,” the newsletter said.
Despite the contentious atmosphere surrounding Mowery’s complaint, one thing everyone seems to agree upon is the hope that Diablo Grande will thrive.
“It’s a wonderful community, and this community is worth fighting for,” Mowery said.
• Contact Jonathan Partridge at 892-6187 or email@example.com.