East Orosi residents rally for CSD employee removal
Citing decades of abuse and malfeasance, residents without reliable water in East Orosi demand the sole employee of the East Orosi Community Services District be removed
OROSI – Community activists, a Tulare County Board of Supervisor and more than 30 East Orosi residents rallied outside Templo La Paz Mennonite Brethren in Orosi to demand the removal of Lucy Rodriguez, sole employee of the East Orosi Community Services District (EOCSD).
The group gathered on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m., marching down the street from the church to the EOCSD office trailer, waving signs and shouting protests. Along with Rodriguez’s removal, the group also demanded greater transparency and accountability in billing.
Once they arrived at the office trailer, they presented the EOCSD board – at its regularly scheduled monthly meeting – with more than 180 signed petitions demanding that the board take immediate action.
According to both Supervisor Eddie Valero – whose district includes East Orosi – and to residents who spoke at the rally and addressed the board: for more than two decades, East Orosi residents have had to rely on bottled water for their drinking water.
At the meeting, residents complained of having a sewer system that has not been properly maintained – resulting in backups and overflows. They said they have been subjected to malfeasance (the wrongdoing of a public official) and even threats when trying to get straight answers regarding their water and sewer bills; and have felt neglected and disrespected by government officials, from the local level up to the governor.
THREE TOWNS, ONE HEART
“This is a multilayered issue that has been going on in East Orosi for more than 10 years,” Valero said. “What truly bothers me is that children who grow up in this town only know that water comes from a bottle, and not from their own tap.”
In 2018, the year he became supervisor, Valero attended a meeting with state officials in Orosi to discuss the water problems plaguing both Orosi and East Orosi. Orosi has a population of 8,900; East Orosi, 500 to 600. It was decided at that meeting the two cities must have a mandatory consolidation of their water systems.
“A few years ago I asked the state about the consolidation,” Valero said. “There had not been any meetings.”
However, Valero noted some progress has been made. Two months ago, Tulare County assumed billing responsibility for East Orosi’s drinking water. But the county will not assume responsibility for East Orosi’s wastewater billing until Rodriguez is removed.
He added there are other agencies involved that have not been willing to work with the city to resolve its water issues.
“Orosi Public Utility District has hindered an opportunity for cooperation,” he said. “They see where their boundaries are but neglect the boundaries next door. Those boundaries are our children who go to school in Orosi, family members that have family in Orosi. East Orosi is part of Orosi.”
He added, “The way I see it we have three towns with one heart: Orosi, East Orosi, and Cutler.”
TALKING THE TALK, BUT NOT WALKING THE WALK
Despite the fact Tulare County has not received financial information from EOCSD for three years, the state appears unconcerned.
Valero said he recently received a letter from the state recommending that Cutler should now look into consolidating its water system with Orosi.
“I shot back and said, ‘We haven’t even consolidated East Orosi’s system and now you want Cutler? Let’s finish with East Orosi before we start another process,’” said Valero. “It’s unacceptable to keep talking the talk without walking the walk, with respect to what the state is saying about consolidation.”
CLEAN WATER AND A FUNCTIONAL SEWER SYSTEM
Janaki Anagha is the director of community advocacy for Community Water Center (CWC) in Visalia. At the rally, Anagha said CWC has been working with Vecinos Unidos (Neighbors United) and East Orosi residents for 17 years.
“We simply want clean water and a functional sewer system,” Anagha said.
Anagha said Rodriguez has caused the community problems for years. CWC and Vecinos United have repeatedly asked Rodriguez to provide clear and accurate billing for water and sewer services.
“We are asking (EOCSD) to fire any personnel causing injustices before the end of September,” said Anagha.
THREATS AND ABUSIVE ACTIVITIES
At the rally, Vecinos Unidos and AGUA Coalition member Bertha Diaz said she has lived in East Orosi for 24 years. Diaz said residents are tired of receiving threats and activities from EOCSD staff. She said Unidos and AGUA were there to support residents who are tired of paying high water bills that do not provide rate information.
“We’re here because we want justice,” Diaz said. “We’re tired of paying for two bills. We want to make sure we’re paying for the right service.”
AGUA Coalition is a regional, grassroots coalition of impacted community residents and allied non-profit organizations that are dedicated to securing safe, clean and affordable drinking water for San Joaquin Valley communities.
“We have nothing against the board,” Diaz said. “We just want to make sure they do their jobs. This march is for peace and for justice.”
East Orosi resident and Unidos member Hermini Luna told the crowd she was there because she wanted to voice her discontent and rage and to serve as a voice for residents who are just as mad as she is.
“It is a psychological torture every time we have to pay our sewer bill,” Luna said. “Many times, I have asked the woman (Rodriguez) why I have to pay these overcharges on these bills. She fails to show us proof of why we have to pay the charges. She just forces us to pay with no justification.”
Luna presented copies of her bills that contained different charges. She also presented copies of handwritten receipts she said Rodriguez issued instead of providing legitimate receipts.
“When she charges us different fees, she forces us to pay and gives us a different type of receipt, so it’s unclear why she charges one fee instead of another and provides different receipts,” said Luna.
Luna concluded by saying, “We are tired of this abuse. And that is why we asked to replace her and hire someone we can trust and who can do her job.”
At the end of the rally at Templo La Paz Mennonite Brethren, the crowd moved out onto the street. Carrying signs in Spanish and English that read “TODOS POR UNA SOLA CAUSA,” “ALTO ALOS MALOS TRATOS,” and “Dignity, Respect & Correct Billing for East Orosi.” As they chanted slogans, residents, organizers, moms pushing strollers, children and a small contingent of stray dogs marched toward the trailer that serves as the EOCSD office.
When the crowd arrived at the trailer, Rodriguez was out front sweeping with a broom. She had a brief, terse exchange with AGUA member Melynda Matheny, who spoke earlier at the rally. To keep order, Matheny asked the crowd to remain peaceful and to remember why it had come.
“Everything is on camera,” Matheny said.
The EOCSD board has three members. Carmen Moreno is the board president. Carlos Sanchez and Katie Icho are board members. Because of the large crowd, the meeting was held outdoors. Icho was not present but participated remotely.
During board comments, Sanchez mentioned that he was having a conference call with Tulare County next week. East Orosi has been working with the county on consolidating the city’s water system with Visalia’s water system. Sanchez was notified that the project may be delayed for three years.
“I find this decision reprehensible,” Sanchez said. “I was told that we are not the only community that does not have water. I replied, ‘But we have been waiting 20 years. The people who started this are long gone. They’ve passed on. Why even bother? Just tell us you’re not giving us water.’”
Sanchez added, “We’re not asking you (the county) to pave our roads. We are asking for water. Drinking water.”
LITANY OF COMPLAINTS
After attending to the one issue on the agenda, Moreno opened up the meeting to public comment. The board listened to a litany of complaints from the crowd, mostly focusing on Rodriguez.
One resident complained she had been waiting for months to receive from Rodriguez an accurate bill; another resident complained she received the same bill for the past year, despite having already paid it. Another resident complained his sewer needed to be cleaned but when he complained to Rodriguez, she refused to listen because there was a problem with his physical address.
Near the close of the public comments portion of the meeting, Maricela Mares-Alatorre, the community solutions advocate for CWC, read a letter addressed to the board.
“We at CWC are respectfully demanding that you take immediate steps to remove Ms. Lucy Rodriguez from her position at the East Orosi Community Services District,” Mares-Alatorre read. The letter accused Rodriguez of misbilling, double-billing, harassing rate payers and violating local and state policies. Rodriguez was also accused of committing rude and threatening behavior for over two decades.
“Because of these actions, Tulare County will not exist in taking on further billing responsibilities for wastewater,” said Mares-Alatorre.
After public comments had concluded, Diaz and Luna presented the board with a petition with 148 signatures calling for Rodriguez’s removal. Matheny presented a similar petition on behalf of AGUA, which had 35 signatures.
At the close of the public meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss Rodriguez’s continued employment. The results of that closed session will be made later this month.