Things might get ugly at the next Marina Coast Water District meeting. Sept. 26 promises to be a contentious showdown between two boardmembers who want to renegotiate the contract of the water district’s recently-hired, highly-paid general manager and others who selected him.
MCWD Directors David Brown and Tom Moore want to cut out some of the perks in General Manager Jim Heitzman’s contract, which includes a salary of $205,000 with two 8 percent increases to come. The contract will be on the Sept. 26 agenda, but Brown and Moore will need a third vote to reopen it. If they are unsuccessful, at least one ratepayer has a back-up plan.
Paula Pelot, president of the Preston Park Tenants Association, threatens to complain to the grand jury and recall water board President Howard Gustafson and Vice President Ken Nishi. “If it is not overturned, I have the paperwork to start the recall process,” Pelot says.
Pelot is part of a chorus of critics who think Heitzman’s contract is too lavish, and accuse Gustafson and Nishi of skewing the hiring process. “It appears the whole thing was preset to begin with,” she says.
Nishi and Gustafson were appointed to the hiring committee after former general manager Marc Lucca announced his resignation at the end of June. Nishi says he immediately thought of hiring Heitzman because he was impressed by Heitzman’s work as assistant manager of the Monterey Regional Water Pollution Control Agency. Nishi, who also serves on the agency’s board, approached Heitzman about the job. “He fit Cinderella’s shoe,” he says.
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On July 11 the water board voted to do a local and regional search for a new general manager. Two days later Lucca posted the job on MontereyBayJobs.com. While eight applications trickled in, it appears Nishi and Gustafson had their sights set on hiring Heitzman. Heitzman never submitted a resumé, but he was the only candidate to get an interview. On July 21, Heitzman e-mailed Nishi a detailed compensation request, including $205,000 in salary and $13,500 a year in an annuity plan. Nishi and Gustafson went along with both demands.
The directors say they had to give him the compensation package – paying him about $10,000 more than Salinas City Manager Dave Mora – because it was close to what he was going to make at the Pollution Control Agency. “If that’s what he’s making now why would we expect someone to take a reduction to work for us?” Nishi says.
In fact, Heitzman made about $171,500 a year at the agency, and, according to his e-mail, was scheduled to earn $177,476 with a cost of living adjustment.
On Aug. 8 the board approved Heitzman’s contract by a 3-2 vote. Heitzman’s salary is much larger than his predecessor’s, at about $130,000 a year.
Gustafson, who is convinced that Heitzman will elevate the district’s stature, says Heitzman is worth the money. Gustafson boasts about the new homes on Fort Ord that will be added to the district and about plans for a reclaimed water system and a desalination plant. “We will then grow and grow, larger than we ever did before,” he says. “Nobody has over $100 million worth of projects. We are going to help solve the regional water problem.”
Heitzman worked for the Pollution Control Agency for more than three years. He left the agency at a time when it is negotiating with the water district over a new pipeline that will pump recycled water into golf courses in Seaside and a planned golf resort development in Del Rey Oaks. Brown says Heitzman’s hiring could strain those negotiations.
“I think that raiding the very agency which we are negotiating with to build a joint project was probably not a good idea,” Brown says.
Moore says Heitzman’s compensation package is too generous, especially when the district didn’t look very hard for a new general manager. “We never really explored the jobs market,” he says.
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Moore tried to get Heitzman’s contract reconsidered on Aug. 22. But Gustafson objected to the item because under Robert’s Rules of Order, only a boardmember who voted yes on a matter can bring it back for reconsideration. Moore then tried to schedule a special meeting on the contract but the motion failed 2-3.
Gustafson also wouldn’t put the contract on the agenda on Sept. 12, citing the 17-day notification requirement for scheduling an item.
Since the contract is signed and Heitzman has already started his new job, Brown says rescinding the agreement is not an option without provoking a lawsuit. Instead, either Moore or Brown will make a motion to talk with Heitzman about renegotiating the contract. Among the items of concern is the fact that after three years of employment, the district has to pay Heitzman’s health insurance when he retires.
With Nishi and Gustafson staunchly behind keeping the contract the way it is, Director Bill Lee is the swing vote.
But Lee is hard to pin down. He says he’d like to move forward “to see what the man is going to do.” He also says he’d like to appease the concerns of Brown, Moore and the public. “I’d sure like to see it resolved one way or another where everyone feels comfortable,” Lee says.
When asked about reopening his contract, Heitzman said it was the first he heard of the possibility and hadn’t given it any thought. He says he is happy to be with the water district. “I want to have a good relationship with everybody and provide the type of service that the ratepayers for Marina Coast deserve.” At $205,000 a year, that service better be valuable.