Water board heats up over new personnel
PALMDALE - An agenda item on the consent calendar at Palmdale Water District's board meeting Wednesday night became the source of another argument between directors.
Typically consent calendar items pass unanimously as a group, on a single vote taken by the full board. Occasionally a director pulls an item before an action is taken, which occurred Wednesday night at the request of board member Marco Henriquez.
A heated argument ensued.
Henriquez took issue with a proposal to recruit a public affairs director at an estimated annual salary of $110,000.
The new hire would fill a vacancy created when former Public Affairs and Sustainability Director Mike McNutt resigned in December after two years at the district to accept a position with another public water agency.
Henriquez requested a delay in hiring a replacement to save the water district some money. A second employee in the Public Affairs department could handle the job, he added, or the district could hire a public relations firm.
He suggested a six-month delay.
Director Joe Estes said he agreed with Henriquez about using that second employee.
"That second employee is an assistant, handling (public relations) until we fill this position," Board President Robert Alvarado said.
"Use a PR firm in the meantime to save money," Henriquez said.
"The district has not used (public relations) firms to conduct day-to-day PR, only on special projects," General Manager Dennis LaMoreaux said.
Information from several public relations firms indicated that the average hourly rate is $125.
LaMoreaux told the board the cost for a staff person in that position already is included in the budget, and the estimated $110,000 salary "will be less than (the amount) approved in the budget due to a change in personnel."
"I do feel we should hold off," Henriquez said, with the support of Estes.
"I think just the opposite," Alvarado said. "I think we should fill the position. We should keep the momentum that we gained."
Comparing the job description for a public affairs director to the work that McNutt did, Alvarado said, "This person is actually participating and giving presentations of projects we're working on."
"The only problem I see," Director Kathy Mac Laren said, "if we do this and it's a 3-2 vote, it's put out in the community that we're wasteful and they're prudent.
"I would like to approve it. I think it's needed. But I'm tired of the fighting on something that's necessary."
Board Vice President Vince Dino said: "I'm afraid, if we lay back on this, we'll lose momentum."
Jennifer Emery, the Human Resources director, advised the board to review elements of the district's strategic plan and prioritize the functions they view as important for the health and success of the district.
Emery said the public affairs director represents the district in statewide matters. That level of skill is needed for this position, she added.
Estes suggested having LaMoreaux or Matt Knudson, the assistant general manager, handle marketing duties in addition to their existing responsibilities.
"Every employee here has a set of skills," Alvarado said. "I'm not going to add to the plate of the GM and assistant GM."
Henriquez reiterated he wanted to employ a public relations firm while the district explores other options.
"The assistant has the skill set to be an assistant," LaMoreaux said. "This position is much more involved. They are two different skill sets.
"It's been almost three years since the board worked on that job description. You cannot deny the impact it's made. The work being done on Littlerock Dam, we need to keep open (those lines) of communication.
"It's so important to be in touch with the community."
Emery said a public relations firm "is good for a particular project" but water districts are specialized and "require a great deal of knowledge. That's the benefit of a staff PIO."
"This is a have-to situation," Mac Laren said, adding she wanted to have the discussion. "Holding back on this now might be detrimental. As much as we were doing, we should be doing more."
Mac Laren motioned to approve the agenda item and Dino seconded the motion.
Even after that, Henriquez persisted.
"I believe it's prudent that we wait a little," he said. "I agree with Director Mac Laren in many things. We should analyze things more in-depth."
Alvarado called for the vote, and the item passed 3-2, with Henriquez and Estes voting "no."