EMPIRE -- Two apparently related sewer board members abruptly resigned after angry residents accused the mother-daughter team of trying to raise rates and enrich their families.
The remaining board members — two of whom were appointed only last month — are exploring whether to try giving the embattled Empire Sanitary District to Modesto, which has processed Empire's sewage for many years and conducts much of the district's business.
Stanislaus County supervisors on Tuesday accepted the resignations of former board president Cherrie Renfro and former vice president Christy Streit. Several people close to the drama said Renfro is Streit's mother and that neither lives in Empire, a requirement under state law for public service there.
In addition to board member salaries, the women collected pay for unspecified work, and the board hired Renfro's husband in recent months. A Bee review of district financial documents shows that the three were paid more than $22,000 over the past three years, a majority for vaguely described "hours worked" that Renfro refused to discuss.
Also, the district placed liens against both women in January. The liens were released in November, recorded documents reveal. Such liens typically are filed for nonpayment of fees.
Twelve years ago, Empire homeowners paid $6.99 monthly sewage bills. The board this year has been trying to raise rates in a series of steps from $25.75 to $40.80 by August 2011.
Civil grand jurors investigated the Empire Sanitary District in 2002 after residents complained of steep rate increases. The grand jury determined that board members had botched state rules by failing to notify property owners before twice raising rates three years earlier.
In addition to recent top-level turnover, the board has had trouble retaining legal counsel. A former attorney quit for reasons he declined to reveal, another died recently and a third did not return a call from The Bee.
Renfro hung up Thursday after saying her brother had died the day before, her mother died Nov. 26 and "I can't handle anything right now."
A telephone line went dead Wednesday after Streit was asked why she had resigned. She did not answer subsequent calls or return voice messages.
Property records show that a lender foreclosed on Renfro's Empire home and it was sold at public auction in May. Streit bought a Denair home in June 2008, according to recorded documents, and show no other home in her name in Stanislaus County.
Residency concerns studied
At the request of county Supervisor Bill O'Brien, whose district includes Empire, County Counsel John Doering researched whether officeholders must live and be registered to vote within districts they represent. The answer is "yes," but only the California attorney general or his designee can remove someone violating that rule, Doering wrote in an opinion dated Nov. 19.
In July, grand jurors said Sebastian Jones, the Monterey Park Tract water board vice president, should be removed because he did not live in that district. He resigned in October.
Empire resident Glenn Hankins filed a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition for Streit days before the women resigned, the Stanislaus County clerk-recorder's office confirmed.
Renfro, 46, and Streit, 31, collected $100 per board meeting because of their positions as officers, according to district policy, regardless of how many times the board met per month. Other board members are paid half that amount.
In April 2007, one month after Streit joined the board, Renfro began receiving extra pay for "hours worked." As of last month, Renfro had collected $7,968 for unspecified tasks, sometimes up to $600 per month, plus $7,000 in board pay, since January 2007. With various reimbursements, she received more than $15,200 in that time.
No challenger at polls
Renfro, facing no opposition at the polls this fall, was reappointed by county supervisors in September. Asked Thursday why she left the board, Renfro said, "I just resigned. That's it."
Of her unspecified work, Renfro said, "I suggest you be careful, because I never done anything wrong. I worked hours to try to get things situated." Pressed to describe what she did, Renfro said, "A lot."
She said she was under pressure and could not discuss her service. "You're trying to make me go back to Empire. I can't go back to Empire right now," she said.
The district paid Renfro's husband, Brian, $3,147 over three months since June, apparently for help with maintenance. Streit has collected $3,400 in board salary since her appointment and took three paychecks this year for $350 more for unspecified work.
Hughson attorney Stewart James said he represented the Empire Sanitary District four or five years before resigning in March 2007 for reasons he can't reveal, citing attorney-client privilege. "I didn't want to continue to work with that board," he said.
James said he previously researched nepotism rules and found none adopted by the Empire board that would preclude the hiring of a family member. State law governing such districts allows board members to receive up to $600 per month "for performing extra duties" if approved by the rest of the board, James said.
The Bee was unable to reach Tom Hallinan, who began representing the district after its attorney, Donald Vance, died in October.
'People were screaming'
Paul Souza, appointed to the board Nov. 3 and elevated to president at a special meeting Tuesday, said he offered to serve after learning of the board's intent to raise rates dramatically in months past. He also serves on the Empire Municipal Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to county supervisors.
He recalled a Nov. 5 meeting packed with upset residents. "The whole town was there. They had hired security, people were screaming, and it was almost to the point of being out of control," he said.
Despite their institutional knowledge, Souza wasn't sorry to see Renfro and Streit go. He doesn't know what tasks they performed for extra pay, he said.
"I think the direction they took was wrong," he said. "There was a lot of things done that were extravagant. They went through reserves and basically drug this thing down, and they were spending the people's money."
Charles "David" Thornsberry, also appointed Nov. 3, said board members agreed Tuesday to forgo their pay until they get a better handle on the district's financial position. "We don't know if we even have enough money to pay the bills," he said.
Souza said a preliminary report by a Berkeley firm suggests the district will run out of money by July without a course correction.
"This district's broke; they spent every dime and (Renfro and Streit) thought they could double our rates," said Hankins, whose brother and ex-wife previously served on the board. "Everybody got a fat check off this district till they sucked it dry."
"We're trying to keep this thing above water," Souza said. "We want to save the thing. People in Empire don't have a lot of income, but there are a lot of good people."
Souza and Thornsberry said the district will advertise for candidates to fill the two vacancies. They want to explore whether it would be wise for Modesto to take over all district functions before deciding whether a rate increase is warranted, Souza said.
A county auditor is helping, Souza and O'Brien said.
The Empire Sanitary District's next board meeting is scheduled for 5 p.m. Jan. 7 in the Empire Community Resource Center, 18 S. Abbie St.
Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2390.