City Launches Internal Investigation into Water Department Management

The city of San Diego’s Chief Operating Officer formerly announced a new internal review of the Public Utilities Department following NBC 7 Responds and Voice of San Diego’s investigation.

What to Know

  • Since last July, NBC 7 Responds has been reporting on the city's $60-million Advanced Metering Infrastructure project
  • The Public Utilities Department stood by its charges and smart water meters.
  • Mayor Kevin Faulconer called for expanded city audit to look into water bill increases.

“I’m going to personally apologize for anything that’s been conveyed to the taxpayers of the city that has given the impression that there’s an issue of credibility and trust with the city and or the Public Utilities Department,” Johnnie Perkins said Monday, hours into his first day of work as the city’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer of Infrastructure and Public Works. 

Perkins was responding to questions surrounding the findings of a joint NBC 7 Responds and Voice of San Diego investigation released last week, showing the city did not take action when informed of a glitch with one of its new smart water meter vendors. 

On Monday, Perkins appeared before the City’s Independent Rates and Oversight Committee (IROC) to announce that the city will launch what will be the fourth investigation into the Public Utilities Department. This new investigation will focus on the department’s management structure, internal controls, and employee oversight. 

For the past year, NBC 7 Responds has been looking into what led to hundreds of San Diegans being charged thousands of dollars more for water they said they didn’t use. 

Last week, NBC 7 Responds and its media partner Voice of San Diego discovered that one of the city’s smart meter vendors had informed city officials of a manufacturing glitch in more than 36,000 installed smart meters. 

Jerry McCormick, a spokesperson for the Public Utilities Department, said the glitch was “minor” and, “The issue did not appear when affected meters were connected to the [smart water meter] system...the issue was minor and caused no problems with reads or billing.” 

In addition, the investigation found that water bill increases may have impacted far more households than the city had initially admitted.

NBC 7 Responds found more than 2,600 city customers saw their bills double or more last year after analyzing customer billing data for a 14-month period. 

The charts in the map above represent the number of customers who were charged a percent increase from one bill to the next. Analysis includes water billing data from January 2017 through February 2018.
Source: NBC 7 Responds and Voice of San Diego

On Monday, Kris Michell, the city’s Chief Operating Officer, issued a citywide memo announcing the new investigation into the water department’s handling of billing irregularities and customer service complaints.

“[W]e believe further internal review of the Public Utilities Department is warranted,” reads Michell’s July 16 memo. “[The city] is committed to transparency and effectively serving our communities. Implementing operational changes based upon all of these reviews will ensure the public is provided with the highest quality water and most accurate information.” 

Perkins said the new review, expected to be released by the end of the year, will serve as an opportunity for a fresh start. 

“This is an opportunity now to really get out in front and show some leadership that we are serious about this,” said Perkins. “We are going to dive really deep into this and uncover whatever there is that isn’t being articulated, isn’t being conveyed, isn’t being released, we are going to find out all of that information." 

Meanwhile, the city, according to Perkins, has decided to stop installing smart meters until the four reviews are complete.

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