San Diego

City Leaders Detail Changes to San Diego's Water Department

A former supervisor for the department called the changes “smoke and mirrors,” adding that more work is needed.

Big changes continue for San Diego’s Water Department, a department that has struggled to regain customer trust after more than a year of audits and internal investigations.

Top San Diego city managers presented those changes to the city council’s audit committee on Wednesday.

“We’ve developed a standard operating procedure which we did not have before for monitoring customer complaints about high bills,” said Johnnie Perkins the Deputy Chief Operating Officer for the City’s Infrastructure and Public Works Departments.

Perkins revealed the lack of procedures and more at the City Council’s Audit Committee meeting. Leaders met to discuss the list of changes recommended for the city’s water department, prompted by a series of highly critical audit reports.

“We are making changes to address making operations more efficient, more effective, not only for the department and the city but ultimately for the customer and the ratepayer,” added Perkins

Perkins and Public Utilities Department staff says the department has already implemented 80 percent of the auditor’s suggestions,which focused on high water meter bills and the growing backlog of broken water meter boxes and lids citywide. 

”Eighty percent is not a hundred percent but I am really proud of the progress we’ve made.”

In addition to the operational changes, the water department is continuing in its effort to overhaul the management structure. Entire divisions within the department, including the meter readers and the box and lid division, combined to form a new division, in order to provide better oversight of essential city services.

Interim director Matthew Vespi expects the department to implement the auditor’s remaining recommendations by June of this year.

More changes will undoubtedly continue. The department still needs to find a permanent director to replace Vic Bianes, who resigned abruptly last year. In addition, three out of the five deputy director positions are either filled by interim managers or are vacant.

But a former employee told the committee the so-called progress is just for show.

“Smoke and mirrors,” said Dwayne Harvey during public comment. Harvey says he was recently terminated from his job after 32 years with the city and five years as supervisor of the Water Meter Box and Lid Division. Harvey said he lost his job after speaking out about the audit.

Harvey was one of many water department employees that were let go as the city investigated the department last year. NBC 7 Responds spoke to another former employee that expressed similar grievances

“There were people selected to work in the Field Services Department with basically no experience. I can tell you flat out that some of those people chosen to direct and lead our section didn’t have the qualifications for it.”

Harvey said management shifted crews around to help out with the department’s transition to smart water meters, also known as the Advanced Metering Infrastructure, or AMI project. He said crews faced obstacles navigating the newly installed computer software. 

“AMI is a joke. It’s a joke and that’s one thing that no one’s talking about,” Harvey told NBC 7 Responds. “Because of AMI there are people still sitting in the office because they can’t get work done, they can’t get the work to their laptops. Even to this day, the crews still can’t get work done and it’s not their fault.”

Perkins, however, said the department will continue to make strides to improve the department, as well as the $67 million planned rollout of the AMI Program

Added Perkins, “We’re just making sure that when we do the AMI rollout it’s going to be very strategic, very timely, and very efficient.”

More reviews by the City Auditor’s office are expected later this year. A review of the AMI project, as well as the department’s customer service division, is expected to be released by June 2019.

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