The city of Lodi has a citizen watchdog, and he’s trying his best to keep sewer and water prices low. John Slaughterback, a white-haired man in his 70s, has made a ritual of checking in on the Lodi City Council, especially when it comes to items that he thinks could raise water and sewer rates in the future.
He retired 20 years ago from the now-defunct sugar processing plant in Clarksburg, and started tracking the goings-on of city government when he lived in Galt. Two years ago, he moved to Lodi for health reasons and kept up the habit.
“I realized there were a lot of problems and I started watching things. When I came here, I wanted to see what Lodi was doing,” he said.
Every Friday morning, Slaughterback logs on to the city’s website to look up the city council agenda. He keeps his eye out for any projects related to water or sewers, or that appear to have high costs. Slaughterback writes up his thoughts on the item, then makes sure he’s sitting in the audience of the City Council meeting the following Wednesday to make his voice heard.
Most recently, he’s been concerned about a project to inspect and maintain 24 generators related to the city’s well system. There are two large generators, and the other 22 are in storage as backups to run the well pumps. The city council approved awarding a $118,000 contract for the project to Holt of California in West Sacramento on July 17; it was the only company to bid on the project.
Slaughterback could not understand why the city would pay so much to a company based an hour away, when engineers and mechanics are already on the city’s payroll.
Slaughterback’s questioning inspired Councilman Bob Johnson to request a report in June on whether city staff could get the work done.
The city did report that they have workers on staff with the necessary skills to inspect the generators, though the skills are spread around three people. But Public Works Director Wally Sandelin said there was one employee at Holt of California with all the necessary engineering and mechanic skills to get it done himself.
Slaughterback didn’t buy it.
“They kept pushing how complicated the work was,” said Slaughterback. “How much of a problem do we really have if the generators are in storage?”
If the contract went outside the city, Slaughterback feared the company in question would use the entire amount of funding allotted, rather than trying to keep costs low.
But it’s a state law that keeps city projects going to contractors far and wide. California contracts code requires that any projects over $5,000 must be advertised out to all potential bidders. Then, save for a few exceptions, the project must go to the lowest bidder. Even if that’s someone from Sacramento instead of the Central Valley.
This rule goes for any Public Works projects, such as streets, levees, sewerlines or sidewalks, said City Attorney Steve Schwabauer.
In the case of the generators, only one company bid on the projects.
“It went out to multiple vendors. They followed all of the legal requirements,” Schwabauer said. “It’s not unheard of for only one contractor to respond.”
But Slaughterback’s comments prompted one member of the city council to take a closer look.
Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce reviewed the list of those who were notified of the contract, and was satisfied with the number of groups on it.
Mounce agrees with Slaughterback’s efforts to keep costs low, but says that can sometimes be achieved by seeking out more bids than what’s required.
“I’m a fan of doing more than just a minimum. On certain projects, we’re doing just the minimum,” she said. “There are times we could throw the net out further than we do.”
At the July 17 meeting and other times Slaughterback has appeared before the city council, Mounce thanked him for his diligence.
“Lodi’s very fortunate we have someone vocally paying attention to what the council is doing,” she said, adding that other meeting regulars and viewers at home send her weekly emails to share their thoughts on the agenda and council decisions. “With people out there watching, paying attention and asking questions, we have a healthier city.”
Slaughterback is disappointed that the council approved awarding the projects to outside groups, and is keeping a lookout for the next item with a high pricetag.
He’s concerned about water and sewer projects because he says that overspending now leads to raising citizens’ rates later.
“I’m going to be here to look back at all this when they come back at us with rate increases,” he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.