By Dana Trumbull
Generally speaking, as I report on Pinal County news, I stick to the items that directly affect Apache Junction, Gold Canyon and the areas in which The News is distributed. Accordingly, I have not been diligent in reporting the ongoing mega-drama of Johnson Utilities and the San Tan Valley revolt against “yellow water, low pressure and poop running down the streets,” as Karen Christian, co-founder of the San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates, described the situation during a call to the public at the April 23 Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting.
I have, however, followed the unfolding drama, and something has been bothering me… something I couldn’t quite nail down, until I received a press release from the Association of Christian Churches and Non-Profits (ACCO) calling for reparations from Johnson Utilities and for District 5 Supervisor Todd House to step down due to his “complicity in supporting the abuses occurring in Johnson Utilities.” ACCO accuses House of working against the best interest of his constituents (District 5 includes a portion of San Tan Valley as well as the Apache Junction/Gold Canyon area) and in opposition to “the health and welfare of our families, children, our water and our air.”
And I realized: That’s what has been bothering me. It’s a matter of trust; trust in our District 5 Supervisor. And that does affect the AJ/GC area, because Mr. House is also supposed to represent AJ/GC in county matters. When push comes to shove, where do his loyalties lie? Does he represent his constituents first or his own personal interests and affiliations?
Allow me to back up a bit.
Johnson Utilities has a somewhat feudal approach to customer service, as in, “This is my kingdom, I shall do as I please.” When I was working as the director of new construction in the Florence Unified School District, I protested the exorbitant fees Johnson Utilities was demanding for one of the schools we were building in San Tan Valley. I was told, literally, “If you don’t like it, you can find your own water.” That attitude flows from the top down – rather like the sewage from Johnson Utilities waste processing plants.
Through the years, there have been many instances of E-coli and nitrates found in the water, hydrogen sulfide in the air (108 violations between 2015 and 2017) and overflows such as the one that poured 65,000 gallons of raw sewage into the Queen Creek Wash in late March, 2018.
According to information supplied by Queen Creek Utilities Director Paul Gardener during Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) hearings, Johnson Utilities had 42 sewage spills between 2015 and May 2018, with total unlawful discharges of at least 377,000 gallons of sewage and wastewater. This is the second highest number of exceedances in the state. Only Phoenix has had more incidents; however, they serve 2 million residents vs. Johnson Utilities’ service base of roughly 100,000 customers.
George Johnson and Johnson Utilities have been fined by ADEQ many times; however, the penalties seem to be taken in stride as a normal cost of doing business. They certainly have not provided any significant impetus for improvement.
Johnson has also been indicted on eight counts of bribery, fraud and conspiracy involving former Corporation Commission Chairman Gary Pierce, his wife Sherry and lobbyist Jim Norton. The trial is set to begin Wednesday.
After a decade of frustration, Johnson Utilities customers are in revolt. Pinal County Supervisor Mike Goodman, who represents the majority of San Tan Valley, heard their calls and reached out to facilitate community meetings with the ACC, where, over the course of six meetings, approximately 1,200 constituents were finally able to air their grievances.
As a result, the ACC has been holding hearings to decide if an interim manager should be appointed to take over operations at Johnson Utilities until the whole mess can be sorted. Last week, the commission issued a statement, that, yes, an interim manager should be appointed. Rebuttals were due June 1, so we should hear the final decision this week.
So where is Todd House in all this?
As Chairman of the Board of Supervisors, Mr. House has verbally dragged his heels, providing rationalizations for Johnson Utilities’ actions even as the BOS voted to approve a resolution supporting the ACC investigation into complaints. To his credit, he did participate in the unanimous decision to approve the resolution – a formal statement to the ACC that supervisor Rios later described as a “toothless” opinion. In later meetings, he tried to suppress public comment about whether Johnson Utilities should have an interim manager assigned and who that should be. Further discussions among the BOS have been limited to executive sessions, effectively preventing the public from participating.
At the ACC hearings, House testified that he was entirely satisfied with Johnson Utilities’ handling of complaints and felt they did not need an interim manager. House defended Johnson Utilities, stating that modifications to operations in the waste processing plant were successful in lowering emissions, even though records show 24 hydrogen sulfide exceedances at the Section 11 plant between February and May this year – several of which occurred while the hearings were in session.
He also testified that his 12-year friendship with George Johnson, which is close enough that he and his wife “double-dated” (his words) with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, had no effect on his opinion of Johnson Utilities and the ACC proceedings.
Smells like raw sewage to me.
Although I place a high value on loyalty among friends, I have to say: when you run for public office, your friendships must be secondary to your responsibility to your constituents. Perhaps, Mr. House, your friendship with Mr. Johnson has blinded you to any possible wrongdoing. Perhaps you just don’t want to know what’s really going on. Perhaps you assume that George has finally run out of luck and the ACC will settle things adequately without your support, releasing you from concerns about choosing between betraying your friend and supporting your district. Perhaps your constituents simply are not your priority.
I don’t know. But it’s something you might want to think about; because you can be sure the voters will.