BY EMILY MIBACH
Daily Post Staff Writer
The East Palo Alto Sanitary District spent over $24,000 on lavish trips last year for the district’s board of directors, according to public records obtained by a candidate who called the trips “twice-a-year vacations.”
Candidate Mark Dinan filed a public records request with the sanitary district for travel paid by the district for its five board members — Dennis Scherzer, Betsy Yanez, Glenda Savage, Joan Sykes-Miessi and Goro Mitchell — over the past few years. Dinan, a tech recruiter who runs the Facebook page East Palo Alto Neighbors, mentioned that some of the directors appear to have taken their families on the trips.
In May, Scherzer stayed two nights in Sacramento, where the conference cost $275 and the hotel room, a Residence Inn, cost $663.38 for the two nights. The district paid the bill.
Dinan is running for one of three seats up for grabs on March 3. He is running against newcomer Martha Stryker, former board member Edrick Haggans and incumbents Yanez, Savage and Mitchell.
The five directors went on 16 trips in 2019, going to places such as Indian Wells, which is near Joshua Tree; Austin, Texas; Washington D.C.; San Diego and Sacramento.
“This is not the main issue but is indicative of how this place is run, and gives you an idea of what their priorities are,” Dinan said.
Dinan said he thinks travel for directors ought to be cut to one trip every two years. He said it’s well known in the community that district board members take vacations by going to conferences paid by the district.
‘Oh, they’re dirty’
“Every time I mention that I’m running for the sanitary district, every long-term resident says, ‘Oh, they’re corrupt,’ ‘Oh, they’re dirty,’” Dinan said.
Dinan said he’d like to see more transparency in the district, such as live-streaming meetings and efforts made to inform residents and city officials what is going on. Dinan also said he wants to develop a strategic plan so the district can plan ahead for the influx of development.
“I’m not some white knight coming in. I just want honesty and transparency,” Dinan said.
Entering the race
Asked how he decided to jump into the race, he said he read a story in the Post about Martha Stryker, who is Scherzer’s daughter, announcing she was running for the sewer board. After talking it over with longtime city volunteer Court Skinner, Dinan went up to the county Elections Office at 40 Tower Road in San Mateo eight hours before the deadline and filed his paperwork to run.
Dinan also said he was concerned about the high hook-up fees the district decided to charge The Primary School on Weeks Street and Sobrato’s new development at the coroner of Donohoe and University, behind the Chevron.
The district recently raised its rates, requiring the school to pay a $4 million fee and Sobrato $6 million.
‘Shakedown’ hook-up fees
Dinan said that people from Sobrato and The Primary School have referred to the rates as “shakedowns.” He added that he’s heard board members refer to the Primary School, as the “Facebook school,” since the school is run by Dr. Priscilla Chan, who is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s wife.
Dinan also said that the $4 million the district wants from the school is slowing down its progress on construction.
The district’s general manager, Akin Okupe, told the Post last month that the sewer pipes must be two-thirds full in order to be safe from an overflow from the types of floods that are expected to happen every 10 and 50 years. Right now, many pipes are at capacity, meaning larger buildings could mess up the system, so the district is trying to charge the developers high fees — $6 million for Sobrato and $4 million for the Primary School — to pay for the needed upgrades.
Okupe said there are two past reports, one done in 2002 and another in 2014, telling the district that the pipes are at capacity, and Okupe said that it is against the law to make residents pay for the needs of incoming development.
But Dinan said it’s possible that the district could go out for state and federal grants, perhaps even by teaming up with the city or modestly increase rates. Right now, the district has the third lowest rate on the Mid-Peninsula at an average of $47.92 per home, according to a report presented to the Redwood City Council in June.
“The board is not thinking strategically, they’re just thinking about how they can keep things cheap for residents,” Dinan said.
Dinan also mentioned that there could be merit in the idea of the district being dissolved and being added to the city government.
Open invitation to other candidates
The Post has invited all six candidates running for the sewer district’s board — Edrick Haggans, Betsy Yanez, Goro Mitchell, Glenda Savage, Dinan and Stryker — to talk about their candidacies and the district. Only Dinan and Stryker responded to set up times to meet with the Post.