July 8, 2008

Santa Clara Water Board Praises Part-Time CEO, Extends High-Pay Contract

By Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News, Calif.

Jul. 8--The Santa Clara Valley Water District today extended the contract of its interim CEO, continuing a relationship in which she will work part-time and receive $432,000 this year by drawing both a state government pension and receiving a salary from the agency.

The board voted 7-0 to continue Olga Martin Steele's contract for another six months, until Dec. 31, while it searches for a permanent chief executive.

Board members praised Steele's work as they extended her $252,000 contract. They also slammed a Mercury News article that outlined the arrangement, which allows Steele to work part-time so she can continue drawing her $180,000 state pension.

"You are doing a four-star job. I believe it is a female issue. That's what I believe," said board member Dick Santos, a retired San Jose Fire captain who represents Alviso. "And you rose above that. Your service to this community, this board, we are very proud you are the first Hispanic and the first female to take this job in what I call a white affluent area. Congratulations, keep up the good work."

Based in San Jose, the district provides drinking water and flood protection to 1.8 million Santa Clara County residents. Its $364 million annual budget comes from water bills and property taxes.

Under the contract, Steele works 32 hours a week because state regulations prohibit retired workers from drawing a pension while working full-time.

On Monday, Steele and district board

chairwoman Rosemary Kamei defended the arrangement. They noted that Steele does not receive paid vacation, a car allowance, or health benefits from the district -- benefits worth tens of thousands of dollars. They added that retired state workers have worked at other government agencies in California under similar arrangements.

The deal was criticized by taxpayer advocates, however, as costly double-dipping.

"This is an example of double dipping. It is reflective of a broken pension system in California," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

The district's board hired Steele as interim CEO on Jan. 14, after pressuring former CEO Stan Williams to resign. Steele had worked at the district for eight years, including as its chief administrative officer, until 2006. Before returning to the water district, she also had worked as deputy director of the State Council on Developmental Disabilities until 2007.

On Tuesday, water district board members thanked Steele for agreeing to take the job as interim CEO on short notice after Williams resigned.

"This is not a job that you had planned on. Certainly you have your own personal life. You had retired and you had other plans. And we disrupted those plans," said board member Tony Estremera, who also works as directing attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Santa Clara County. "I wanted to express my sincere appreciation."

Contact Paul Rogers at [email protected] or (408) 920-5045.


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