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The Graton Community Services District has never held an election in its 10-year history, which may be why the Nov. 5 race for two seats on the board that runs the rural west Sonoma County sewer system is so contentious.

The five volunteer directors who serve four-year terms have always run unopposed. But after a recent Grand Jury report that said the board lacked understanding of the district's finances and sewer rates that are among the highest in the county, HolLynn D'Lil and Richard Coleman stepped forward to challenge incumbents John Roehl and Jane Eagle.

Annual sewer rates are $1,574 per residence, second highest of the nine sewer districts in the county.

The heated race has included allegations of illegal campaigning and vandalism from both sides. It has caused a deep rift in the quiet agricultural community of 1,700 north of Sebastopol.

The challengers, who are running as a slate, have filed a complaint with the state Fair Political Practices Commission after the district used about $500 of taxpayer money to send out nearly 600 newsletters containing the incumbents' campaign statements.

The newsletter states that the challengers were asked to provide a statement but declined. Both D'Lil and Coleman said they were not approached about contributing to the newsletter.

The two incumbents have had their campaign signs damaged, and a car that was plastered with incumbent posters was vandalized, Eagle said.

The challengers have also experienced vandalism. On Saturday, someone posted a flier at the Graton Post Office with Coleman and D'Lil's pictures defaced above the words "Liars, Cheaters, Bullies."

At stake in the election is control of the district's new $11.5 million wastewater treatment plant that serves 550 houses and uses a unique pasteurization technology, and oversight of the district staff.

General Manager Bob Rawson, a Santa Rosa Junior College professor and wastewater consultant, works as a contractor for the district billing taxpayers $70 per hour for his services. His agreement allows him to use district equipment to test his wastewater inventions.

The challengers have questioned his contract and want to explore hiring a staff manager. Incumbent board members point out that Rawson donates a lot of his time and allows the district to use his inventions for free.

"Is he making decisions that benefit the district or his research?" said D'Lil, a retired accessibility consultant. "We need to make the general manager an employee."

Eagle, the current board president, said that using Rawson's patented inventions for free has saved the district $175,000 per year. She pointed out that he helped the district secure $4.3 million in federal grants and a $6 million principal-forgiveness loan to upgrade the treatment plant.

"Bob is a mad genius," said the retired real estate agent. "A lot of people don't like that. Graton is so lucky to have this guy."

Coleman, who owns a used car dealership in Sebastopol and has lived in Graton for 16 years, said he is running for office because he feels the current board does not have enough oversight over day-to-day operations.

"I'm running because the people who are in place are unelected," he said. "They never question anything. They just rubber stamp the bills that they get."

John Roehl, a former Fresno teacher who has been on the board five years, said that the directors have fixed some of the problems addressed in the Grand Jury report.

The report said that the board "has done an inadequate job of communicating with ratepayers regarding the ongoing operations of the GCSD. … The board has the ultimate responsibility for the management of the GCSD but is failing in several respects to carry out that responsibility."

Roehl said the board has started to more closely scrutinize the district's books and better communicate with ratepayers.

"We question the financial reports very carefully," he said. "I do feel that we are up on the finances."

Roehl said that the October newsletter that turned into a campaign mailer and drew the FPPC complaint was part of the board's attempt at better communication.

He said that including political statements in the newsletter was "a bad idea. I didn't have anything to do with the mailer. We're looking into it."

Residents will have a chance to meet the four candidates in what promises to be a lively, heated League of Women Voters forum Wednesday at 6 p.m. at the Graton Community Club.

"The election has divided Graton. It's neighbor versus neighbor," Eagle said. "It's gotten really ugly."

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or matt.brown@pressdemocrat.com.