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As the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District prepares to vote Wednesday on its annual budget, a growing number of critics are complaining that the district has withheld budget information from the public and failed to adequately disclose committee meetings and membership.

<NO1><NO>Among the criticisms is that president of the district's board, who is on the committee that recommends the general manager's salary and retirement package, has a personal financial arrangement with general manager, having prepared his tax returns for at least a decade.

One former board member said she resigned after she couldn't get budget information she had been requesting for a year. This year, the board refused to vote on a budget until it received a full spending plan.

Concerns about the district's lack of transparency come as the district is poised to increase its annual budget by $1 million in 2011-12, a 12 percent increase over the budget approved a year ago. <NO1>The projected spending is about 6 percent higher than what was actually spent in 2010-11, because the district revised its spending plan at mid-year.<NO>

Jim Wanderscheid, general manager of the district, said that he has paid Board President Charles Bouey to prepare his taxes for 10 or 15 years, and that Bouey also was a tax preparer for the district manager that preceded him.

"He prepares my taxes. That's all he does for me, period," Wanderscheid said. "If it comes down to a vote for something like my salary, he abstains. Charlie's been on the board for 25 years, so there's friendships that develop over that stuff."

Wanderscheid said that although he has not officially disclosed the accounting relationship to the full board of directors, "It's never been a secret."

The district, which has a proposed budget of $8.6 million, has 22 board members.

Bouey did not return phone calls for comment. In a previous interview, he declined to answer when asked whether he was Wanderscheid's personal accountant, citing client privacy.

"Charles Bouey may have a huge conflict-of-interest issue here and this could be the reason the manager's proposed final package was originally going to be so lucrative for him," said board member Frank Egger, who represents the city of Fairfax. "I noticed the night of the final pay package vote Bouey abstained. I think he knows he has a conflict."

Other board members interviewed about the tax preparation relationship were unaware of it, or knew about it but were not very concerned.

"I might be uncomfortable with something like that, and I might not do it myself, but I don't know if there's any legal reasons not to," said Sandy Ross, who represents Mill Valley.

Tom Bradner, who represents Larkspur and was formerly president of the board, said that when it came to discussions for Wanderscheid's final contract, Bouey stepped back.

"Whatever Charlie's interest was in this, whatever his participation was, was mitigated by the fact that everything was aired correctly," Bradner said.

Many discussions about salaries and retirement packages occur in committee meetings, not just full board meetings. Egger said committee meetings are rarely publicized.

"The question is, did he participate in the committee meetings about the salary?" asked Egger, who has been critical of what he says is the district's lack of transparency. "Since there are never any minutes about the committee meetings, it's difficult to pin down."

Announcements of committee meetings, and information about the membership of the committees, are not listed on the district website. Information about full board meetings often were not listed on the district's online calendar until after those meetings occurred.

Wanderscheid said notice of committee meetings are posted on a bulletin board outside the district's Cotati headquarters 72 hours prior to the meetings as required by state law.

Wanderscheid aside, board members and employees interviewed for this story did not know whether or how the board committee meetings were publicized. <NO1>Board member Billy Holland of San Anselmo said the board is cognizant of disclosure laws, and has postponed conversations in the past because the public had not yet been notified that a discussion was taking place.

To become more transparent, the district is developing a new website, said Nizza Sequeira, the agency's public relations director.

A lack of transparency on budget issues has long been a problem, said former board member Kirsten Sullivan, who represented Cloverdale on the board in 2006. Sullivan said that as a new board member she repeatedly asked for information about the prior year's budget and after a year of unsuccessful attempts she resigned.

"I was first looked at like it was a very strange question and . . . I never got the information," Sullivan said. "And I thought it was totally bizarre . . . because that is the only way you can effectively monitor things, if you look at the budget."

Sullivan said she was amazed at the size of the district's surplus back then — it's about $10 million now — and suggested that the board lower the tax levy charged to taxpayers.

"It was unheard of to give money back or to lower rates<NO1>. It just isn't done<NO>," Sullivan said. "They all laughed at me, at that one."

Wanderscheid said he remembered Sullivan, but did not recall her budget complaints.

"She never once said anything, that she didn't get any information or anything like that," Wanderscheid said. <NO1>In a letter provided by Wanderscheid that Sullivan wrote to the City of Cloverdale resigning her board position, Sullivan did not mention those concerns.

Sullivan also said it was her opinion that it was a waste of money that board members were fed meals at meetings that lasted only an hour, although she acknowledged that the cost was not high. The district has budgeted $6,000 for food at trustee meetings in 2011-12. <NO1>The actual amount spent last year was not included in budget documents.

<NO>Sullivan's concern has been echoed by Egger, who has said in recent public meetings that he would have to file state Public Records Act requests himself to obtain information on the budget and a handful of homes that receive a discounted rate for mosquito service<NO>.

"It's absolutely crazy," Egger said. "Imagine how the public must feel about their government if the person on the board can't get the information."

However, Egger eventually received the documents he requested without having to file an official records-act request.

The concerns about transparency and disclosure issues raised by the public and trustees prompted Sebastopol Mayor Guy Wilson, who also is a board member, to suggest that the district hire an attorney to attend all board meetings, at a cost of $15,000.

"I think Jim Wanderscheid has done a good job, I think his heart's in the right place," Wilson said. "But in reality, I think it is hard for a non-attorney to know what the appropriate procedure is in the moment."

Wilson said that counsel could help resolve questions such as whether the accounting relationship between Wanderscheid and Bouey is a conflict of interest, a relationship Wilson didn't know about.

"Is that a piece of information that should be disclosed to the whole board so they can take that into account before making a decision? Yeah," Wilson said. "But sometimes when things are not disclosed, it's not that there is an intention to hide anything . . . it's just done out of lack of knowledge or innocence."

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