MAY 26, 1997

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Local News

Water District calls for audit

Woodinville Water District by Andrew Walgamott, staff reporter
The Board of the Woodinville Water District called for a state audit of their April 15 and May 6 minutes after a pattern of misuse of funds and equipment by Commissioner Walter Backstrom surfaced in April and May.
   Backstrom's official travel now needs prior approval from the board in wake of the decision. The state auditor will decide if funds and equipment have been misused and if laws have been broken.
   In the April 15 minutes, various expenses on the part of Backstrom were called into question. Commissioners discussed Backstrom's misuse of a district vehicle for a week in August, misuse of a credit card to make personal phone calls at a Sept. 22-25, 1996 Vancouver, Washington conference, and a 90-day overdue balance of $371.03 on a cellular phone. Backstrom paid $60 on the credit card bill on December 3, but $5.72 plus interest remains.
   At the May 20 meeting, board president Gail Harrell asked Backstrom if he would be paying the balance. Backstrom said it would be paid May 23, nearly eight months after the charges were incurred. Harrell cited the Revised Codes of Washington and accused Backstrom of breaking the law. Backstrom replied, "I resent that. To accuse me of breaking the law is wrong."
   The $371.03 overdue balance on the cell phone was paid May 9. Though the phone is Backstrom's to use, the district is responsible for overdue balances.
   Harrell also inquired when a $300 cash advance Backstrom received April 23 for a district trip to Boise, Idaho would be repaid. Backstrom did not attend the May 7-9 conference, due to a court appointment May 7. When Harrell pressed the issue, Backstrom said, "Isn't this something for executive session?" Backstrom has until May 27 to reimburse the district.
   The district took steps to speed up the reimbursement process. Following discussion, Resolution 3226, saying in part, "if for any reason the district's business trip is canceled, the cash advance, including advances for hotels, shall be returned to the district no later than the close of business the next day," was adopted by a vote of 3-1, with Backstrom dissenting.
   Commissioner Gwenn Maxfield said Backstrom was putting the district in a bad position and suggested turning the minutes over to the state auditor to determine whether his actions were legal or illegal. A motion to turn over the April 15 and May 6 minutes to the state for review passed 3-1, with Backstrom dissenting. Harrell also requested that until the state returned with findings from their audit that any official travel on the part of Backstrom be approved by the board prior to his trip.
   When Backstrom inquired about meetings that might come up, Commissioner Maureen Jewitt replied that there was always "the avenue of going to the president of the board [Harrell]." Backstrom spoke out. "I don't think it serves the district well. I think the responsibility I have as commissioner to attend to different committees I've been assigned would be hampered. I think it would hurt the morale of staff. You can't have different standards for one person."
   A motion requiring that the board authorize any travel Backstrom might make other than local travel was passed 3-1, with Backstrom dissenting. Near the end of the meeting, the board approved Backstrom's travel to the next three board meetings.
   Later, Harrell said the board was not picking on Backstrom. "We're fulfilling a duty, not targeting him. If we didn't, we would be neglecting our duty. When you take an oath of office, you swear to uphold [the laws]," Harrell said.

Woodinville Water District meetings are held on the first and third Tuesdays of the month at 7 p.m. at the Water District Building, 17238 Woodinville-Duvall Road. For information, call 483-9104.