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The Long, Strange Saga of Brett Richards and the Ross Valley Sanitary District

| July 17, 2013
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The Ross Valley Sanitary District in happier times, celebrating the opening of the Corte Madera path and completion of the replacement of a large main pipe. At the front, cutting the ribbon, can be seen former sanitary district manager Brett Richards and former board member Marcia Johnson. Photo: RVSD Courtesy press photo

The Ross Valley Sanitary District in happier times, celebrating the opening of the Corte Madera path and completion of the replacement of a large main pipe. At the front left, cutting the ribbon, can be seen former sanitary district manager Brett Richards and former board member Marcia Johnson. Photo: RVSD Courtesy press photo

Yesterday, the Marin County district attorney announced that former Ross Valley Sanitary District (RVSD) general manager Brett Richards had been arrested in Moalboal, Cebu, Philippines, following a bizarre year that started with his abrupt emailed resignation from the agency in July 2012 and his subsequent disappearance.

The arrest happened on July 11. Since then, the former wastewater manager has been held in Manila awaiting proceedings, according to the DA, before he will be sent back to Marin County on charges of the misappropriation of public funds, embezzlement and multiple counts of money laundering.

According to the press release:

“On March 5, Marin County District Attorney Ed Berberian filed a criminal complaint and obtained a felony arrest warrant from the Marin County Superior Court, and bail was set at $1 million. Through its continuing investigation, the D.A.’s office learned that Richards had fled the United States, and the tracking of his financial records traced him to the Philippines.”

This isn’t the beginning of the story, though.

KQED readers and listeners may remember the Ross Valley Sanitary District and Richards from two back-to-back sewage spills in 2010 totaling 842,000 gallons in Kentfield, near the College of Marin. Richards and the sanitary district, which serves most of central Marin, blamed the spills on “environmental terrorism.” Large amounts of debris, including “large pieces of road asphalt and rubber from the Kent School running track, along with two hard hats, chunks of clay dirt and a big piece of wire nest,” were found clogging up the pipes and it was believed by the agency to have been deliberately put there.

The sanitary district has found itself in the middle of a glut of lawsuits in the last few years — including one with construction company JMB over the spill, one with the wastewater treatment agency of which it is a part, and one with an LLC that had entered into an option to purchase land from the agency but then fell into dispute about that land. In 2011, RVSD was the subject of a third Marin County grand jury report criticizing the agency for its mismanagement, excessive litigation and business practices that appeared to be increasing costs for residents.

Brett Richards, the former general manager of RVSD, was arrested in the Philippines. Photo: RVSD

Brett Richards, the former general manager of RVSD, was arrested in the Philippines. Photo: RVSD

The name of the report? “The Ross Valley Sanitary District: Not Again!”

Opposition to the board and to Richards’ management grew as rate increases and pipe fixes became increasingly contentious. Dire warnings from the district about a lack of funding fueled concerns. And private security was frequently in attendance at board meetings during the height of the debates.

In June 2012, ratepayers went to the ballot box, ousting incumbent board member Marcia Johnson and electing newcomers (though well known in the community) Frank Egger and Mary Sylla — who found herself the subject of a rambling and angry letter from Richards criticizing her for her campaign and opposition to his policies.

According to the Marin Independent Journal, which also has the letter in full:

In the letter, Richards, who has been the district’s manager since 2008, suggests that Sylla has been speaking ill of him or untruthfully, but the language is vague.

“Having heard numerous stories from others about the words you speak regarding me, it seems fitting to send you this note,” the letter continues. “Frankly, I had hope (sic) you were a better person than you represent yourself to be.”

After the Marin IJ published an editorial arguing that the general manager had received a $350,000 loan from the district to secure housing but hadn’t bought any property, he reportedly stopped coming into work.

Richards was hired in 2008 and paid $163,000 a year, which was raised to $197,000 in 2009. Under his contract, he also was prohibited from being fired in the 90 days before a board election or 180 days after.

After failing to come into work for weeks, Richards emailed his resignation in late July 2012, according to the district lawyer. In September, Richards started a blog to expose the truth about the campaign against him and RVSD. Ross Valley Sewer Truth, which dove into a number of political issues that had been hot topics, such as sewage agency consolidation, is now defunct and has been taken down.

According to the San Anselmo-Fairfax Patch:

The purpose of the blog? According to the author, it will disclose, in the order of events, Ross Valley Sanitary District happenings between 2008 and 2010.

“In the pages that follow, you are going to learn about board members, mayors, councilpersons, lawyers, public employees, those who are willing to subject themselves to a carefully shielded power group, and what happens to those when they don’t.  In addition, we’ll be talking about the better part of $300,000,000 [stet] because part of the story is who has and who desires the power to control it, what some will do to keep it, and what some will do to get it.”

It didn’t take long for Marin leaders to begin passing the blog’s URL from inbox to inbox.

“With some of the things that are written here, I would expect it is [Richards],” said Larkspur Councilman Larry Chu. “I don’t know what he intends to do with this, or if he feels some kind of injustice and needs to put his side of the story out there.”

The writer says the blog is an “invitation” for the public to be the jury.

“Am I crazy?  I hope you’ll read on and decide for yourself.”

What has he done since then? How did he end up in the Philippines? What happened to the $350,000 loan? If only he still updated the blog, perhaps we would know.

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Category: Environment, Politics and Government

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About the Author ()

Kelly O'Mara is a writer and reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes about food, health, sports, travel, business and California news. Her work has appeared on KQED, online for Outside Magazine and in Competitor Magazine, among others. Reach Kelly O'Mara at kdomara@KQED.org.

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