By Nancy Fay
Special to La Prensa San Diego
Gary Croucher was supposed to be different. Croucher was supposed to be the one who, through example, would counter the wife beating, threats of violence, harassment, and financial problems that brought Otay Water board member Tony Innocentes so much notoriety and a court order preventing Innocentes from even talking to fellow board members or Otay Water staffers for three years.
One year after his appointment to the board of one of the largest water districts in the state, Croucher is an isolated figure; his colleagues are “disappointed” in his performance. He has missed several important votes at the regional water authority; but he seldom misses an opportunity to rack up per diem payments of $150 for meetings and even art shows expenses that exceed $25,000 for his first 12 months on the job.
And his former supporters wonder how and why Croucher has all of a sudden come to be such a close ally of Innocentes, the same person once described as the “worst elected official in the history of San Diego.”
The disappointment is so palpable that it was fellow firefighter Jose Lopez, the President of the Otay Board, who made the motion to strip Croucher of his membership on the prestigious San Diego County Water Authority Board of Directors. The district “needs to be better represented,” Lopez said. “That is as blunt as I can put it.”
Croucher may have fallen out of favor with his colleagues and constituents, but his friendship with Innocentes is holding steady. When Croucher was stripped of his seat on the water authority, the only one who spoke up for him was Innocentes, who said, just like the charges against him, Croucher’s problems were political and part of a plot.
“This is crazy, absolutely crazy,” Innocentes said at a recent meeting of the Otay Water Board. “I will tell you also Director Croucher that I think you realize you made a mistake some months back.”
“Some months back,” court documents show that dozens of threatening and harassing phone calls were made from Innocentes’ home to fellow board members, staffers, and political opponents. But none to Croucher.
In fact, phone records show several calls between Croucher and Innocentes, and Innocentes even included a transcript of one of the calls in court documents replying to the charges that lead to the restraining order against him.
In the message, Croucher is apologetic for not being able to write a letter supporting In-nocentes in court. Later, Croucher was one of four votes on the Otay Water Board to ask for a restraining order against Innocentes.
A Superior Court judge granted the request against Innocentes and his son. The son could not show up for the trial because he was in San Diego County jail for assault.
In fact, Croucher and Innocentes have grown so close that Innocentes is bragging to several people in the South Bay area that he wrote Croucher’s ballot statement for his upcoming election. Aside from his curious friendship with Innocentes, Croucher began to draw the unwelcome attention of his colleagues and constituents the day he discovered his first foray into public office came with some pretty good perks among them a $145 per diem allowance for when they are conducting public business. Another is travel.
Some use these reimbursements as a means to cover expenses; others use them as means to supplement their income; or as a personal travel agency.
In his first 12 months on the job since his appointment last June, Croucher, a fireman, has received more than $25,000 in reimbursements from the Otay Water District and the County Water Authority. These payments are rarely questioned, but then again, not many water board members in San Diego are as aggressive about attending events marginally connected to the business of supplying water to their constituents as is Croucher. (Except for Innocentes, whose per month expenses often surpass all the other board members combined.)
On February 5 of this year, for example, Croucher attended an exhibition of “Liquid Art” presented by the regional water governing group, the Metropolitan Water Authority. He submitted a claim for $16.06 for mileage, which no one had a problem with. But his attempt to get the County Water Authority to pay him $150 as a per diem expense for attending the art show was initially rejected by board chair Jim Turner public records show.
The Union Tribune thought this art show was important enough to send an intern to file a report; which noted that “ a single drop of water plummets from a black pipe that juts starkly from the wall. Seventeen feet later, the drop hits a blue basin with a plop … It’s not a leak. It’s art.”
Art or not, Turner refused to allow the payment, public records show. But Croucher persisted, and two months later, his request was granted and he received his $150, public records show.
But he was not as persistent with attendance at regular less glitzy water policy events. Over the last year, he has been marked absent at least a dozen times at meetings of the County and Otay water districts.
“I know you have only been on the board a year, but I do not see why you should have been marked absent a dozen times from various meetings of the county and Otay Water boards,” said Teresa Villapenez, a business owner in the Otay Water District. Despite public records available on the web that show Croucher’s record of absenteeism, Croucher said “I think I’ve attended all the meetings.” And echoing Tony Innocentes’ denials of all the allegations against him despite reams of public records that pointed to their accuracy, Croucher said he suspected the move to strip him of his membership was “politically motivated.”
Not so, said Villapenez, in her letter to Croucher. “You don’t seem to have any trouble attending water authority conferences in Las Vegas, for example. Or collecting per diem payments of $150 per day for going to art parties. Your record of spending on outside travel and per diem expenses is quickly approaching $20,000. Not bad for the first year!” Villapenez is referring to at least two trips to Las Vegas that Croucher made for water conferences. One where he stayed at Ceasar’s Palace, the other where he stayed at the Hard Rock hotel. Other trips at public expense include a water conference in Monterrey and a training seminar in Palm Springs, where Croucher and his party dined on Lobster with two rounds of Coors Lite at the Lobster Company.
The Otay Water District reimbursed Croucher up to its limit of $50 for the meal, with Croucher paying the remaining tab out of his own pocket.
All of Croucher’s traveling and per diem expenses do not sit well with Villapenez. “I was distressed to see that you missed several important discussions of “emergency” bi-national sewage treatment and water delivery,” Villapenez said. “Perhaps they were not really emergencies after all. But then again, when someone dials 911, you really have to respond first, then figure out if it is an emergency later. I also noticed that you missed important meetings on setting rates, water infrastructure, emergency storage, water conservation, fluoridation, desalinization, and the Colorado River.
“But I was most surprised when you were not there for a vote to fund the building of facilities in your own district, including the Otay 14 Flow Control Facility. But it is interesting to how you did find time to make a motion one of the few you have made in the last 12 months, to raise the per diem expenses of the board leadership. Perhaps it was an emergency.”
Croucher’s motion to increase the per diem amounts for board leader Jim turner came on May 23, one week after Turner and the district formally approved Croucher’s re-request for his $150 payment to attend the water art show.
Croucher could not be reached for comment.