Mayor criticized for handling of Poway water crisis

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POWAY, Calif. – A handful of water experts had harsh criticism for Poway Mayor Steve Vaus Tuesday, questioning his handling of a water crisis that started in late November.

“As elected officials, we need to step up and hold our colleagues accountable,” said Frank Hilliker, who sits on the board of directors for the Lakeside Water District and San Diego County Water Authority.

Hilliker was joined by Steve Robak and Steve Johnson of the Lakeside Water District and Mark Robak from the Otay Water District. The men, who called themselves the East County Safe Water Coalition, all said their opinions were their own and did not represent their districts.

Hilliker said the water crisis should have been avoided. He said Poway's water infrastructure is 50 years old, outdated and needed repairs long ago.

“They kept putting off maintenance,” he said. “If it’s a car, and it’s an oil change, you can go an extra 500 miles, but if your brakes are failing, you can’t do that. That’s the way I look at it.”

City officials said a faulty flap gate somehow got stuck in the open position, allowing the water to backflow from the storm drain and bring contaminated water in to the drinking water supply. As a result, officials ordered a boil water advisory for thousands of homes and businesses.

Eventually, water district employees in Poway told the mayor’s office that the water was safe, but they still needed approval from state officials in Sacramento.

“With the boil water order still in place and the testing still being done, Mayor Steve Vaus repeatedly said, ‘The water is safe, I’m drinking it and giving it to my pets,’” Hilliker said. “Making these irresponsible comments prior to final testing results was reckless.”

“That wasn’t about dirty water. That was about dirty politics,” fired back Vaus Tuesday. “That East County Safe Water Coalition didn’t even exist until they sent that press release out.”

Vaus claimed the four men formed the group just this week. He pointed out that at least three of them have publicly endorsed the man who plans to run against Vaus for mayor in an upcoming election. Their names did appear on the endorsement page on the candidate’s website as of Tuesday.

“How is that relevant for public safety?” Hillick countered. “How is that relevant to all the businesses who had to close and spend thousands of dollars?”

Still, Vaus contends the water is now safe in Poway, and he says his water experts think so too.

“I’m not going to let so called water experts from some other districts tell us how to do things. I trust my staff.”

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