PHOENIX — George Johnson, speaking slowly and amicably, assured regulators that the majority of customers are satisfied with Johnson Utilities service and that management is doing great.
Johnson, the owner and previous manager of Johnson Utilities, testified before the Arizona Corporation Commission Thursday in the evidentiary hearing on appointing an interim manager for the utility.
Johnson painted a picture of a utility, that while having inevitable and reasonable room for improvement, works closely with regulators to resolve problems. He said his company is run by excellent management with big plans for the future, with few complaints and raw sewage spills.
Johnson’s characterization stood in stark contrast to that of residents who spoke at the public hearings held by the commission in San Tan Valley earlier this month. Residents complained about billing issues, odors, hazardous gas exposure, poor customer service, high bills, unsafe water quality and expressed fear that the utility would retaliate against those who speak out against it.
Johnson described complaints as unverified and the expressions of being made by a vocal minority.
“Those people weren’t under oath, and where the hell are they today,” Johnson said in response to questions about the validity of complaints.
“A group of people down there ganged up on me about six years ago,” Johnson said. “They are still going at it.”
He said there is actually “silent majority,” who receive good service, quoting a public comment from the start of the hearing in support of the utility that Commissioner Andy Tobin voiced suspicions was staged.
Johnson also blamed Pinal County Supervisor Mike Goodman when questioned about the large turnout at the meetings, estimated at 600 people.
“Well that’s just a number. We got a man sitting right here, a supervisor, he was putting out large boards with the county emblem which he didn’t have the right to do,” Johnson said.
“You got people like Mike Goodman stepping outside of his shoes as a supervisor; he’s been an instigator out there.”
Johnson theorized that complaints about bills came from people draining and refilling pools or failing to understand the Arizona Groundwater Replenishment District fees, which the utility had been allowed to raise temporarily to recover losses from undercharging in years past. He could not explain customer reports of how water usage might spike dramatically from one month to another with no significant change in behavior.
He did say that in some cases the company was likely at fault. He said it would be appropriate for the utility to reimburse customers who could prove they overpaid.
There was some confusion as parties tried to establish who actually worked at Johnson Utilities and what the various companies related to it, both through contracts and Johnson’s children, actually did. Johnson himself kept saying “we” in reference to the utility, despite the fact that he is not supposed to be involved in its operations as a manager due to an FBI investigation and federal indictment for bribery.
He initially said that Johnson Utilities had 90 to 100 employees, but then later had to correct himself and say that it had one employee, Gary Drummond. The 90 to 100 employees figure is from Hunt Management, where Brad Cole is the chief operating officer.
Johnson said that he speaks frequently with Drummond and Cole, but from the perspective of an owner not a manager. Johnson said that he has no interest in Hunt Management other than parental, as it is run by his children. But he said he sees Cole almost every day, because Cole is engaged to his daughter, but that they don’t speak about the utility often.
John Dantico, who is an intervener and resident near the Johnson Utilities section 11 plant near Johnson Ranch, went through a long list of self-monitoring reports signed by Johnson. Johnson said he was relying on the verbal confirmation of his employees, who said that the required weekly inspections of the freeboards were taking place at the section 11 plant. Dantico made Johnson read aloud the part in the self-monitoring report that said that falsifying the report was a punishable criminal offense.
On the notice of violation submitted to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, it notes that during an inspection of the plant an employee told ADEQ officials that the records of the inspections were not historically kept at the plant, showing an apparent contradiction in the reports and the notice of violation that Dantico believes to be illegal.
Johnson argued that many of the raw-sewage spills detailed in the hearing were not the utility’s fault, citing problems that take place in the course of normal operations as well as faulting people dumping garbage into manholes. When asked if the 300,000 gallons of raw- sewage spills totaled thus far by commissioners is alarming to him, he said that it would be if it were true, but “I don’t know if it’s true.”
ADEQ officials testified earlier that Johnson Utilities has had more raw sewage spills than any other private utility in the state.
Johnson also cast doubt, without providing an argument, on the number of monthly disconnection notices (10,000) provided by the commission. The disconnections, which result in a charge to customers, had been a major complaint at the hearings.
Johnson told commissioners that they were making too much of a 2016 incident which has been brought up many times in the hearing in which ADEQ officials were locked out of collecting water samples at a Johnson Utilities well. He described the incident as an inconsequential misunderstanding in which employees simply didn’t have time that day to take ADEQ officials to all the wells. The agency could have returned the next day without a warrant, he said.
ADEQ official Dave Dunnaway testified earlier that he is not aware of ADEQ officials being prevented from collecting samples in any other case.
Parties avoided aggressively questioning Johnson, even when he could not remember events or answer many questions. That was until Tobin asked him, if management is doing so great, what is he supposed to tell from all of the people who spoke at public comment.
“Are 600 people wrong? ... There is nowhere else for these people to go and they are desperate for Johnson Utilities to solve their problems,” Tobin said. “I get the sense you are not taking this seriously.”
Johnson didn’t directly answer Tobin’s statement. Throughout the hearing, Johnson maintained that current management was very capable. He does not plan to resume a managerial role in the utility and is looking into buying an island in the Caribbean and retiring there.