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A closer look at utility contract squabble

Updated: February 27, 2014 6:42AM

You know what they say about keeping your enemies close.

Not that anyone would admit it, but I can’t help but think that philosophy was at least partly in play when East Aurora School District decided to hire its number one Thorn-In-Side to look into three utility contracts.

Ralph Padron, a retired purchasing manager from Naperville, had become a familiar and (no doubt) unwelcome sight at School Board meetings ever since the scandal surrounding the district’s business office broke in the fall of 2012.

Padron’s wife, Lorryl Denny, is a retired teacher at East, and among the practices that created so much flak was retired teacher insurance. But the more prolonged the controversy became, the more vocal Padron got, pinning many of his criticisms directly at the feet of Board President Annette Johnson.

Throughout those public confrontations, Padron volunteered his expertise at no cost to look into past business contracts so that taxpayers could be assured the district was being as transparent as possible.

Still, it came as a surprise to many of us when we heard the board not only took him up on his offer, he was offered $7,500 to audit the gas, trash and electric contracts.

That turned out to be, if not a mistake, more headaches for the district. Padron did his job and came to East attorney Bernie Weiler and a few members of the board with information that the district had for years been paying higher than average costs to Windy City Energy. He also claims responsibility for finding a $9,000 Nicor overcharge, which certainly more than made up for his paycheck.

The board’s response: Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We will fix the problem. Now go away.

But Padron is not going away. Last week he went in front of the board yet again, demanding to know why nothing more has been done about his findings and asking for a full disclosure of past problems, as well as an investigation into what he says were “shameful loss of taxpayer dollars.”

And even though he’s no longer on the district’s payroll, Padron is continuing his investigation, which includes filing a boatload of FOIAs.

One of the reasons school officials hired Padron to look into the contracts, said Weiler, was because he’d showered the administration with so many of these time-consuming and often misguided requests. It was creating big issues for a staff already working its collective butts off to clean up former problems so the district could continue moving in a positive direction.

“We decided to make him part of the solution,” noted Weiler. “We gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was doing this in the best interest of the district and the children.”

Johnson, who says she spent 90 minutes talking to a representative from the Citizen Utility Board about the natural gas issue, maintains these problems “involved neither corruption nor collusion but rather sloppy accounting,” as well as a lack of understanding on the part of the former business office about the complexities of buying energy on an open market.

Weiler says even though the district “would have eventually looked into all these things Ralph found,” they appreciated his work … but not the way he seems to be using it to look for “buried bodies.”

“We need to stop this era of placing blame before the facts are known,” added Weiler. “We are disappointed our interest in the information was different than his interest.”

Of course Padron is not satisfied with these answers, and has every intention of pursuing his “fact-finding mission.”

So the burning question remains: Do these district officials regret hiring this — my phrase, not theirs — thorn in its side?

“We fulfilled our contract,” was Weiler’s diplomatic response. “We are acting on his information.”

In the meantime, Padron accuses the district of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars, while the board insists it is sitting in a good position to save money when a new contract is signed.

My two cents: A lot of energy, outside of therms, is getting burned. Let’s hope the cold hard facts result in a warming trend for East.

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