Two Valley Moms Battle Wealthy Water Baron George Johnson in Court

Like most rich folks, deep-pockets Scottsdale developer George Johnson is good at getting his way. Maybe not all the time, but often enough.

Earlier this year, when Johnson wanted the right to convey water to an as-yet-undeveloped area of Florence, he got it from the Florence Town Council, saying he needed it for 6,000 homes he planned to build there.

As my colleague, Monica Alonzo, and I reported in our recent series, "Florence Exposed," all but two members of the Town Council supported Johnson, whose company, Johnson Utilities, provides water-and-sewer service to homes in the San Tan Valley and parts of Florence.

Then, in June, Johnson Utilities won the right from the Arizona Corporation Commission to pass on its taxes to customers, an effective increase in its water and sewer rates.

This despite complaints from some of the utility's customers at a June 27 CorpCom hearing regarding low water pressure, "yellow water" coming from faucets, and water that smelled like "sewage."

Johnson Utility customers also mentioned two high-profile incidents in recent memory.

One was from August 2012, when the media learned of the suspected presence of E. coli bacteria in results of water tests required by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, the agency responsible for monitoring the state's water supply.

Later, ADEQ issued a notice of violation to Johnson Utilities, based on the presence in its water samples of E. coli and "coliform bacteria," an indicator of possible sewage contamination.

ADEQ also dinged the company for not properly informing the public of the emergency. The company insists the incident was because of "false positives" in the water testing.

Then, in May, TV news reported on foul, smelly water in a pond at the entrance to the community of San Tan Heights.

In various reports, residents described the pond as smelling like raw sewage. ADEQ said it contained treated waste water discharged by Johnson Utilities. As a result, the company had to drain and disinfect the pond.

It only was the most recent problem for the firm.

The company received notices of violation for discharging "approximately 30,000 gallons of sewage [into] a roadside ditch" in 2005, according to one ADEQ document, and for the discharge of "an estimated 500,000 gallons" of treated waste water into a pecan orchard in 2007, causing two "sink holes," according to another.

In 2003, the company paid an $80,000 fine to ADEQ, the agency informs New Times, for "failure to receive approval to build and operate [a] drinking water plant." In 2000, it forked over $10,900 to ADEQ, settling another case.

That's nothing compared to what George Johnson himself has paid out to federal and state agencies.

In 2007, then-Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced that Johnson and his companies had agreed to pay $7 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that Johnson's companies, along with other businesses, illegally bulldozed hundreds of acres of state trust lands and thousands of acres of private lands.

Allegations included, according to an AG press release at the time, destroying 40,000 protected native plants and portions of seven Hohokam archeological sites, discharging pollutants into the Little Colorado River, and "negligently causing a disease epidemic that resulted in the death of at least 21 rare Arizona desert bighorn sheep and serious injury to numerous others."

In part, the AG's suit involved a proposed Johnson development near Marana, the subject of a January 22, 2004, New Times feature ("Big Bad Developer").

Of course, only the more recent violations by Johnson Utilities were at issue when the commission voted in June.

Ultimately, Commissioner Brenda Burns voted against the company's request for a rate increase, while the other four Republicans on the CorpCom voted for it.

At one point, Burns stated for the record that she didn't want anyone listening to the live-streaming proceedings to think that water quality was not important to the commission.

Other women have shown backbone in standing up to Johnson.

Two examples of late are Emily Hughes and Carrie Ribeiro.

Hughes was one of three female customers of Johnson Utilities complaining of "yellow water" at the June 27 CorpCom hearing.

But by then, Hughes, 31, already had taken her outrage to the next level.

A member of the anti-Johnson Utilities Facebook group Citizens Against Johnson Utilities (later renamed San Tan Valley Safe Water Advocates), Hughes had been frustrated by what she said was persistent low water pressure in her Johnson Ranch home.

One day, during a hectic morning trying to get herself and her five kids, ages 3 to 11, ready for the day, her shower water went low for what seemed like the umpteenth time, she says.

"So I'm standing around waiting and waiting," she tells me of the day her war with Johnson Utilities began. "I finally got mad enough that I got my phone and [videotaped] my shower."

She posted the video to the anti-J.U. Facebook group.

"I came downstairs," she says, "started washing the dishes, turned on the sink, and yellow water started coming out."

She recorded this with her phone, as well, also posting the resulting video to the Facebook group. Her friends encouraged her to contact the media so she forwarded the video to several news outlets.

KPHO responded, showing up at her house to do a story on Hughes' problems with Johnson Utilities, which denied any responsibility for the discolored H2O.

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11 comments
ReggieVV
ReggieVV

Just get a D-9 cat and bulldoze a couple of square miles, and squirt yellow water on it. Voila! Johnson Farms.

ConcernedCitizenAZ
ConcernedCitizenAZ topcommenter

We thank the Moms for the courage to step forward and fight, while others sit back silenced in fear in the state of Arizona!

1wayfaringpilgrim
1wayfaringpilgrim

Hmmm, yellow water coming from Johnson Utilities??  Who's really surprised?

furreal
furreal

Well we all know that if Tom Rankin is involved in every bit of the support of Johnson, . JOHNSON gives Tom Rankin money for elections so Ton will swing akl votes Johnsons way. Sounds like Florence needs a clean out of all corruption. Also Tom Tom Rankin worked for Johnson,and Rob Rankin still works for him.

davewk2002
davewk2002

Why not use the same browser that people used for the Silk Road or Black Market Reloaded to make the post of their misdeeds.  That browser changes the IP address to an anonymous one that can't be traced.  That or some form of encrypted communication might allow the information to get out without being associated with the person releasing the information.  Does anyone know if this is possible or how it would work?

scottsdalebubbe
scottsdalebubbe

If Emily Hughes or anyone else is faced with a SLAPP (Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation -- essentially private parties seeking to suppress free speech by truth tellers) suit, s/he should contact the local office of the nonprofit legal firm, Institute for Justice (www.ij.org) which provides free representation to those cases it takes on.  Defense of SLAPP suits are a specialty with the IJ racking up multiple wins in many jurisdictions.  The defense against a slander or libel suit is that the accusations by the defendant were true.  In the mean time, it takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend such a suit.

Mike
Mike

The fines are not going to do much as the corporation committee allows them to just raise the rates to recover the loss of the fines.  Sounds like the corporation committee is part of the issue as well. As long as they keep letting these companies raise the rates, there is no harm to them and all the state and federal fines are doing is screwing the taxpayers yet again, What a racket they got going on here.

Jukes
Jukes

I hope these women keep fighting.  SLAPP plaintiffs rarely expect to win their cases.  They just use them as an intimidation tactic and it usually works.  Even if they lose, they aren't hurt because they can usually easily afford to pay the defendant's attorney costs and any fines they are assessed.  

The truth should be a defense but it isn't always.  I read yesterday of a U.S. Navy officer who has sued his ex-wife into a homeless shelter where she is now living with their four children.  Children taken away from him by Virginia CPS because he sexually assaulted two of them.  Yet the fact that the children were removed from his care is not considered by the Navy to be reason enough for him to be punished by the service.  He has sued his wife because in bringing this up to his superior officers she is, according to him, "attempting to interfere with his livelihood."  The Navy agrees, to the point they have PROMOTED HIM TWICE since CPS determined he raped his daughter after 2 prior years of continual molestation.  His wife, meanwhile, has lost all her money AND HER HOUSE fighting him in court.  And he prevails with the assistance of the U.S. government.

Something is wrong with that picture and something is wrong with this one, too.  Johnson should be in jail if for no other reason than the wonton damage he did to seven Hohokam archeological sites.

Isn't the fact that he paid the fine a tacit admission that he did what the government claimed?  No surprise he's in league with the city of Florence ... and the GOP-run Corporation Commission, which routinely sides with fatcats over taxpayers.  

david_saint01
david_saint01 topcommenter

seems Johnson Utilities has very poor customer service. Oops, guess im going to get sued now lol. This is becoming a disturbing trend. Customers bring valid gripes to the media, and the vendor company not only refuses to fix the issue, but in turn sues them for defamation. That little nightmare scenario, where greedy corporations have more rights then us, seems to have become reality. 

 
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