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Customers at odds with indicted utility owner for years

Utility owner George Johnson, who is accused in a bribery scheme, leaves U.S. District Court in Phoenix on June 7, 2017.

Utility owner George Johnson, who is accused in a bribery scheme, leaves U.S. District Court in Phoenix on June 7, 2017.

The name George Johnson has gained statewide notoriety in the last year, but his reputation precedes him in Pinal County.

That has been evident in recent weeks as hundreds of county residents have made their voices heard in special meetings for the Arizona Corporation Commission to consider installing an interim manager of Johnson’s utility company that bears his name.

The commission’s move is typically reserved for companies with ongoing or significant problems the commission doesn’t believe will be addressed without its intervention, but it comes as no surprise to the people of Pinal County who have seen Johnson as a utility-owning bogeyman for years.

Johnson was indicted in May on federal charges for his part in an alleged bribery scheme, and his problems are mounting as the Pinal County Board of Supervisors voted April 4 to intervene in the commission’s case to take over management of the company.

During the special meetings held in San Tan Valley, residents let commission know of inexplicably high water bills and the smell of sewage permeating their homes.

Mike Goodman

Mike Goodman

Pinal County Supervisor Mike Goodman, whose district is home to thousands of Johnson’s customers, recalled one elderly couple in particular

The man used a walker as his wife helped him up to speak, and Goodman followed them out the door as they left, exhausted and melancholy.

“And he looked at me, and he just had this hopelessness about him,” Goodman said.

Goodman said the man was at his wit’s end after dealing with Johnson Utilities for 15 to 20 years, getting his hopes up for improvement, only to have them squashed over and over.

Goodman asked the man to trust him.

“That night when I got home,” Goodman said, pausing a few beats before continuing, “the magnitude of what I asked that man to do and what I’ve asked all my constituents to do–to put faith in me–was overwhelming. I realized what I had just asked. That was almost as scary as when I asked my wife to marry me and when she said yes.”

The people who have come forward are evidence enough for Goodman to believe there has been an abuse of power and a failure to properly regulate the utility company that serves thousands of people in the San Tan Valley area.

He said the system is sorting itself out now, but the damage has been done.

The people served by Johnson Utilities have lost trust in their elected officials, he said, and the belief that those same officials have played a role in their plight has made the road ahead rough.

In a March 12 letter filed to the commission’s docket, Commissioner Justin Olson said the company’s history of sewer overflows and other issues justified installing an interim manager. Those issues included any involvement Johnson may still have with the company and whether the current acting manager has any relevant experience managing water companies.

On March 29, the commission postponed an evidentiary hearing on the matter to April to give more customers time to join the case, but not before hearing from some agitated customers who had already made the trek to Phoenix that day.

James Malin said he owns several properties that get water from Johnson Utilities, including one home that stood empty for three months but was still billed for more than 10,000 gallons of water in that time. And because the bills were sent to the wrong address, Malin said he was left to also argue over late fees with Johnson’s customer service department, which has earned its fair share of criticism over the years.

“I don’t know what part of this utility is functioning, but quite frankly, they can’t even handle the paperwork,” Malin said.

Catherine Labranche said she came to Arizona to retire and has since had to deal with water bills that are just “not normal.”

“I didn’t work all my life to pay water bills,” she said. “I just want someone to do something about this.”

And Julie Phillips said the people of San Tan Valley have been patient long enough.

“At some point, we just feel like the system’s rigged against us,” she said. “Enough is enough.”

Some of that frustration has seeped into residents’ perception of their elected officials in Pinal County, too.

Goodman has only been in office for about a year, but he said he’s already tired of being a “customer service rep” for Johnson and tired of the battle he’s helped fight since day one. He won’t stop, but he wants something done.

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