City demands review of GA bylaws

City demands review of GA bylawsBy BRIAN COSNER, News Review Staff Writer

The Ridgecrest City Council has asked the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority to review council’s concerns with the multi-agency board’s provisional bylaws. That was the 3-2 decision from Wednesday evening’s council meeting.

Last month, the IWVGA approved its bylaws, pending review by the individual boards of its member agencies – the city of Ridgecrest, IWV Water District and the counties of Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino. The Joint Powers Agreement organization is still getting on its feet as the authority over groundwater use in the IWV basin, as per California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The IWV basin was declared to be in critical overdraft by the state, and SGMA calls for the formation of a Groundwater Sustainability Agency and the development of a Groundwater Sustainability Plan for the valley.

“I respectfully ask the Council to send the [bylaws] back to the IWVGA to make all changes required, complete the numerous sections that are incomplete and then return the document to our council for a detailed second review,” said Councilmember Wallace Martin, who, with Vice Mayor Eddie Thomas and other members of the community, thoroughly reviewed and “red lined” the bylaws with desired corrections.

While members of the public have spoken out that authorities are not moving quickly enough to address our declining water table, others are concerned that the over-arching groundwater authority is forming too quickly.

“It seems like we’re always being rushed,” said Martin, who complained that council has only had the bylaws for 10 days and Wednesday night was the first night of genuine discussion at the city level. The bylaws were on the agenda as a discussion item during council’s previous meeting, but City Attorney Keith Lemieux recommended that the discussion be kept brief since the IWVGA would be vetting it and would likely be making changes.

“The version of the bylaws you’re seeing is not the fullest, most complete version possible,” said Lemieux. “The reason is that the parties to the JPA have decided there is some urgency so they tried to do the most streamlined process that they could at this point so the bylaws could be drafted immediately.”

Lemieux said the IWVGA understands the many requests for public participation and that the sooner the bylaws are approved, the sooner the authority can form a Policy Advisory Committee, which will be the main avenue for public input. The approved bylaws would also mean the authority can proceed with putting out a Request for Proposal to find an independent engineering firm to consult on the technical side of GSP development.

He added that the authority is in a bit of a catch-22 in that the IWVGA need’s its bylaws in place in order to establish the PAC and hire technical help, but it also needs the PAC and technical consultant to weigh in on the details of the bylaws.

“This is a situation where we’re building the car at the same time we’re trying to drive the car,” he said.

“I think we need to have more time so everybody can look at it,” said Martin, who also insisted that the IWVGA agree to the city’s amendments. “I say we delay this until the next meeting.”

Lemieux advised that keeping the bylaws “flexible” would be the best course of action for the city, since Mayor Peggy Breeden represents only one of five votes on the IWVGA.

“I wouldn’t say ‘it’s this or nothing.’ If you want to have some of these changes made, you need to be flexible,” said Lemieux.

“I’m going to vote for Mr. Lemieux’s suggestion,” said Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mower. “I will not vote for shoving these changes down their throat. This is going to get voted down.”

Councilmember Lindsey Stephens favored a slower approach to developing the bylaws.

“People feel like they aren’t being heard,” she said, citing a letter from the IWV Domestic Well Owners Association.

“We urge the city to form a standing water sustainability committee comprised of two council members and knowledgable members of the public to work on an improved set of bylaws to present to the full council at its next meeting,” says the letter.

Well owners and other members of the public have criticized the bylaws for inadequate description of committee membership and roles, harsh “police action”-sounding language and blank entries, such as a conflict-of-interest code, purchasing policy and investment policy.

“We are required every other year to update our conflict-of-interest code,” said Stephens. “So the decision to leave it blank in the bylaws is silly.”

“I would never sign off or ask our city council to sign off on any final version until the bylaws were fully complete,” added Martin.

Member of the public Stan Rajtora has attended several public meetings of the member agencies to voice his concerns about the bylaws.

“At the last meeting, the public was asked not to comment on the bylaws because they wanted to have feedback from the IWVGA board before the public commented,” said Rajtora. “My feeling is had we actually commented at the last meeting, there would have been more time to really consider this in a more rational matter. I agree – we’re being rushed.”

Rajtora added that the board should not be using Kern County’s legal counsel, or any other agency’s counsel, as the authority’s general counsel. The red-lined bylaws request that the board hire an independent general council to oversee the total scope of operations.

The same members of the public brought virtually all of these concerns to the IWVGA board during it’s last meeting, but say they are not feeling listened to.

“All of our input was ‘set up on the shelf,’” said Elaine Mead. “I won’t say it was ignored, but it was set up on the shelf. It was really discouraging. We gave them our input but they didn’t change anything and just said ‘the bylaws are ready.’”

Ultimately, council voted to have Lemieux deliver council’s concerns to the IWVGA and ask for a written explanation on whether or not the authority will adopt any of the city’s changes – no later than Monday, March 13. The city will again discuss the bylaws at it’s March 15 meeting.

For more city council information, visit www.ridgecrest-ca.gov/ridgecrest-city-council.

Pictured: Councilmember Wallace Martin. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-03-03