Workshop gives voice to concerns

Workshop gives voice to concernsBy BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After months of pleas for increased public input, residents representing interests ranging from agriculture to property rights to private well ownership participated in nearly two hours of discussion during a workshop hosted by the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority on Wednesday evening.

What came out of the discussion was broad agreement from the public that involvement at the committee level needed to be as independent from overrach as possible by the powerful new taxing authority.

Last month, the GA approved its bylaws with the exception of Article 5 — which pertains to the membership and functions of the Policy Advisory and Technical Advisory committees.

Lindsey Stephens, speaking from the public microphone, expressed concern that the article was presented on the agenda for board approval before public comment would be taken.

“Point taken,” said IWVGA Chair and Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason, who ultimately directed staff to work on integrating the latest input for approval next month.

“I think tonight would have been a lost endeavor if we don’t take the input the people have given us and incorporate it to the maximum extent that we can,” said Gleason.

Many of the concerns addressed during the workshop related to the yet-unnamed water resources manager, who had been granted the power to unnecessarily throttle information between public, committees and board members.

According to a flowchart provided by the board, both the PAC and the TAC would have to funnel input through the WRM.

“This needs to be more inclusive,” said Paul Nugent of Nugent Farms. “It can’t be so bureaucratic that it’s not going to work.”

Department of Water Resources’ Dale Schafer, who facilitated the meeting, asked the public to give a show of hands in support. For this and most of the other comments vetted for general approval, the majority was in agreement.

County Counsel Phil Hall said that both PAC and TAC meetings were open to the public to allow for communication among all members.

“You can’t have self-interested individuals having undue influence or control over the science,” he added later. “That’s one of the reasons we have an independent water resources manager acting as the quarterback between all of these entities.

“With that said, if we hire a water resources manager and he goes senile on us half way through this process, the TAC can go directly to the board and say, ‘This guy has lost his mind,’” said Hall, giving a “worst-case scenario” example.

Hall also reminded the public that all member agencies of the IWVGA board — the IWV Water District, the city of Ridgecrest and the counties of Kern, Inyo and San Bernardino — are collectively liable for the board’s decisions.

“What liability exposure do the committees have?” asked Donna Hocker from the public.

Hall said the structure was such that the PAC would only be recommending policy, not writing it, and would be safe from liability under normal circumstances.

Stan Rajtora brought several concerns to the board, primarily regarding the board’s desire to select the PAC chairperson and have the power to remove members without reason or notice.

“The committee members are the most qualified individuals to select their leadership,” said Rajtora. “This is the best way to foster cooperation and unity among the members. The job of the board is to select qualified members to the committee and then get out of the way so they can do its job.

“The chairman’s job is to advance the position of the committee, not the agenda of the board.”

He also said that the board’s ability to remove committee members sends the wrong message.

“Committee members need to feel empowered to say what they believe. They shouldn’t have to be looking over their shoulders,” he said.

IWVGA staff pointed out that if committee members were allowed to remove other members, any person in the minority group of a dispute could be at risk of being forced out.

Rajtora recommended that the IWVGA board should have the power to consent to or deny to a removal, but not to unilaterally execute one.

The majority of the crowd again agreed with both recommendations. They also agreed with Stephens’ recommendation that language be changed in the draft to have the board present the PAC with “tasking” rather than “direction.”

“I think it’s important we let the PAC decide the direction,” said Stephens. “You can’t tell them exactly the direction they can go; that’s kind of taking away their voice.”

Member of the public Ray Kelso pointed out that while there are varied representatives on the PAC and TAC membership for private interests, there is no seat designated for single-family residential users —who make up the vast majority of the valley.

“Who represents me?” asked Kelso. “This thing is skewed toward water users, and we’re trying to conserve water here.”

The city, county and water district are listed on the PAC, but as nonvoting members. IWVGA members were previously removed from the committee because having three members, a quorum of the board, sitting on a committee would be a violation of the Brown Act.

Inyo County representative Bob Harrington pointed out that being represented by three of the five IWVGA board members was really a more direct representation than having committee seats.

But the board ultimately discussed the possibility of having appointees serve on the committee to represent standard residential users.

Derek Hoffman, legal representative for Meadowbrook Farms, requested that the board approve the article that evening as it was presented.

“As many of you know we were invited and worked in partnership with the groundwater authority’s counsel to help draft this article for today’s workshop, knowing it would come before the public for focused conversation,” said Hoffman.

Contrary to his stance that evening, Hoffman and other representatives of Meadowbrook have been some of the most vocal opponents of the GA’s hasty implementation and lack of public inclusion.

“We believe this Article 5 resolves many of the concerns that have been shared.

“This article provides for responsible, meaningful participation through committees of the board not just for Meadowbrook, but for other private pumpers, domestic well owners, business, the Navy, BLM and other private and public stakeholders.”

Following discussion, Wallace Martin, who in his role as a member of the Ridgecrest City Council had previously spoken out against the adversarial language of the original draft, thanked the board for hosting the workshop.

The board held to its position to continue discussing Article 5 of the bylaws during its next meetings, but did vote to approve representatives from Meadowbrook Farms and Mojave Pistachio as members of a preliminary PAC.

Some questioned the admission of the two entities before the article was officially approved, but the board pointed out that the two entities had been named to be members of the PAC in November last year.

A private recording of the meeting will be made available in the coming weeks. To acquire a copy, contact the News Review.

Pictured: Participants show support for one of the concerns expressed by a member of the public during the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority workshop. -- Photo by Laura Austin

Story First Published: 2017-04-28