Editorial: We need fair representation

In the fall of 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. For the first time in our state, government was going to have its say in groundwater use. This is not inherently a bad thing – you can even argue that government plays a critical role in ensuring that “the few” are not using up a precious resource that belongs to “the many.”

Kern County 1st District Supervisor Mick Gleason rushed to form a Joint Powers Agreement with other local agencies, including the city of Ridgecrest and the Indian Wells Valley Water District, to form a Groundwater Sustainability Agency to mandate, according to SGMA, that our groundwater basin did not measurably decline.

The other two voting members include supervisors from Inyo and San Bernardino counties. But since their interests are so comparatively small, those others have been granted “weighted” votes.

Concerns reared from the public almost immediately that a board with so much power over financial and other future impacts of the residents of the IWV should be elected, not appointed. Gleason and other drivers of the GSA assured those skeptics that their interests would be represented by three local public agencies that could be engaged to represent them. Based on these promises, the public tepidly accepted the GSA.

Two weeks ago, members of each of these boards expressed concerns that too many decisions were being made by Bakersfield-based people and organizations, and that local elected bodies were not being kept abreast of developments that had a direct impact on the residents of the IWV.

Gleason responded at length to these concerns by saying that the elected membership did not have a say in the affairs of the GSA – only delegates would be given information. They should not be able to come to a consensus with the boards they represent, he said, but should make a decision based on information and discussion with other GSA delegates.

But Gleason was not elected to manage our groundwater. Neither was Mayor Peggy Breeden or IWVWD President Peter Brown. They were elected to represent their respective constituencies, not to band together and determine appropriate groundwater use for the IWV.

Gleason’s latest assertions are in direct opposition to assurances he made years ago that the city council would listen to Ridgecrest residents and advise Breeden on how to act on behalf of the city. Likewise, that the water district board of directors would listen to its customers and advise Brown on how to act on behalf of district customers.

But the “big three” board members all seem to have had a change of heart.

“They can’t do that,” said Gleason when told that the local water district wants GSA agendas with enough time to discuss them and give direction to Brown. “We need to have a strategy for decision making that enables flexibility.”

“I’m not sure I disagree with him,” said Breeden, who previously said she “wouldn’t dream” of acting on an item without direction from the city council.

Brown also jumped on board to say that it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to have a “preordained idea” of how to vote from his board.

Gleason also said the reason we shouldn’t hold an election for groundwater managers was because we needed to act quickly. We needed to “get ahead of this thing” and “get in line” for state grants. It has been three years now; what do we have to show for it?

The board has collected maybe enough grant money to pay for administrative costs and some of the legal fees. They are still relying on a groundwater report by Todd Engineers – described as “incomplete” by the firm’s own president.

The board finally formed a Policy Advisory Committee, the alleged “work horse” of the Groundwater Management Plan, only to appoint Bakersfield-based Leigh Ann Cook to facilitate the first meeting, where she treated the public with contempt and stifled local concerns.

Amid questions and concerns that continue to rise from the public regarding how the county is handling GSA activities, Brown even went so far to say water district board members never should have criticized the county.

“That’s never a win for anybody … it just creates ill will,” he said.

Perhaps we should stop criticizing the county and let it appoint more representatives from Bakersfield to chair our boards and offer their legal counsel and “facilitate” our committee meetings. At least there wouldn’t be ill will.

Or perhaps we should stop letting Gleason and the county steer us toward their vision of our future.

IWV?Water District Director Chuck Griffin said it best: “The people in this basin need to be running the show.” The rest of the board emphatically agreed, Brown being the exception, that we need to control our own destiny and our water usage.

The county has demonstrated enough “flexibility” over the last couple of years. We need to take a hard look at who is making the decisions for the people of our valley.

And we need to remember that, in the end, it’s not the Bakersfield bureaucrats who will be living with the decisions, it’s us. We are also the ones who will be paying for them.

Story First Published: 2017-08-04