IWVGA questions Water District leadership

By BRIAN COSNER

News Review Staff Writer

After a contentious year of IWV Groundwater Authority (GA) – IWV Water District relations, GA board members and staff discussed the upcoming position of board chair and are considering skipping over the district and rotating back to Kern County for the leadership position.

According to the GA’s Joint Powers Agreement bylaws, the chair position is to be rotated among the “big three” – Kern County, Ridgecrest and the Water District – on an annual basis. In the last year, the Water District has recused itself from some key discussion items and is involved in litigation with the GA – resulting in hesitancy for some to pass the leadership position on to the district.

“It’s important to note that the chairman … helps set the agenda so it’s important that the chair be involved in all of the potential items before the board,” said city and GA legal counsel Keith Lemieux. “Last meeting, comment was made about the propriety of having the rotation in light of the fact that the Water District would be rotating in when both the current representative of the Water District and Water District counsel have recused themselves at various times during the last year from various topics.”

Inyo County representative John Vallejo added that he had raised the issue and requested it be placed on the agenda.

“I think it’s telling that the Water District counsel Mr. Worth is not intending to take the rotation but the Water District representative is intending to take the chair role,” Vallejo. “I think it’s concerning based on the coherence of this board’s duties … there are a number of items the Water District are routinely recusing themselves from in terms of issues the GA is dealing with – specifically regarding ongoing litigation matters and their stated concerns about the fee and general operations of this groundwater authority.”

Vallejo suggested the chair position skip over the district for this rotation and come back around to them in two more years, “and hopefully at that point the litigation matters will be resolved.”

“My thought, in terms of an action item on the next agenda, would be a vote by the board to remove the member because that would be a simple way to do it without having to amend the bylaws,” he said.

San Bernardino representative Tim Itnyre said he was “not particularly concerned about policy differences, even about fundamental issues regarding the GA.” But he shared concerns about the district’s amount of recusals from important discussion topics.

“I’m genuinely on the fence about this,” he said.

“There are some real valid concerns before us,” said Ridgecrest representative and GA Chair Scott Hayman. “I’m in direct support of bringing this back at our next meeting and hearing any additional information.”

“I understand Director Vallejo’s concerns,” said Kern County representative Philip Peters. “Recusing yourself on quite a few issues is not exactly consistent with being able to set the agenda and work through those issues.”

But Peters added that as chairman of the Kern County Board of Supervisors, he has very little input on setting the agenda. “No more than any other board member would have,” he said. “That’s something done by staff and maybe that’s something we should look at as a model going forward.”

“The Joint Powers Act (JPA) was set up in a manner to give each one of the three major agencies an equal opportunity to chair this group,” said Water District representative Stan Rajotra. “I see no reason why we should deviate from that now. I think the Water District deserves the right to do it. And frankly we do provide a large majority of the funding for this agency.”

The Water District is one of the largest pumpers in the valley and one of the few major pumpers paying all of it’s GA fees – some $4.1 million to date. District representatives have raised concerns about how the fees will affect their ratepayers and others and have routinely called for more fiscal oversight from the GA board.

“I’m tired of the fighting and it’s constantly coming from the Water District,” said member of the public Renee Westa-Lusk who called into the meeting. “I just want the GA to get their job done. We don’t have time to wait around to buy water rights.”

But others supported the district’s differing views from that of the majority of the GA board and suggested this item was targeting the district, and Rajtora, for going against the GA.

“Water District representatives have been the only ones who have showed any evidence that they listen to and care about what the people of this valley want,” said Mike Neel, calling in during public comment. “For you people to act confused about what to do when he has to recuse himself – what do you have a vice chair for? How hard is that? If we need anybody to go, it’s one of you other guys – not Mr. Rajtora.”

The item will be discussed again at the next GA meeting.

Story First Published: 2021-11-26