[Santa Cruz County] Transparency dominates San Lorenzo Valley Water District election

Blog note: this article references a grand jury report.

FELTON — The issue of transparency has created a rift among ratepayers of the San Lorenzo Valley Water District, whose votes Tuesday will decide the direction of the governing board.

Incumbents Charles Baughman, Gene Ratcliffe and John Hayes face a challenge from Bob Fultz, Lois Henry and Steve Swan for three seats on the district’s Board of Directors.

John Schneider, a former member of the Lompico water district, said he believes the incumbents have failed at prioritizing public relations. Schneider is particularly concerned with the board’s reaction to a community uproar over the use of the herbicide Roundup in the watershed. As a result, public comments at board meetings were restricted to 15 minutes.

“As a reaction to the public being upset, they limited public input,” said Schneider.

The Santa Cruz County Civil Grand Jury report in May listed concerns regarding the water district’s lack of effective communication to the community, specifically relating to the merger of the Lompico Water District with the San Lorenzo Valley Water District and public knowledge of ongoing improvement projects.

Rosemary Chalmers, the host of Good Morning Monterey Bay on KSCO radio, contends the incumbents’ inability to address issues of money management, rate increases and infrastructure repairs has left the community disillusioned and frustrated.

“This is no way to run a water board. We are the ratepayers and we should be heard,” said Chalmers. “It’s like the water board has got money to burn, and it’s our money.”

Jim Mosher, a volunteer on the incumbents’ campaign, disagrees.

According to Mosher, the grand jury report did not state that the board was intentionally hiding information or lacked competency.

“There was nothing hidden about what they did,” said Mosher. “And the idea that there is a transparency issue is just not accurate.”

Barbara Sprenger, treasurer for the incumbents’ campaign, contends the incumbents have tried to improve public relations and some residents fail to recognize it.

“One of the issues in a small special district is that people don’t pay a lot of attention, so it’s hard when you try to communicate,” she said. “These people have worked very hard to communicate as openly as possible with the public.”

Both slates of candidates have offered strategies to address the transparency issue for the water district’s 7,300 ratepayers, who range from young newcomers to long-time residents.

Fultz, who leads the slate of challengers, said he sees a need for the water district to embrace new technology to reach ratepayers.

The challengers have put out a 12-part plan to improve communication, which includes live-streaming board meetings, expanding social media outreach and rebuilding the San Lorenzo Valley Water District’s website to make it easier to navigate.

The incumbents are working to refine the water district’s website to make it more user-friendly and strengthen their online presence, Ratcliffe said. Hayes wants to increase community involvement through workshops where ratepayers can get involved early in the decision-making process.

Regardless of the ballot outcome, one change in leadership has already taken place. Last month, the board chose Rick Rogers, who has worked for the water district for 42 years, most recently as assistant general manager, to be general manager, succeeding Brian Lee, who had held that position since 2015.

November 3, 2018

Santa Cruz Sentinel

By Helen Santoro

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