Newhall water district needs new leadershipTim Whyte · November 2, 1997
It sure is a lot of attention for a small water district. The Newhall County Water District has become a linchpin of power in the Santa Clarita Valley, with rival factions viewing its control as crucial in the battle over how the area will grow -- or not.
That's not the way it's supposed to be. It's not supposed to be about the self-aggrandizing interests of activist groups who see a conspiracy at every turn. And, frankly, it shouldn't be about $10,000 campaigns for part-time jobs that are supposed to pay just a few thousand dollars a year.
So I'm disenchanted by the whole thing. What it's supposed to be about is the cheap, efficient delivery of quality water. I have a co-worker who lives in the district, and one day when we were discussing the campaign, she said, "I just want my water to taste better."
I'm not voting in the Newhall Water Board election, since I don't live in the district. But if I were, I'd vote for the challengers -- Barbara Dore, Val Thomas and Tom Campbell. I disagree politically with the incumbents -- Dave Rapoport, Lynne Plambeck and Ed Dunn -- and I think Plambeck and Dunn in particular have tried to use their positions on the board for political goals that have little if anything to do with serving the district's customers.
That said, I find fault with both sides, on several fronts. To wit:
- First of all, let's call a spade a spade. Dore, Campbell and Thomas are the designated candidates of the business community. They are not solely pawns of The Newhall Land and Farming Company, as the incumbents claim. But their base of support obviously comes from local business leaders. Surely among those supporters are leaders of Newhall Land. To this I say, so what? Just because a successful company and people who are in business support a particular candidate does not mean they don't warrant your support, too. I wish the challengers' supporters had been more vocal, more proud. But I guess they thought that wouldn't be as effective, politically.
By the way: Plambeck and Dunn are nothing short of sworn enemies of Newhall Land. If I were Newhall Land, I'd want them ousted just to be spiteful. But hey, that's just me. I'm mean.
- Campaign funding. This election has reminded me of a fault in state campaign finance law. If a contributor gives you less than $100, you don't have to name him or her on your campaign finance reports. As a result, the candidates have employed an old campaign funding tactic: Get a lot of people to give you a little bit of money, and you don't have to name them, which makes it more difficult for your opponents to criticize you for the sources of your support.
When it comes to politics, I'm a lay-your-cards-on-the-table kind of guy. Tell me who supports you, so I know what sort of company I'm keeping if I give you my vote. But all of the candidates here have managed to avoid naming more than a few contributors. This has been more of an issue for the challengers because the incumbents have only raised a little bit of money. But make no mistake: The incumbents aren't naming their contributors, either.
The challengers have each raised more than $10,000, the vast majority of which is contributions under $100. If you figure an average contribution of $100, that comes out to 100 people. That's not a lot, and as most campaigns go, $10,000 isn't a lot of money. But it is a lot for one like this, and in a race like this, you don't raise $10,000 in small contributions without an orchestrated behind-the-scenes effort.
I'd rather all the cards were on the table. In a way, I think it would even take some ammunition away from the incumbents, who like to whine about how much money the challengers have.
The law needs to be changed. If someone is going to participate in funding a public election campaign, their contribution, no matter how small, ought to be a matter of public record. In this age of electronic record keeping, this should not be a problem.
- The incumbents need to drop the Chicken Little act. They claim the challengers' motives include a desire to ship the district's water down the river to serve Newhall Land's proposed Newhall Ranch development. Let me get this straight: The incumbents suggest this is all part of a plot to let Pinetree, Castaic and Newhall go thirsty while Newhall Ranch residents suck down the district's water. Excuse me, but are the incumbents high?
If anything, the challengers will be more effective in negotiating a deal with the Castaic Lake Water Agency to get a needed connection to the State Water Project. That would bring better-tasting State Water into the Newhall district to blend with its groundwater.
- The late dirt. The challengers have done some research that appears to show the incumbents have, contrary to their claims, wasted money rather than save it. For example, the challengers say the incumbents spent more than $100,000 last year on mapping. Those must be some pretty impressive maps. And, it appears as if the district's expenses for director stipends and travel have been on the rise. But the challengers dropped these little bombs on us far too late. We got the information at such a late stage, it was nearly impossible to verify the details before the election, so I can't tell you specifically how much questionable spending has occurred. Which reminds me....
- The incumbents' taxpayer-funded campaign mailer. If a Republican congressman had done this, these incumbents would be screaming bloody murder: They spent several thousand dollars of taxpayer money on a "newsletter" that is clearly intended to sway voters toward re-electing the same board. It may stay within the fine lines of the law, but considering the challengers' high horse about campaign spending, it's hypocritical to send campaign messages at taxpayer expense. No wonder they didn't think they'd need to raise much money. Why raise money when you can just get the taxpayers to foot the bill?
- AND, you saw it here first: There's speculation around town that Plambeck is eyeing a seat on the Santa Clarita City Council. This would actually make good political sense, since she's the only one in her camp who has any sort of name recognition. Many observers speculate she'll run for the council in 1988 even if she wins a four-year term on the water board, then give up her water seat if she wins the council race. I have a friend who is a Plambeck supporter (no, really) and she insists this won't be the case. Let's hope not. That would be disingenuous.
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So. As you can see, there is fault to be found on both sides. But when it's all said and done, Newhall County Water customers will be better off with new leadership that devotes its focus more exclusively to water issues. Let the games begin.
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Tim Whyte is the magaging editor of The Signal. His commentary appears on Sundays.
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