Lynne Plambeck: Goodbye, Newhall County Water District

Opponents of Senate Bill 634, which created the new Santa Clarita Valley Water agency, gather in front of Santa Clarita City Hall before delivering letters to State Senator Scott Wilk’s office on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2017. Signal File Photo

Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 15 signed the law that will eliminate Newhall County Water District at the urging of the majority of its board, creating a new mega water district for the Santa Clarita Valley beginning Monday. The new Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency will hold its first meeting at Castaic Lake Water Agency headquarters on Jan. 2.

Did the voters know in the last NCWD election of this 60-plus-year-old voting district that the people they were electing would eliminate their district without even asking the voters?

No, they did not.

In fact, one of the lead proponents of getting rid of this well-functioning and fiscally sound district, Maria Gutzeit, ran many of her campaigns on a platform of “protecting” the district.

Instead of giving the public a vote, these board members worked on the principle that they know what is best for the voters. In lobbying to merge Castaic Lake Water Agency and Newhall County Water District, approximately a million dollars of ratepayers’ funds were spent on public relations efforts and lobbyists in Sacramento to persuade the public and the state legislators that getting rid of a publicly created and elected board without a public vote was the best thing for democracy since apple pie.

I have always wondered how such expenses could be legitimized as “water related.”

If a public debate and election were held, two things would have happened. First, the public agencies would not have been legally allowed to spend all that money persuading voters to get rid of their own water district. And second, leaders trying to get rid of the district might very well have lost the election had genuine public discussion been held.

To achieve the leaders’ goals, the money was much better spent on public relations specialists, lobbyists and consultants hired with the public’s money to promote this idea.

Then they could make the claim that, after what appeared to many to be a biased “push” poll, a “statistically significant” smattering of some 300-400 voters supported the idea of getting rid of their own voter district.

(A “push” poll is a poll in which the questions are designed to impart certain statements that might provide a favorable or unfavorable response, depending on the goal). They even sent out a questionnaire that did not include a way to say “no” to eliminating Newhall County Water District.

Residents were told that the new agency would save $14 million, but it was not made clear that it would be $14 million over 10 years.

Did anyone mention to those surveyed in the push polls that the savings would be just over 1 percent of Castaic Lake Water Agency’s existing projected expenditures? Was there no other way to get these savings than eliminating a well-functioning, financially sound voter-created district?

Or did CLWA want the revenues that the NCWD had so judicially built up for its own ratepayers by reducing, borrowing and debt?

Interestingly, both “retail operations” now owned by CLWA (Valencia Water Co. and Santa Clarita Water Division) have approved substantial rate increases in the run-up to the new agency. Also, Castaic Lake’s board approved salary increases, new positions and enhancements for the general manager’s employment contract in the in the last few months totaling more than $750,000 annually, or about half the supposed savings that would be created by this new agency.

Were NCWD ratepayers told this in those polls that supposedly showed support for the new agency? Did the lobbyists tell the legislators that these increases were already occurring? Or will the new agency’s financial baseline deceptively provide financial information using all these increases as the new baseline?

As everyone knows, I did not support this takeover of a fiscally sound and efficiently run voter district without giving the residents of the district a vote in the matter. I still don’t.

While my viewpoint and demand for an election did not prevail in the face of a million-dollar lobbying effort, I promise to continue to provide the voters and water ratepayers with my best efforts to keep them informed of what their water district is doing and keep my eye on fiscal efficiency.

But democracy is a participatory sport, as they say. So I hope that the public will also be closely watching the actions of this new agency.

Good-bye, Newhall County Water District, the Santa Clarita Valley’s first and oldest water district. You served this valley, its residents, and ratepayers well. I, for one, am sorry to see you go.

Lynne Plambeck is a Santa Clarita Valley resident and a former member of the Newhall County Water District Board of Directors.

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