By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
After debating whether to appoint a replacement or let the November election decide who should fill the seat vacated last month by Dan Mortensen, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency’s board of directors voted 6-3 on Monday to appoint former board member Maria Gutzeit to the spot.
Before voting for the replacement, board members on Monday night interviewed four applicants vying for the seat: a veteran L.A. police officer, a local businessman, a business tech consultant and Gutzeit.
Each answered the same seven questions, including, “What are the most pressing water issues in the SCV? What makes a good director?” and “What prompted you to apply?”
Some board members had a question of their own for the board: Why were they filling a seat that’s up for election in November?
“I, personally, will not be voting for anyone because I don’t believe that this appointment is fair,” said board member Beth Braunstein. “Three times before these seats have been eliminated and now magically when we have an election, we’re going to fill a seat with six and a half months (to go).”
“As much as we want to say this is not a political position, it is, 100%,” she added.
Director Kathye Armitage echoed the same concern.
“None of this process has sat well with me from the beginning,” she said. “This is being done for political reasons, to have some sway in the November election… When we took a vote to appoint someone in a sunsetting seat for a short seven months — a seven-month term — I very strongly feel that since we are not required to fill the vacancy that we should let the democratic process work and allow the voters to decide who represents Division 3.”
In the end, board members voted for Gutzeit to fill the vacant seat.
“Maria Gutzeit’s qualifications are over the top,” said board member Bill Cooper. “She’s been a big part of the water community for many years.”
“I agree: The election should decide who the person that represents that area is and in six months, nine months, whatever it is, eight months, we’re going to have an election and the voters will be able to decide that,” Cooper said. “In the meantime, we’re going to have someone back on the board, hopefully, that understands water, understands the issues and can help us move forward in the community.”
“So, we’re not keeping anything from the voters,” he said.
When the SCV Water agency was created on Jan. 1, 2018, it saw the merging of two boards — one representing the now defunct Castaic Lake Water Agency and one representing the also defunct Newhall County Water District.
Gutzeit was one of the key architects who helped draft that merger.
In voting to see her returned to the board, board member RJ Kelly said: “One individual stands above and beyond the others,” adding it helps to have someone with “boots on the ground as soon as they come in.”
In November 2020, Gutzeit ran in the election for a seat in Division 3 but lost to incumbent BJ Atkins.
Then last month, a seat in Division 3 seat became available when Mortensen announced — just before the board was set to vote on possibly censuring him and stripping him of his executive title — that he was resigning. Mortensen was convicted in March on a single charge of domestic violence in connection with his April 2020 arrest.
Once the seat was vacated, the board had the option of eliminating it altogether or filling it ahead of the election in November.
Three members of the board — Braunstein, Armitage and Ed Cooley — voted “no” on the motion for Gutzeit to fill the spot, preferring the public make that decision in November. Board member Lynne Plambeck abstained from the vote.
The board also nominated, as alternate for the Division 3 seat, Los Angeles Police Department Officer Robert Lee Jenkins III.
In voting for Jenkins as an alternate and noting his lack of water board experience, Cooley said: “Diversity of life experience has value.”
“Jenkins brings a life experience that is markedly different than anyone on the board,” he said.
Jenkins was asked by the board what knowledge or ability he brings to the table.
“After 19 years as a police officer I’ve become pretty adept in conflict resolution,” he said.
Other contenders vying for the Division 3 seat included self-employed business technology consultant Randall Greenwald and businessman Douglas Dickstein, who was interviewed by the board remotely, both residents of the Santa Clarita Valley.