San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency

The driveway entrance to the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency’s headquarters at 1210 Beaumont Ave.

BY DAVID JAMES HEISS

Record Gazette

The esoteric dealings of the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency’s board of directors garnered a lot of attention for its latest meeting, after one of its directors drummed up public outcry over its planned decision to authorize doubling their number of meetings for each year, despite a previous vote years ago to keep the board’s authorized meetings each year at five.

State law allows state water agencies to cap the number of public meetings at 10.

At the Oct. 11 virtual meeting, several members of the public who took time off from work and other obligations in order to participate, joined Division 4 Director Blair Ball in requesting the meeting be moved a couple weeks later to an in-person evening session so others could potentially participate.

Ball pointed out that, while a public notice of the meeting was published in the Record Gazette, nothing was published in its sister paper the News Mirror, which would have a better reach for nearly 7,000 constituents in Calimesa, who Ball believes did not receive adequate notice of the meeting.

He was voted down, 6-1, and the meeting proceeded as scheduled.

Ball expressed his view that potentially diverting nearly $118,000 in additional stipends annually in order to be able to pay seven directors to attend meetings would not be in the agency’s better interest.

Board members are entitled to a $282 stipend per meeting.

In long moments of grandstanding, directors Ball, Ron Duncan and Mickey Valdivia cordially traded barbs to help stretch the meeting to nearly four hours.

Ball received criticism about sending a letter to members of the public decrying elements of the meeting agenda, when the board had not been offered the letter, which claimed among things that “The money to pay directors would need to be diverted from other budget categories by downsizing or deleting other water projects currently being funded by the Agency.”

During a public comment period, former Banning Mayor Daniela Andrade scolded Ball suggesting that he was reacting since his “friends” of “the good ol’ boys club were not reelected to prevent growth.”

General Manager Lance Eckhart read 30 letters received by the agency into the record, with the majority of them requesting the agency not expand its number of meetings.

Among them was one written jointly by Beaumont Mayor Pro Tem Lloyd White and Beaumont city Councilmember David Fenn, who previously represented Division 2 as a Director-at-large, as the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency’s Finance and Budget Committee’s vice-chairman before being elected to council.

“Many of our citizens are trying to recover from the financial and health challenges brought on by the pandemic: we are all facing higher prices, uncertain futures and restricted liberties … Regardless of political ideologies and whether you agree with actions of State and Federal legislators or not, many of our citizens blame the uncertainty of their futures on actions by us, their elected officials.”

Fenn and White expressed support for keeping board stipends to $1,400 a month, noting “that increasing the directors’ potential monthly compensation of $2,800 is too much and at the wrong time. We don’t believe any of you are serving your community for the paid meetings, but we do worry about the message this will send to your rate payers.”

While Ball received confirmation that taxes are involved, they are set at a specific rate, according to the agency’s finance director Thomas Todd.

His colleagues insisted that the stipends are taken out of the general fund, and that taxes and water rates would not increase simply because directors would attend more meetings.

Division 2 Director Chander Letulle, an environmental water engineer who serves as a director of engineering and operations for the Jurupa Valley Community Services District, pointed out that the board was simply requesting to authorize additional meetings — that it was not obligating board members to officially attend five more meetings a year.

He explained that “The issues facing the San Gorgonio Pass Water Agency are unique,” and that “it takes a lot of time to understand, that even I who works in the industry 50 hours a week” could benefit from having the availability of additional meetings.

Division 5 Director Larry Smith said “There is a lot of misinformation” that the public was reacting from. “We’re not voting to raise taxes. There is a water management crisis, and a lot has changed in the last two decades. This board needs to be on board in preparing for the upcoming growth.”

Director Duncan, who represents Division 1, defended the agency’s fiscal management, reiterating the fact that stipends come from the general budget and not from increasing taxes.

“This agency fought for 10 years to not raise rates, and went into debt,” Duncan said. “We keep going backwards” in order to preserve rates, despite its partner agencies raising theirs.

Ball responded that the agency has done fine with five meetings “without fanfare. For 20 years we simply got the job done,” and insisted that adding meetings does affect tax revenue, as “we are a government agency.”

According to Ball, there were periods when meeting agendas threatened to be so sparse, that the board only met three or four times.

Ball also said that the agency responds to demand: “In 2007 there was an added demand to extend the pipeline. We build infrastructure when the need comes.”

The idea seemed preposterous to Valdivia, who campaigned on a promise to extend water lines to Banning and Cabazon, since those communities pay into the state water agency, but are yet to receive any water from it.

Agency President Steve Lehtonen said “I want my colleagues to have the most options available to them. We need all the help we can get, and all the motivation” necessary “to leave our families and attend meetings that can go on to 10 o’clock at night.”

Ball motioned to keep the meetings at five, but his motion died for lack of a second.

Division 2 Director-at-large Robert Ybarra motioned to expand the board’s number of meetings each year from five to 10, which received a second from Letulle. It passed 6-1 with Ball dissenting.

Staff Writer David James Heiss may be reached at dheiss@recordgazette.net , and messages may be left at (951) 849-4586 x114.

0
0
0
0
1

More from this section

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians gave away 13,500 free turkeys this week to non-profit groups, churches and charities across Southern California as part of the Tribe’s 35th annual Thanksgiving Outreach program.