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Mayor Sticks by Her Guns on Voluntary Rationing

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A day after San Diego was ordered to cut its water use, Mayor Maureen O’Connor vowed Friday to fight the restrictions, insisting that her own voluntary program is working and warning that mandatory cutbacks could slow business and cost jobs.

Besides, the mayor said at a press conference, it’s raining, so “we’re possibly at the end of the drought.” She said God “doesn’t want people laid off, nor do I.”

Even an invocation of the deity could not, however, hold back another round of criticism leveled Friday over O’Connor’s nearly religious devotion to voluntary controls. Over the past few weeks, her attitude has drawn the ire of water officials in Los Angeles. On Thursday, Gov. Wilson said while visiting San Diego that her plan for voluntary cuts was not realistic.

This time, though, the criticism came from one of the very members O’Connor had appointed to the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors and suggested that, even in San Diego, support is ebbing for the mayor’s program of going it alone with voluntary cuts.

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O’Connor’s refusal to accept mandatory cuts, said Michael Parrish, one of the city’s 10 representatives on the 34-member water authority board, “is criminal negligence.”

And, he said, “There ought to be more than one recall election in this town,” a reference to the campaign against City Councilwoman Linda Bernhardt, who faces an April 9 recall vote.

Parrish also called O’Connor’s attitude “public irresponsibility of the greatest magnitude.”

He said, “It’s an embarrassment to the people of San Diego that we have such a vacuum of leadership in the City Council and in the mayor’s office. And you can quote me on that. Why not get a little angry?”

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O’Connor’s press secretary, Paul Downey, said later Friday that, although Parrish has a “right to his opinion,” it is “unfortunate” that Parrish launched “what amounts to a vicious personal attack on the mayor of this city.”

Despite the opposition, Downey said the mayor still believes she is doing the right thing.

“Judging from the phone calls and letters we get, we’re on the right track,” Downey said.

Later in the day, after talking with city officials who were aware of his comments, Parrish said his statements had to be viewed in light of the possibility that the city might be so short of water this summer that it would consider draining its reservoirs--with no assurances that the drought was over.

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“I was very angry,” said Parrish. “I was very hot about that issue. But I didn’t single out the mayor.”

Earlier Friday, at her press conference, O’Connor said she planned to inquire why Parrish and the city’s other members on the board voted for a 13-point plan to impose a 50% cutback in water use. The “people appointed by the mayor didn’t listen to what the mayor and the city of San Diego were saying,” she said.

She said, however, that she is not interested in retribution against any of the 10 city panelists. She has named three of the 10, including Parrish, Downey said.

“This isn’t Russia,” O’Connor said.

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O’Connor stressed at the press conference--where the weekend weather forecast for rain was handed out, courtesy of the city’s Emergency Management Office--that what she wanted was for the water authority to reconsider the controls it imposed Thursday.

The board’s action, designed to cut water use 50% starting April 1, includes prohibitions that ban most sprinkler use and outlaw nearly all other types of outdoor watering.

It also was intended to send a message “to the rest of California that we’re willing to take some pain in San Diego,” board director Joseph Parker, who represents the city of San Diego, said Thursday night.

O’Connor, however, said Friday that she would ask for an appeal of the board’s action, to a five-member panel of water authority directors. Saying that voluntary controls are saving water, she said she will seek City Council support March 26 for that appeal.

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According to the mayor, San Diego residents trimmed water usage by 33.7% over the first 14 days of March, meeting the 30% target she had said would work--if only politicians would ask. That 30% target is for the whole month, which is only half over.

It was not immediately certain whether the mayor could count on five council votes in support of an appeal.

Council members Abbe Wolfsheimer and Bob Filner said Friday that they would oppose an appeal. Bruce Henderson said he was in the mayor’s camp. Other council members could not be reached for comment.

Wolfsheimer, meanwhile, said she believes the mayor’s position is “hurting the city,” giving “the appearance that we are an uncooperative city.”

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Filner said, “I just don’t understand at all what’s going on in (O’Connor’s) thinking. You cannot base a rational policy on a feeling that it’s going to rain.”

But Henderson said he believes the mayor is “providing excellent leadership.”

If the appeal is not sanctioned, O’Connor said she has a backup plan. She said she will ask the City Council for authority to demand a second vote from the water board, one that would be weighted in favor of the city, which by far has the most representatives on the board and which by far is the water authority’s biggest customer.

Even if there was a second vote, said Susan Golding, a San Diego County supervisor and a water board director, the result of a weighted vote would not differ from the first go-round if the ballots run like or near Thursday’s vote, which was unanimous.

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O’Connor said Friday that San Diego residents can voluntarily meet the 50% cut ordered by the Metropolitan Water District, the region’s water wholesaler, even if it means “drawing down the (city’s) reservoirs.” The MWD’s cut, which takes effect April 1, prompted the vote by the water board, which relies upon MWD for 95% of its water.

The city now has an 11-month supply in its own reservoirs, said Downey, the mayor’s spokesman. City Charter demands a minimum seven-month supply, he said.

Using the reservoirs might enable commercial and industrial users to avoid layoffs, O’Connor said. Commerce and industry are the city’s biggest water users and simply cannot achieve a 50% cut in use, she said.

“We need flexibility,” she said.

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O’Connor also said she wants to explore ways for the federal government to supply water to the military in San Diego. The Navy alone uses 6% of the city’s water, and if there was federal help, the city could meet a 50% cutback without turning to the bans on water use the county water board ordered Thursday, she said.

Times staff writers Amy Wallace and Leonard Bernstein contributed to this story.


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