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A Rough-and-Tumble Ramona Political Forum : Government: Meetings of all-encompassing Municipal Water District supply a semiweekly dose of disparate views on community issues, providing ample fodder the local newspaper.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When David Tarr, a bearded graduate student and painting contractor, was sworn in at the Ramona Municipal Water District meeting last week, his friends and his constituents congratulated him.

But, many of them wondered to themselves what a nice guy like Tarr was doing in a place like that.

The water district board is the closest thing that unincorporated Ramona has to a local government. And its board of directors, of which Tarr is the most recent addition, is the closest thing to a city council that the rural North County community (population about 27,930) has.

The water district, in addition to providing water, or trying to, to a 75-square-mile North County area, also provides sewers to downtown Ramona and the wealthy San Diego Country Estates, a 3,200-acre residential development southeast of the main town. It operates the area’s fire department, paramedic services, parks and recreation programs, and even has a hand in doling out senior citizens’ meals on wheels and promoting the town’s annual rodeo.

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For years, the task of providing everyday services for a rural North County community has produced heated discussion and vituperation, sparked recall elections, lawsuits, grand jury investigations and a high rate of administrative turnover among water district personnel.

Water board members have had to spend much of their energies defending themselves against charges of favoritism and allegations of graft--leveled by fellow directors and residents--and have found it difficult to please even part of their constituency for much of the time.

Virgil Bradshaw, a San Diego Country Estates resident and editor of its monthly San Vicente Valley News, puts the blame on the individuality of Ramona’s residents, both old-timers and new. He thinks it’s nothing more serious than a lack of anything better to do.

“I’ve been studying the situation for more than four years now, and I’ve decided that there are more skeptics here in Ramona than there were in the whole state of New Jersey,” Bradshaw said. “People are suspicious of each other and aren’t afraid of speaking out about it.”

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Bradshaw concedes that past water boards may have deserved “their terrible image and bad reputations,” However, he said, “these board members today really want the best for the community, but the community sees them as a bunch of shysters.”

Most of the accusations made against the board and RMWD staff involve petty things, Bradshaw said. One critic complained that he had seen a senior water district staff member dropping his child off at school in a company car and another rose in a recent board meeting to protest a $35 expense for a Price Club membership for the district.

The editor called this “back fence bickering” a mistake when the district faces a water crisis that could put the local economy on its uppers.

Tarr, 33, ascended to the board in a special election March 5, replacing one of two water board directors who resigned during an overheated board session in August about the 1990 budget. The district remained without an official spending program for half a year because the three remaining directors could not reach unanimous agreement necessary to approve the district’s spending plan.

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Hardly an election passes without an incumbent director biting the dust and November’s vote was no exception. The incumbent board president, Jack Allen, was ousted by a 2-1 margin.

Allen, along with other board members and a lot of citizens with something on their minds, used the local newspaper’s opinion columns to sound the alert against what he saw as a major enemy of the rural Ramona:

A month before his defeat, Allen wrote to the Ramona Sentinal blaming Ramona’s problems and some of his own, “on a group of people who have wanted control of development and the direction of growth, . . . practiced and skilled in working behind the scenes” to gain that control.

“The water district is the center of power in Ramona,” Allen said. “RMWD provides all the the significant services; it has the power to raise rates and assess property. Three men on a five-man board determine policy and fire or hire the general manager. You couldn’t have a better situation for a person or persons with their own agenda.”

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Carolyn Toth, elected to the water board in November, sees the problem not as pro-development forces against slow-growth advocates, but as a case of “what’s best for one group is harmful to others.”

When the district was forced to raise water rates because Ramonans cut back their water usage after a May 1989 rationing system began, low-income families and seniors on fixed incomes rebelled, Toth said, “because they didn’t think they should be paying more for using less water.”

Right or wrong, the townsfolk blamed new development for causing the water rate increases and banded together to force cuts in the water district budget.

William Clark, a “veteran” on the water board, was elected in November 1989. He was also elected to the board in 1985, then recalled in one of a number of voter revolts.

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Clark, who proudly lists himself as an independent, is impressed with Tarr’s dedication to the interests of Ramona and its diverse citizenry.

“I’ve listened to him. He has a lot of the same ideas as I do,” Clark said of the newest water board director. “I’m sure he has the interests of his district at heart.”

Clark sees Tarr as a moderate who could bring the diverse interests of the community together--the ranchers and farmers, the commuting suburbanites, the retirees and the old-timers, even the developers.

“In the past, this board has been very divided,” Clark said. “There always seemed to be someone who wanted to be the boss and to dictate policy. I think we should be five voices and discuss things. After all, people can disagree without being disagreeable.”

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Tarr has no illusions about the job he has assumed. He has attended water board meetings for the past few years, almost as religiously as have the elected directors. He has watched directors come and go. He knows the problems, “and I can start on my feet, running” to help solve the problems.

He sees two major problems plaguing the district--the drought and resulting water rationing and a $42-million debt the district must carry in the face of declining revenues.

Part of that indebtedness is for the $30-million Lake Ramona reservoir and dam which is slowly filling with imported water. Unfortunately, there is no pipeline that can bring the water to the thirsty community and its surrounding groves and ranches.

“Why was it built out there in Highland Valley, so far from town? I don’t know, except for stories you hear about developers who wanted the water and about surrounding landowners who wanted to build along its shoreline.”

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Tarr favors construction of a pipeline to link the lake with the Ramona’s water treatment plant, “so that we can get some value out of Lake Ramona. I doubt if we will ever get our money’s worth.” But he doesn’t want to see the district’s debt balloon even more or rates climb higher.

Jose Hurtado, RMWD general manager, has reason to be concerned about his district’s newest director. Tarr led a successful initiative campaign a couple of years ago which imposed a $1-million limit on district expenditures. Any project costing more must have majority approval of the district’s customers.

And Tarr has been a constant critic of what he considers unnecessary and escalating costs in of projects the district needs.

Hurtado holds the longevity record for general managers in the district, explaining his 5-year tenure in the post is based on his “ability to get along with everyone,” that has permitted him to ride the tides of change in the turbulent district.

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Tarr has concerns about the district’s administration and its handling of water rates and water rationing. He doesn’t think that just because Ramona was the first to institute water cutbacks in the county, that its system is the best.

“Fairness plays a big part in this, in people’s acceptance of the system,” Tarr said. He has pledged to fight for a system of tiered rates that would reward those who use the least water.


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