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What’s the Rush Behind Consolidating Water Agencies?

After spending four years on the Planning Commission, Sherri M. Butterfield was elected to the Mission Viejo City Council and currently serves that city as its mayor

Water can be a dry subject--and one most Southern Californians would just as soon ignore. By and large, they take for granted that this thirst-quenching liquid will flow when the faucet handle is turned, just as they do that the automobile engine will start when the key is rotated in the ignition.

Yet, in this semi-arid region, the intermittent scarcity of water is as much a fact of life as the occasional quaking of the earth beneath our feet. And careful management of this precious resource is as important to the lifestyle we enjoy as are sand, surf and sunshine.

Periodically, the public does pay attention to water. Propose a rate increase, and turnout at a water board meeting jumps. Or attempt the hostile takeover of a water district, and thousands will sign petitions, as they did in Mission Viejo and Rancho Santa Margarita last year to keep the Santa Margarita Water District under local control.

Once again, a hostile takeover is underway. This time, it was proposed by Assembly Speaker Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) under the guise of district consolidation. As originally written, Pringle’s AB 2109 would have merged all Orange County water and sewer special districts into one mega-agency ruled by a 10-member water board. This new bureaucracy would have been responsible for all decisions regarding rates, bonded indebtedness, investment policies and customer service procedures.

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Pringle’s bill, which sought to impose draconian measures on communities struggling to heal themselves following the Orange County bankruptcy, moved with frightening speed through the California legislature, whose Assembly was loathe to oppose its new speaker. These legislators, eager to throw a solution at a problem they did not fully understand, jumped aboard Pied Piper Pringle’s big-government bandwagon.

Why is an avowed conservative fan of small government like Curt Pringle pushing a big-government solution? He may be seeking to avenge the outcome of earlier water wars in Garden Grove. He may have confused big with better. Or he may have wanted to hold a heavy hammer over the heads of the local districts which, he felt, were reluctant to consolidate.

But, in truth, the South County special districts initiated a consolidation study months before AB 2109 was introduced. This study views consolidation not as an end in itself but as the means to more efficient and cost-effective delivery of service. The study’s first draft proposed reducing the number of retail special districts from 18 to six.

Recently, delegations from Orange County have been meeting with Pringle in an effort to persuade him to amend his bill to allow for public participation in the district consolidation process and to incorporate some of the suggestions being made as a result of the district-sponsored study. Although the speaker has not exactly acquiesced, he has made some changes.

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No study, survey or other scientific gathering of statistical information has shown that the grand amalgamation of districts which Pringle proposes will necessarily reduce operating costs or increase efficiency.

At the very least, Pringle should amend his bill to allow for public input and to give local water customers the opportunity to vote down any consolidation proposal they simply can’t swallow.

The speaker has the opportunity to propose amendments Wednesday at the Senate Local Government Committee hearings. If he truly believes in government by the people rather than by fiat, he will abandon what has so far been a hasty and heavy-handed approach to solving an undefined problem with untried measures that are certain to produce unsatisfactory results.


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