IT’S CHINATOWN, JAKE: Once upon a time, Goleta Water District meetings offered the best show in town. That’s if your idea of a good time is watching roosters claw one another to death or pit bulls chomp each others’ necks. Otherwise staid, sensible, middle-aged, propertied, and very white boardmembers could be counted on to lose their collective cool and throw a punch or two. Or perhaps hurl a nameplate at each other. Always there was a free and frank exchange of bodily fluids flying back and forth. Then came along State Water-in 1991-and it seemed there wasn’t anything left to fight about. No longer could the slow-growthers who dominated the board cite lack of water to deny developers the meters they urgently needed to convert Goleta’s green orchards into gleaming subdivisions. Those with an appetite for unsavory political theater were forced to look elsewhere, and for about 15 years, life at the Goleta Water District, it seemed, slipped into somnolence. Guess what? The alarm clock just went off, and my guess is it won’t stop ringing anytime soon.
The Goleta Water District has been rediscovered by a new wave of slow-growthers who are angered by the prospect of more development and more affordable housing that might sprout up as a result of state housing mandates. They’re smart, they’re organized, and, based on what I saw at Tuesday night’s board meeting, they can roll their eyes and suck their breath with the best and worst of ‘em. When it was over, they’d managed to plug a very substantial loophole in the rules and regulations that govern when and how much State Water can be dispensed.
In so doing, they managed to outmaneuver the district’s general manager, Kevin Walsh-no slouch when it comes to the intricacies of procedural warfare-and the chairman of the board, Chuck Evans (the former manager of the Montecito Water District), who together had concocted a scheme to sidetrack the group by holding lengthy workshops and all-night meetings late in August. Leading the charge from the outside was Jack Ruskey, a red-faced, white-haired, retired litigator turned gentleman farmer who wields his right index finger like a loaded gun. Working hand-in-glove with Ruskey was Bert Bertrando, a retired engineer and the latest addition to the board. On Tuesday night, Bertrando seemed intent on getting in the first word, the last word, and pretty much all the words in between. On one occasion, Bertrando found himself arguing with a speaker even after she said she agreed with him.
The bone of contention was some seemingly obscure and esoteric ballot language approved by Goleta voters back in 1991, when they also approved the importation of as many as 4,500 acre feet of State Water a year. At that time, many feared the availability of State Water would trigger a drunken orgy of growth and development. To allay such concerns, the water district put language on the ballot promising to be extremely cautious and conservative. Specifically, the ballot said the district could not expand its service by more than 1 percent of its annual water supply. Translated into actual wet stuff, that meant the district could not give out more than 160 new acre feet of water per year. But in some years, the board did not give out the full 160 acre feet or anything close. In the mid ‘90s, the board saw fit to amend its rules so that it could carry over this unused water one year to the next. The effect of this accounting change is hardly minor. Because of it, the district now has about 1,400 acre feet of “carry-over” water in this account that can be given out. Relatively speaking, that’s a tsunami, especially when you consider some of the big projects out there looking for some water.
The most obvious involves Bishop Ranch, whose owners, we are told, harbor dreams of building 2,000 new homes on land hitherto used for agriculture. Bishop Ranch needs about 500 acre feet of water to make it from the drawing board to reality. If the water district is limited to giving out 160 acre feet of water per year, that demand will be hard to meet. But if the district has 1,400 acre feet in its piggy bank, that’s another matter.
Muddying the waters even further is the fact that the district’s new water attorney, Chip Wullbrandt, also happened to represent Bishop Ranch. To many observers, Wullbrandt appears to be a veritable one-man Kama Sutra when it comes to conflicts of interest. Not only does he represent three separate water districts-whose interests are hardly identical-but throughout the years, he’s represented many developers who won’t see a dime unless they can get the water they need. Wullbrandt gets genuinely offended when anyone suggests this might be a problem. He always has an argument why it’s not, but they always seem technical and missing the bigger point-which is that for public officials, the appearance of conflict can be just as bad as the actual thing. It seems he might be getting the message, however. On June 19, Bishop Ranch officially announced it had secured other legal representation. Chip is no longer on the payroll.
On Tuesday night, Bertrando and Ruskey argued the change in policy allowing carry-over water was illegal, unconstitutional, immoral, and unconscionable. I think Ruskey called it a “rape.” A man with a distinct German accent asked whether any water district boardmembers were on the take from developers, prompting an eruption of indignant sputtering from one director. If any changes were to be made in an ordinance approved by Goleta voters back in 1991, Ruskey and Bertrando argued, those changes had to be approved by a vote of the people. The district countered that it never “changed” the ordinance, they merely “modified” it, the ordinance itself being silent on the question of carry overs. What a judge might say about this dispute I don’t pretend to know. But on Tuesday night, the Ruskey-Bertrando team carried the day. By a 3-2 vote, the board voted to rescind the policy allowing the district to distribute any more than an additional 160 acre feet of water per year. For those of us sick to death of Shrek IV, Spiderman V, or Harry Potter XII, I’d say relief is at hand; we have a new theater to attend. But don’t forget to bring your own popcorn. Last I looked, the district doesn’t provide any.