The bad old days are back again, at least where the Goleta Water District board is concerned. Concluding a three-hour meeting of a water board subcommittee last Friday, recently elected boardmember Bert Bertrando lost his temper with fellow boardmember Chuck Evans, a longtime major player in South Coast water politics. “Fuck you,” Bertrando told Evans. When asked about the incident a few days afterward, Bertrando responded, “Is there something wrong with that?”
Bertrando said he told Evans off only after Evans first accused him of “slandering members of the [water district] staff.” Bertrando said the verbal fracas was triggered after he asked staffer Gary McFarland a question and then asked that he “speed it up” when he grew impatient with the lengthiness of McFarland’s reply. “It was about 12:15 and I was already late for a lunch appointment,” Bertrando explained. “But I didn’t slander anybody.” When asked how Evans took it, Bertrando responded, “I hope he took it in the manner I meant it. There was nothing else I could say except for what I said.”
While Evans did not return phone calls for comment, district manager Kevin Walsh did. “It seemed totally unprovoked,” Walsh said of Bertrando’s outburst. “Needless to say, we were all shocked.” Walsh took exception to Bertrando’s account, stating Bertrando became verbally abusive when McFarland sought to answer a question Bertrando had asked about the deadline for a state grant application. “He [Bertrando] said, ‘I don’t have to listen to garbage. Every time I ask a question, I get garbage,'” Walsh recounted. Walsh also noted that Bertrando stormed out of the meeting before it was adjourned.
In the 1980s, the Goleta Water Board was famous as a cauldron of volcanic temper tantrums. In the late 1980s, one director grabbed the name plate of a district manager and hurled it across the room. Later, at a kiss-and-make up luncheon, the same director hurled a fork at the same staff member. But that was back when whoever controlled the water district controlled how much development occurred in the Goleta Valley. The stakes involved were nothing less than enormous. But after voters approved the importation of state water in 1991, the district lost its strategic importance in the South Coast growth wars; accordingly, district affairs grew notably more placid.
Now, 10 years after state water was first delivered to South Coast residents, it seems Goleta might be the battlefield for a new generation of water warriors. When the district last year proposed changing the terms by which agricultural meters could be used, for example, it triggered an insurrectionary response by property owners adversely affected. The district claimed it was trying to stop faux agriculturalists who planted a few ornamental avocado trees on their mansion lawn from getting the cheap water reserved for real farmers; farmers stormed the gates, charging the district was going to put them out of business by forcing them to shoulder a larger percentage of the high costs of state water. Bertrando-a retired rocket scientist who lives in Hope Ranch-emerged as a critic of these proposed policies. He ran for the water board on a slate with Jack Ruskey, a retired L.A. litigator and cherimoya rancher. Although only Bertrando won, the two have emerged as a formidable one-two punch at water board meetings.
On the issues, Bertrando and Ruskey seem intent on revisiting many of the ancillary battles surrounding the importation of state water. Their strategy appears to be limiting the supply of water necessary to fuel growth and development in the Goleta Valley. This past summer, the two outmaneuvered Walsh and Evans and won approval for a measure that would restrict how much unallocated state water could be rolled over from year to year and approved for future development. Now, Bertrando and Ruskey are fighting over district policies restricting how and when water from Goleta’s groundwater basins can be allocated to accommodate new growth.
Bertrando and Ruskey’s critics contend the twosome display reckless disregard in the face of facts and the personal feelings of the people with whom they have to work. As for Bertrando, it appears he delights in catching flies with vinegar rather than honey. Candidly outspoken to a fault, he’s dismissed most of his fellow boardmembers as “not qualified for the job.” His nemesis on the board, Chuck Evans, worked as manager of the Montecito Water District for nearly 20 years before being elected to the Goleta board. As for district staff, Bertrando noted with little regret, “They don’t like me. Before I came, they had it nice and soft for a long time. Now they have to work.”