"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal City Editor Leon Worden. The half-hour program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmakers are the candidates in Tuesday's election for the board of directors of the Newhall County Water District, the retail water agency that serves Newhall, Castaic and the Pinetree section of Canyon Country. Six people two slates of three candidates are seeking three open board seats. In one corner are Lynne Plambeck, Maria Gutzeit and Phil Hof; in the other corner are Randall Pfiester, Valerie Thomas and Phil Mazzeo.
Each slate selected one candidate to represent their positions for the purpose of this interview, which was taped Oct. 13. Pfiester answered for himself, Thomas and Mazzeo; Plambeck answered for herself, Gutzeit and Hof. Responses were limited to one minute, and Plambeck and Pfiester traded off going first.
Signal: What is the guiding philosophy of your slate as it pertains to the Newhall County Water District?
Plambeck: I think we'd like to see accurate water supply reporting, fiscal responsibility, and we just want to have honest government. We want to see honesty throughout the function of the water district, including fiscal honesty, water supply reporting honesty, honesty about water pollution, and honesty about campaign reporting.
Mr. Pfiester had forgotten to do his campaign reporting from 1998, and so that's not on record with the county Registrar-Recorder for anybody to see who his campaign donors were in the Castaic Lake Water Agency election. And then in the 1999 Newhall County Water District election, he was fined $5,000 because he never did his reporting. Finally he did come through and do his reporting, and I think everybody appreciates that.
Pfiester: I think our philosophy is to run the Newhall County Water District as a business, run by the guidelines of securing an adequate supply of water for the customers, the best possible quality of water for the customers, and at the best possible price.
I'm glad Lynne brought up the other issue. I think it speaks to character. I think Lynne is well aware that at the time, my wife was suffering from cancer. She was normally my treasurer, and I found out, embarrassingly so, that a grieving spouse was not the best accountant. As an engineer it's embarrassing to admit that my normally ordered, detailed life goes like that, but everything has been reported, as Lynne stated.
Signal: The map of the Newhall County Water District service area looks like a Rorschach test, with blots and islands all over the place. Do you believe NCWD should be consolidated with any of the other water retailers in the valley Valencia Water Co., Santa Clarita Water, or the county in Val Verde?
Pfiester: No. I believe the Newhall County Water District should work to consolidate those areas. In fact that's one of our philosophies: to make areas as much in a contiguous fashion as possible. If we were to consolidate, I would look for Newhall County to be making overtures to the other districts for a takeover.
We're the smallest district, and to increase the business economy of scale, we should be looking to expand (and) get more customers. I'd like to see us up to 12,000 hookups to bring us to a stronger bargaining position at the local table.
Plambeck: I'm very glad to hear Mr. Pfiester say that, because in February this year, when Director (Joan) Dunn and I brought a resolution to the district to make sure that our district it was called the "preservation of the district" Mr. Pfiester and Valerie Thomas voted against it. We were very concerned that there was not us taking over and consolidating other districts, and thus a continuation of the only public groundwater agency that anyone can vote on in this valley but rather that there was a push to have us absorbed by other agencies.
I would gladly welcome the consolidation that would make our public water agency larger, but I would not support being consolidated into another water agency because it's very important for the people to be able to vote on water agency. And (NCWD) really is the only one that has to do with groundwater that they can vote on in this valley.
Signal: A couple of years ago, two former NCWD executives resigned after an internal investigation revealed that they had awarded contracts to friends at inflated prices, without going to bid. What has been done, or what needs to be done, to restore fiscal accountability in the district?
Plambeck: I voted to terminate (the former general manager's) contract when that happened, or prior to that happening, because I felt that he already had an honesty problem. I could see that there was money going out of that district, but I couldn't see where. And I was requesting backups for all the invoices. Unfortunately it was a board where I was a minority voter at that point, and so his contract was renewed, which unfortunately cost the district a very large amount of money.
What can be done is, the directors need to be very much involved in overseeing the payments. I think that probably they've learned their lesson at this point, but I still request backup documentation for invoices and go over everything to make sure that there's nothing that looks out of line. Additionally, we have bidding requirements. Everything must go out to bid, and we have people checking up to see that, in fact, that actually happens.
Pfiester: I think the whole action was proactive. You have to remember that that board had inherited these individuals from a previous board that had hired them and had full control and chose to retain them.
At the time, there was an ongoing investigation. What the board had done was rewrite the acquisition policy. It was violated. It was rewritten again. It was violated. It was totally eviscerated and rewritten, and at the time we concluded the investigation, or it was coming to a conclusion under the direction of Director (Barbara) Dore, who is a professional auditor, that's when the two employees were let go. And in fact, on the evening that was addressed, Director Plambeck chose not to attend.
Signal: Do you think water can or should be used to restrict or, contrarily, encourage growth?
Pfiester: I believe that that's a function of the county or city planning agencies, and the water district is not a planning agency. We're a steward of a valuable resource, and there are specific laws right now, SB 610, SB 221 which control how the water is planned and allocated.
I would hate to see any individual be able to wield that much power and shut off people just because they didn't care that they would want to enjoy the same lifestyle as they did presently.
Plambeck: I think, as Randy said, it's not the water agency that is the planning agency, but the reason that one of our tenets is good water reporting is that in fact, the water agencies in this valley are encouraging growth by overstating the water supply, and the planners the city and the county cannot do their job if they don't have accurate information.
I can't tell you how many times people on the City Council, or on the planning staff, have said, "We have to rely on the water agencies to tell us whether we have water or not." And I say, "Look at this report. This report says this, and the courts have said this" because other people are overstating water as well. And they ignore it, because the water agency has told them something different. Our water agencies now are promoting growth, and I think that we had several state laws passed last year to make sure that there is a water-land use link, and that accurate reporting occurs.
Signal: NCWD has had one water well shut down because of perchlorate contamination. What can the district do about perchlorate to guarantee the safety of the water supply?
Plambeck: What I think needs to happen is that wells westerly of the Saugus Aquifer need to be closed down until they shouldn't be pumping from the Saugus (Aquifer) westerly of those wells. Because what they're doing is drawing the plume outwards. The district, in conjunction with the other water agencies, are working to resolve the problem.
We're testing at the moment Castaic (Lake Water Agency) is testing different procedures for cleaning up the wells and being able to open them again. But until we have something in place, two things should happen: One, we should stop pumping so that we aren't increasing that plume; the other thing that should happen is that we should accurately report that amount of water. Because in this water supply report, done this year by all the water agencies, they're reporting the polluted water as available for water supply. To me, that's absolutely wrong.
Pfiester: The Newhall County Water District is extremely active in the cleanup of the perchlorate, through litigation, to get funds for cleanup through the Bermite insurance companies; we are having an unprecedented cooperation with government agencies and the water purveyors in the area to work on cleaning that up.
As an engineer, it's strictly a problem the water's available; it's being cleaned up in other areas, San Gabriel Valley, with essentially a giant water softener. So the technologies are available, there are newer technologies becoming available every year, and I think we need to get those in place, and that water is available for use. It just needs to be treated like every other drop of water that's used in this valley.
Signal: There had been some problems getting enough water pressure to Pinetree. Should the district be taking on new projects like Tesoro del Valle in Saugus and Paradise Ranch near Templin Highway? How should the district be growing?
Pfiester: I think the water pressure (problem) was strictly one of design, in that there was a new tract added, and (it) was pulling off of the existing grid that distributed water to the Pinetree tract, and not off of a main line. One of the projects I added was a main line out there to increase the water flow, and then we added a valve to equalize pressure between the two zones, and that pressure differential no longer exists.
Growing out to Tesoro (there are) water transport facilities that are added and paid for by the builder-developer. So that's two completely different problems.
Plambeck: I think there are two different problems. There are facility problems, which are fixable, as Mr. Pfiester said, and of course it was the whole board that voted on that project, to put a booster station in to help with that.
At Tesoro del Valle it's a matter of the developer contributing his facility fees, and the tanks are built, and the pipes are built to serve the project. There's not going to be any problem serving the project. The question is, is the water there? And that decision was made by the county that it was there. It was made by the county based on reporting by the water agencies. Many of us feel that because the water was overstated, as they continue to approve these projects, yes, our valley is going to have a heck of a lot of trouble. Now, you also have a facility problem with Paradise Ranch, where you have seven miles of pipeline that needs to serve this project. We have told Paradise Ranch, if they want to pay for those facilities, and they annex in and go through acquiring more state water to serve the project, then they can be served.
Signal: Voters don't usually go to water board meetings. Are voters correct in assuming there is nothing to worry about, or are they ignorant of what's really going on?
Plambeck: I think the voters are less ignorant than they were in the past, just because water has been so much in the news. I think with all the concern over ammonium perchlorate pollution, which it's a pretty scary thing, because in very low quantities of this pollution, you can affect thyroid glands in small children, which may cause retardation. And there is a question as to whether or not we will be able to filter (it) out to those low levels. And that's why I'm really concerned about it spreading.
But yes, I think they're becoming much less ignorant. Water supplies have been in the news over and over again. They've had a chance to read it in the paper and start to understand the problems. I understand, coming to public meetings is sort of a boring thing, but boy, they should take water board seriously. Because it really is going to make a difference in our valley.
Pfiester: I would side with the voters in that we have a representative form of government, and we act as representatives of the people as they give us stewardship over the water. Right now there is no perchlorate in the water system at all. Those wells are shut down and will not be brought back online until there's the ability to clean them up, which is being decided now with the Army Corps of Engineers, (Department of Toxic Substances Control) and the water purveyors. So I don't think there is any need for hysteria over the quality of the water that's being supplied to anybody.
Signal: What will you do as a water board member to keep fees low for existing rate payers and/or for new development?
Pfiester: For existing fees, we have to look at the business climate, what needs to be done, the quality of the facilities, and make sure they're maintained so people get the adequate and safe water. New suppliers are billed as the actual business cost of installing the facilities for their tracts.
I think it's always a balancing act. You keep the operation as lean as possible and as efficient as possible, and look at the fees, and sometimes, unfortunately, costs go up. And the people do own the system.
Plambeck: Mr. Pfiester neglected to tell you that he just voted for a rate increase. The district decided once again to borrow money, $4 million this time; they recently at the beginning of the term that I wasn't on, they borrowed $4 million, and then they borrowed $6 million about six years ago. So we're pretty deep in debt. ... I run my own business, and I have found that the more you are in debt, the higher interest you pay on everything, and it costs more when you borrow. I would like to see the district borrow less. I voted against the rate increase, and I voted against the borrowing because of that. I think if we're going to have borrowings, it needs to go out to the voters unless it's some kind if flood emergency or something like that, and let them have a decision about whether they want to increase their rates to do this.
As far as the developers go, developers need to bear their own costs. Facilities are getting more expensive, water is getting more expensive; new development is going to have to pay high prices to bring more homes online.
Signal: NCWD has a representative on the board of the local state water wholesaler, the Castaic Lake Water Agency. Should NCWD's representative be a liaison or watchdog? What kind of relationship should NCWD have with CLWA?
Plambeck: Each of the four water purveyors in this valley have a representative on Castaic Lake Water Agency. They're not elected by the public. They're appointed by their various boards, and then appointed by Castaic to their board. I think that's wrong. I think that the purveyors need to be at the board meetings, they need to have a seat at the table; they should not have a voting seat at the table. Because that takes away from the public's ability to have control over their water in the Santa Clarita Valley.
I ran on this issue four years ago, as well. I really think it's important that we get those purveyors off. I think they need to be there, because they need to know what Castaic's doing; they need to have a communication so that we understand what each other's problems are, and work together to get the water out to the people. But they shouldn't have a vote there. It's a conflict of interest for them to have a vote there.
Pfiester: I believe it's correct and proper that each of the four purveyors have a representative on that board. You have to remember that there are 11 members (on) the Castaic board, so there would be four purveyors, leaving seven other votes for the people to voice their concerns with.
Technically, the representative is a member of the Castaic board, not a watchdog. But I think that in actuality, it's a conduit between the two agencies where we're constantly talking, and I would rather have a voice and a vote at the table rather than just having someone who sits there and listens and is merely a figurehead. I think the people benefit greatly by having that extra voice at the Castaic Lake Water Agency table.
Signal: How hands-on should the elected NCWD board members be in running the district's day-to-day affairs?
Pfiester: The purpose of the board is to set policy. The board has only one employee directly, and that's the general manager. The general manager's position is to implement board policy. And from day-to-day operation, I don't think the board should be in there as unfortunately I had to be when we lost our previous management team.
I was working a day job and then spending until about 10:30 there at the water district and burning vacation. So I have first-hand knowledge of how to run the district, and I think that the staff would do a much better job than having the board involved, breathing down their neck, micro-managing.
Plambeck: Day-to-day affairs are one thing; you have a chain of command, you're not to interfere with personnel issues or anything of that nature. However, you know, we were accused of micro-managing in the previous election when we lost in 1997. And after that, no one looked at anything, and the result was $1 million between $500,000 and $1 million walked out the door. Walked out the door. And they haven't been able to recover it, and they haven't been able to prosecute, because there wasn't enough evidence.
So, you certainly have to be looking at invoices. You certainly have to be watching what's going on fiscally. And that, maybe, is not going in and telling so-and-so that he should be out at such-and-such tank at 9 in the morning, but you have to be watching the books.
Signal: Any closing and/or rebuttal comments?
Plambeck: First, I would like to sincerely say to Randy that I do regret the loss of his wife. You know I attended her funeral. The concerns over your reporting had nothing to do with your wife. You had many, many years to straighten out the problem, and obviously a state board didn't feel that you had straightened them out, and that's why they fined you $5,000. But I don't want this to be an issue about your wife because she was just a dear, wonderful person.
We need accurate water reporting. We need the water districts to tell the truth to our city and county planning agencies so that they can make good water decisions. And that's what I've tried really hard to do while I've been on the board, and I will continue to try to do that.
We need good fiscal management, and we need to have clean and inexpensive water. So I hope that I will be able to continue to do all those things, and I think everyone in this valley knows I've worked hard to try to make that happen.
Pfiester: I think your comments about my wife were strictly crocodile tears. That's all I'm going to say on that.
As far as voting for a rate increase, we did not vote for a rate increase. We voted to impose a capital fee, which was used to preserve human life. We have, specifically, a tank that was built on bare ground, is corroding through, and has a possibility of putting 1.5 million gallons through someone's house in the middle of the night. So I believe we acted correctly in that respect.
As far as running the water district, it's, again, three things: You procure an adequate amount of water, you maintain the quality of that water, and you keep the cost down as best as possible.
See this interview today at 8:30 a.m. and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.