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Water district seeks to regain independence

By BARBARA DIAMOND

The Laguna Beach County Water District is seeking a legal separation, if not a divorce from the city.

District General Manager Renae Hinchey’s proposal on Thursday to the Board of Directors to consider restoration of the district’s independence met with resistance from three members of the City Council, which serves as the board. In the face of the opposition, Hinchey proposed lessening the council’s duties to the approval of the annual budget and commission appointments.  

“You have a really full plate,” Hinchey said. “The commission focuses solely on water and has a lot of knowledge on what is going on.” 

The district became a subsidiary of the city in 2000 to avoid a shotgun wedding to another district, under a new state law on consolidation of small agencies, passed in 1997. For the previous 75 years, the district had functioned independently, governed by a board of directors.

“The sole purpose of the district becoming a city subsidiary was to protect it from a forced merger with another district and the subsequent loss of local control,” Hinchey reported. “But that threat no longer exists.”  

Following the agreement with the city, the district’s sitting board of directors was reconstituted as a commission that would continue to operate as previously, meeting every other week to review items on the agenda, according to Hinchey. The City Council was to serve as ex-officio board that meets quarterly. 

Are two governing bodies one too many?

The district now takes the position that two governing bodies are one too many.   

“What do you bring to the table that the commission doesn’t?” asked former Mayor and commission member Jane Egly.

Besides Egly, three other commission members attended the meeting: former Mayor Cheryl Kinsman, Design Review Board member Debbie Neev and Mark Lewis, all in favor of the proposed split.

In the proposal presented Thursday, Hinchey outlined justifications for the restoration of independence, beginning with redundancy and the adverse effects it has on the district.

Every agenda item presented to the board has already been vetted by a district committee and voted on by the commission, according to Hinchey. She attributes the delay of important capital improvement projects and the timely adoption of resolutions that require board approval to the time lapse between commission and board meetings. 

The duplication of effort to prepare almost identical agendas for both governing bodies also costs money, according to Hinchey.

“A financial analysis that I requested showed that the added layer of bureaucracy costs the district customers about $51,000 a year,” said Kinsman, a certified public accountant. 

Zur Schmiede adamantly opposed to “divorce” proposal

Councilman Rob Zur Schmiede, who voted against the proposal with Mayor Pro Tem Kelly Boyd and Councilman Bob Whalen, was adamantly opposed to Hinchey’s proposal.

“I don’t want to consider separation,” Zur Schmiede said. “Having the board at the top of the pyramid is valuable.”

Councilman Steven Dicterow disagreed. 

“The board doesn’t add anything,” said Dicterow. “It’s just an extra layer. We don’t spend the time or have the expertise the commission does. I think we should seriously consider a separation.”

Mayor Toni Iseman, who voted with Dicterow to consider the proposed independence, raised the issue of medical insurance for the board.

“Ken Frank (former City Manager) never let the council have it, but the board gets it,” said Iseman. “It has never felt right.”

Whalen wasn’t thrilled with Hinchey’s presentation, but declared the decision on separation might be better left to the community. 

The district has 8,700 connections to the community, from Crystal Cove to Nyes Place. South Laguna is served by the South County Water District.

Up until 1924, water was supplied to Laguna Beach residents and visitors by privately owned wells in Laguna Canyon. When the wells began to dry up, salt water intruded and the owners discontinued the service.

A group of men, identifying themselves as duck hunters on the lookout for a club location, found a source of water in Huntington Beach and put up their own money to pay the $4,000 deposit on the land. 

In 1925, two years before the city was incorporated, voters approved formation of the Laguna Beach County Water District, 359 to 0. A year later the voters approved a $600,000 bond, 437-0 to buy the “duck hunters” land, build a 13-mile pipeline and a new water system. 

The taps opened in 1927 and haven’t closed since.