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In Yorba Linda, the race for water district board is getting ugly

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Richard Nixon's birthplace is home to a handful of races that have stirred up intense anger, outrage and a compelling debate about California's water future.

It's not often that a local utilities board election sets off angry confrontations between neighbors, candidates' faces plastered on Old West-style "wanted" posters and even a current board member hung in effigy. 

But races for four seats on the Yorba Linda Water District's board of directors have defied stereotypes of sleepy local elections, stirring up intense outrage and anger – and opening a broader debate about California's water future. 

The air in Yorba Linda, the suburban Orange County city known mostly as the birthplace of Richard Nixon, has gotten tense.

Just ask Brooke Jones, who is running for one of the seats on the water district board.  

Jones is part of a faction of Yorba Linda residents trying to unseat the current water board over what it considers exorbitant rates and government waste. Just the other day, his daughter ran into Bob Kiley, one of the sitting board members, on a walk in their neighborhood. 

"And he was walking his dog," Jones said. "And she said 'oh yeah, my dad's running. We're trying to get some ethics on the board!'"

Kiley is part of the board's old guard, which has been dogged by a decision last year to more than double water fees. His seat is one of two up for recall. Another two are up for re-election, so with a five-seat board, the water district could see an almost complete turnover after Election Day.

"None of [the challengers] are politicians," said Jones. "None of us would be here if we weren't angry with the existing water board. We're trying to correct a bad situation."

The outrage in Yorba Linda starts – as you probably guessed – with the drought.

Last year, the state gave every water district in California orders to conserve. In Yorba Linda's case, it had to reduce water usage by 36 percent, a target residents exceeded.

That's great for conservation – but bad for the water district, which relied on revenue from selling water to cover its expenses and plan for the future. The more people saved, the district said, the less money there was for maintenance and overhead.

So in September of last year, the district's board decided to raise its monthly service charge by $25 – more than doubling previous rates. In an unanimous vote, the five board members raised the fee from $16 to $41, and started collecting penalty fees from customers who went over their water budgets.

Suddenly, the board's normally sedate meetings became anything but.

Meetings were packed, Yorba Linda's City Council held hearings and AM talk show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou held a rally outside the district's headquarters. Protestors hung a board member in effigy.

After the outrage — and the state’s easing of water restrictions — the board rolled back rates to $32 a month, but it was too late. Opponents of the hike had organized. 

This past summer, a group called the Yorba Linda Taxpayers Association tried to put the new rate to a referendum. When the district refused, it took the case to local courts, which ruled in favor of the water district. The judge said raising the rates was within the water board’s purview and noted they were responding to an urgent situation: the prolonged drought.

Instead of appealing, the Yorba Linda Taxpayers Association organized a recall and endorsed candidates for each of the four contested seats. They've all pledged to roll back the rate hikes.

Drive around Yorba Linda and you'll see the signs: literally, hundreds of signs on street corners. Messages like "End Water Rate Tyranny," the word "Recall" crossed out with a red slash, an Old West style "wanted" posters with black and white photos of current board members.

Campaign signs in Yorba Linda in favor of the 2016 recall election against Water District Board members Gary Melton and Bob Kiley
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Campaign signs in Yorba Linda in favor of the 2016 recall election against Water District Board members Gary Melton and Bob Kiley

Al Nederhood is one of the candidates.

"If the board had responded in an intelligent and appropriate way a year ago, with a rate increase that was probably half – 40 to 50 percent – of what they actually did," he said. "[Then] most of this problem would have gone away at that point."

Nederhood says, simply, the board overestimated its needs – that the district ended up with an extra $8 million on hand from a combination of penalties and new rates. Instead of refunding the money back to the ratepayers, the district pocketed it. 

A spokesperson for the district denied the claim.

The case of Yorba Linda is unique in some ways: the amount the board raised monthly fees was huge, for example. But it's not the only water district to rely heavily on sales for its financial well being.

And if we've learned anything from the drought, it's a vexing contradiction: the more water we save, the more we might have to pay for it. 

"You know, people don't really understand how they get their water," said Kelly Salt, a lawyer and an expert on utility rates in California. "They turn on the tap and it magically appears."

Salt said that lots of water districts in California are watching Yorba Linda closely – the results from the recall election could affect how other boards set their rates in the future. 

"I think for a lot of agencies, it's been a very difficult time," said Salt. "They have so many of their costs, which are fixed. At the same time, they're encouraging their customers to conserve or use water efficiently."

In Yorba Linda, birthplace of Richard Nixon, residents have always been passionate about local politics,  and recall elections are relatively routine.
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
In Yorba Linda, birthplace of Richard Nixon, residents have always been passionate about local politics, and recall elections are relatively routine.

Gary Melton's one of the board members who voted for the rate hike. His seat is under threat of recall.

He's been on the board for six years, but sometimes he wonders why he ran in the first place. Routine trips to the grocery store have turned into awkward encounters with angry neighbors. Organizers of the recall also launched a boycott of his restaurant, Joaquin's Mexican Bar and Grill.

He admitted that the district could've done a better job involving the community in the decision, but he said what the board did was absolutely necessary.

The board looked at every alternative, he said: tiered rates, budgeting based on house size, but all of it would take too long. If the district failed to raise rates, he said, infrastructure would crumble, the district's bond rating would go down. Yorba Linda Water District, he said, was facing insolvency.

"You've got to have something for earthquakes, or water main breaks, or pump stations or all the things that are required to keep the district safe," he said. "There's a lot more to it."

So what now?

There's no polling in an election this small — Melton and his fellow board members have no idea what their fate will be after November 8.

The Yorba Linda Water District's decision to raise rates sparked outrage in a community with no shortage of engaged, active citizens — even board members say they could've been done better. Now, they have to see it through to Election Day.

If you'll forgive a water analogy: Yorba Linda turned on a faucet they can't turn off.

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