LA HABRA HEIGHTS — Looking back, it seems the building started it all.
The La Habra Heights County Water District's plans for a new $500,000 headquarters complex planted the seeds of revolution in the minds of its 1,760 customers, and on Election Day they revolted.
On Nov. 3, district voters threw out all three incumbents running for reelection to the board of directors in a contest that attracted an unprecedented number of candidates and an unparalleled degree of community interest. There were six challengers, campaign mailers and even heated issues--all in conspicuous contrast to the previous election, when two incumbents were returned to the board with nary an opponent.
The price tag on the proposed three-building complex on Hacienda Boulevard emerged as a red flag for water customers chaffing under high water bills that average $50 to $60 a month.
"We just thought the rates could be lower and we could all live a bit better and water the trees and they wouldn't have to build a half-million-dollar building," said Jackie Lepak, the wife of Mark Lepak, one of the victorious challengers.
The new majority on the five-member board may well spell the doom of the new complex, intended to replace a squat, three-decades-old cinder-block structure described by incumbents as antiquated, cramped and demoralizing for the 11 employees who work out of it.
Opposed to Building
"I'm opposed to the new building," said Ralph Bolles, a civil engineer and newly elected director. "Everything possible has to be done to reduce the rates," he added.
No one disputes that district customers have high water bills. But district officials say the steep rates are the inevitable result of re-building a system that once ranked as the state's second worst from a health standpoint.
Added to that are the energy costs of pumping water from sea-level wells up into the hills of the city, whose boundaries are much the same as the district's.
Autonomous and nonprofit, the county water district was approved by local voters 11 years ago to replace a mutual water company that had served the area since 1919. By the mid 1970s, the company's water mains leaked like sieves, its reservoirs were in disrepair and its meters outdated. Bonding and borrowing a total of $8 million, the new district embarked on a rehabilitation program, updating and replacing much of the old, ranch-oriented system.
"The people up here have to pay for it," noted Ken Stone, district auditor.
Defeated after eight years on the board, Donald Dodd commented, "It's a shame that the water company was managed in an effective and efficient manner, and the people who did it got thrown out."
'Out of Touch'
Diane Baxter, a former Planning Commission member and unsuccessful challenger, agreed that the district has been run well, yet she maintained that the directors were losing touch with the community. "Yes, they were very good businessmen, and they did put the district on its feet, and I give them credit for that, but there comes a time. . . ."
Bolles, too, asserted that the directors fell short when it came to public relations, restricting their communications with customers to "sending out a whopping bill every month."
While William Robertson, the third new face on the board, said he is not sure it will be possible to cut residential rates, he wants to avert future increases. He also doubts the need for a new building "at this moment," saying that instead, renovations could be made to the existing structure.
Ousted incumbent William Scotten, a water director for nearly a decade, complained that the campaign was marked by "a lot of political emotionalism and misrepresentation" fueled by a lack of understanding of water rate structures.
"You don't have a chance" to be reelected, he continued, when the size of water bills becomes the dominant issue.
As for why, after years of hefty water charges, local rates suddenly became a rallying cry, Scotten said, "I think more than anything else, it was the building."
Plans for the new facilities came as something of a shock in the small, tightly knit community of 5,200 in which the city government chronically operates on a shoe string.
"I think there's a bit of jealousy," suggested a district employee.
It didn't go unnoticed by the defeated directors that City Council members actively endorsed some of their opponents, who took the election more seriously than the incumbents.
"I didn't do anything" to get reelected, acknowledged Dodd, adding that after two terms on the board, he did not mind leaving. "It just isn't worth it to me," he said of his non-campaign. "We're talking about a water board, not a city council race."
Stone, for one, sees the board newcomers as "three customers who don't know a thing about the operation of the district." What they will do once they learn the ropes remains to be seen, he indicated.