LOS ANGELES — It's Orange County versus Los Angeles County, conservative against liberal, a West Point graduate taking on a former seminarian.
Two men on opposite sides of most political and social issues are the finalists in today's election for the board chairmanship of the world's most powerful water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
They are John V. (Jack) Foley of Laguna Niguel and Pasadena's Timothy F. Brick.
At 61, Foley, an engineer and a retired Army colonel, fits the more traditional profile of the MWD chairman and is considered the favorite to win the election. He is now the general manager of the Moulton Niguel Water District, has sat on the MWD board for six years, and would be the first Orange County director ever to head the 51-member water board that oversees an $820-million annual budget.
"Tim has considerable support from the Los Angeles and San Diego delegations but the smart money is on Jack," said John Killefer, a former MWD director from Newport Beach.
But Brick, 46, a writer, political consultant and nine-year MWD board member, is considered a brilliant strategist. A fervent environmentalist who 10 years ago led the fight in Southern California against the Peripheral Canal, the fact that he is even in the running shows how the once wholly conservative water agency is changing.
"Tim was the one who got Met (as the MWD is called) talking about environmental issues," said Mike Nolan, a former MWD director from Burbank. "(He) finds a way to show some environmental sensitivity and also get the job done."
The winner will take over the one-year unexpired term of Michael J. Gage, an ally of former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley who resigned as chairman in September at the request of Mayor Richard Riordan. It is customary with a new city administration to change members of Los Angeles' delegation to the MWD board.
Gage's resignation touched off a rush for a replacement as leader of the 65-year-old agency that imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River to serve 17 million people in 225 communities from Ventura County to the Mexican border. The MWD chairmanship is considered a powerful political position.
"In the board structure, the chairman has an agenda and he can get things done," said Peer Swan, the president of the board of the Irvine Ranch Water District, one of Orange County's largest water agencies. "It is very, very political, that's why there is so much inertia in the Met system. You kind of need a person who can move (the directors) off a dime."
On Nov. 9, the board's nominating committee offered Foley and Brick, who sit side by side at the board table, as the two finalists.
They give board members a choice between two men who reflect vastly different backgrounds and constituencies, according to water officials.
Brick, a Pasadena civic activist who would be the youngest-ever MWD chairman, offers what he calls the "new direction in water politics" forced upon the agency during the recent drought. He wants to push more programs that "stretch the water supply."
"Instead of being the 8,000-pound gorilla who solves or doesn't solve all water problems, we need to move toward a new era of cooperation of all agencies," Brick said. "We need to try to work more as a partner with local agencies to develop local sources."
Foley, the self-described conservative from Orange County, better reflects the traditional MWD strategy of looking outside Southern California for more water.
"Tim may tend to think that conservation will save us, and not worry about more water supply," said Foley said. "I think generating an effective, future water supply is tremendously important."
However, the men have some similarities.
"Jack and Tim have always had a good working relationship," said Nolan, the brother of Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale). "On environmental matters, they are not that far off."
Both, according to colleagues, also have the ability to form compromises among the diverse board members who tend to form regional alliances as they debate a $6-billion, capital-improvement budget for the next 10 years.
In Orange County, a key project during the next decade is the $625-million Cleveland Tunnel, which would link the Lake Mathews reservoir in western Riverside County by pipeline to South County, giving the area a second major source of imported water. Foley said this project is one of the "key reasons I'm running."
Foley claims his ability to be a mediator and solve internal problems will win him the vote and be his strength as chairman.
"With 51 directors, everything can be a problem," Foley said. "I think I have the credibility and the respect of these people. The chairman needs to be the person to pull together items that may be controversial."
Most Orange County water officials are pulling for Foley, who they say would bring a new focus on local water problems.
"Jack's election would certainly redirect the emphasis of water down in this area," said Mike Dunbar, general manager of the South Coast Water District, which serves parts of Laguna Beach, Dana Point and Laguna Niguel. "Down here, we lack ground water and are totally dependent on Met. Some of the previous decisions at Met tended to favor the bigger agencies."