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WATER DISTRICT RACES : A Flood of Candidates Will Vie for Positions on Obscure Boards

November 03, 1994|MARY GUTHRIE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

South Bay voters will find record numbers of candidates and unusual acrimony in once-sleepy water district races.

In years past, the candidates for four-year terms on the West Basin Municipal Water District's board spent little money on the races, which have been described as typically nonpartisan, nonpolitical elections where press coverage is limited and fund raising is not customary. But this year, nine candidates are on the ballot for three open seats.

Incumbents and challengers alike wonder why so many candidates are running for the obscure posts. Some contenders appear to be true water buffs--engineers, environmentalists and others with a passion for water issues.

At least three candidates have ties to former Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally, who opened the nonprofit Robert Smith Water Institute in April. Candidates Mark S. Dymally (Mervyn Dymally's son), R. Keith McDonald (son of Assemblywoman Juanita M. McDonald) and JoAnn S. Williams all list positions with the institute on election documents.

McDonald is running against incumbent Charles L. Stuart, former Rancho Palos Verdes Councilwoman Jacki Bacharach and consultant Basil Kimbrew in Division 1. Mark Dymally is running against incumbent Richard Heath in Division 2. Williams is opposing incumbent Edward C. Little in Division 4. Robert Katherman's name also appears on the ballot in Division 1, although he has withdrawn from the race.

Critics say the former congressman is trying to stack the powerful water boards with his allies. Mervyn Dymally acknowledges that the candidates are affiliated with the institute, but he denies that the nonprofit organization is backing any candidate. Nonprofit agencies are barred by state law from political activity.

Other institute-affiliated candidates are running in the Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

West Basin acts as a middleman for water sales to more than 800,000 Southern California residents. Water that the district buys from the Metropolitan Water District is resold to cities and water companies in coastal neighborhoods from Malibu to the South Bay. Torrance and Los Angeles, however, buy their water elsewhere.

In addition to its role as a purveyor of water, the West Basin district has created partnerships with other public and private groups for water conservation projects.

On Oct. 13, West Basin dedicated its water recycling plant in El Segundo. The $200-million facility is the largest in the nation and will ultimately treat 100,000-acre-feet of waste water each year. The facility will treat water from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant for use in industry and irrigation.

Hundreds of people who swarmed the October dedication heard district officials praise the project, which has received $6.7 million of a $50 million commitment from the federal government.

West Basin incumbents Stuart, Heath and Little have cited their stewardship of the recycling project throughout the campaign, while criticizing water institute challengers and others.

Heath called challenger Mark Dymally's supporters "cronies and insiders" and said Dymally is "not on record as having set foot in a single West Basin meeting."

Mark Dymally counters by citing his nine years as a water resources specialist for the Metropolitan Water District and describing himself as a leader who "is going to represent all of our needs and not those of a select few."

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Stuart filed suit against Katherman, an engineer and small-business owner. Stuart's lawsuit said that Katherman's candidate statement "contained malicious, untrue, misleading and damaging allegations" about Stuart's compensation. In September Katherman lost the lawsuit, withdrew from the race and endorsed Stuart. Katherman's name is still on the ballot, however, because he withdrew too late to have it removed.

Just this week, more lawsuits were threatened. In a letter addressed to Richard Atwater, general manager of the water district, Mervyn Dymally accused Atwater and other district officials of giving out information that would damage his reputation. Dymally also requested an opportunity to address the board of directors to complain, and said he had referred the matter to his attorneys.

Elected board members will be responsible for guiding the district through the final phases of the water recycling project.

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