Let the recall begin

Candidates tackle hot topics at forum for Paradise Irrigation District special election

Several dozen people filled the Paradise Town Council chambers on Monday (Dec. 12) in preparation for next month’s recall election for two Paradise Irrigation District seats. Five candidates sat at the dais—the two recalled directors, Larry Duncan (Division 3) and Sep Carola (Division 4); and their respective opponents—for a forum held by the League of Women Voters of Butte County.

The tone, overall, was cordial and quietly combative, as the recalled directors spoke defensively at times while their opponents touted their expertise in water and willingness to work together for change. Questions came from the league, audience and Paradise Post Editor Rick Silva. They ranged from policy to costs to claims that the current board is dysfunctional.

“I’ve heard that we’re dysfunctional and it’s true to some extent,” said Duncan, a former mayor of Paradise who’s served on the PID board since the 1990s. “It’s very hard to get five people to agree to anything. … Unfortunately, some of us have personal agendas, and are using this to disrupt the board. I’m hoping it’ll go away.”

As can be expected from candidates challenging incumbents, the newcomers had less to say about issues of the past, while the recalled directors seemed obliged to stand up for their actions on the board.

“I’m definitely the new kid on the block,” said Wally Schmidt, running for Division 3 along with Ann Rice, also a newbie to running for office. “I was blissfully ignorant until Feb. 8 of this year, when there was a Proposition 218 meeting …. I was surprised at the behavior there, and I started paying attention. It seemed important not only because of the subject matter but also because of the emotions in the community.”

Prop. 218, which governs how districts can impose changes to water rates, is one of the big issues facing the PID. The board’s first attempt this year to raise rates was thwarted by angry customers—many of them the same who led the recall effort in March—who collected enough signatures to block the increase. Some blame poor communication from the district for creating such a rift in the community. A second attempt to raise rates did pass.

“It was not a fun time for the directors, staff or anyone in this town,” said Carola, who is current board president. “Moving forward, more information to the public is required. We tried to do as much outreach as possible, but obviously much more was needed.”

Among the other big issues discussed Monday were administrative costs, such as health benefits for directors. “I’m in favor of discontinuing health benefits. [They cost] $87,000 a year for five directors. In five years, that’s big money,” said Rice, who has 24 years in the water industry, both at a treatment plant and in the laboratory. She also promised to waive her salary should she be elected.

“I would support a vote to revoke health benefits,” said Marc Sulik, who has 35 years experience working at a wastewater treatment plant. He’s hoping to unseat Carola in Division 4. He added, “I do think it’s a good thing to have some incentives to run for a board position.”

The final bone of contention discussed Monday was a plan to build a new water filtration plant—to the tune of $15 million. This has been an ongoing issue for the board, which is largely in favor of the plant but has discussed alternatives. Better filtration is mandated by the state, and the clock to move forward on a plan is running down.

“I’d be open to different ideas, but we’re really at the eleventh hour,” Sulik said. “I’ve read the alternatives report multiple times, and [the plant] is actually a good project. It’s a well-designed, well-engineered project.”

By the time the allotted 45 minutes were up, Lorene Eagleson, representing the recall committee, said all the candidates had responded well to the questions presented. She’s looking forward to receiving her mail-in ballot next month—the recall election is entirely mail-in, with ballots being mailed to customers Jan. 6, to be returned by Jan. 24.