Clint Baze is the general manager of the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District.
The “Water Ratepayers Protection Act of 2023” has a nice ring to it, right? Unfortunately, the name doesn’t accurately reflect the proposed legislation – and its provisions and potential consequences should be deeply troubling to San Diego County residents, farmers and other essential businesses throughout our region.
This proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 399, attempts to undermine the existing authority of local water districts and Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCO), which are regional service planning agencies in communities throughout California. Specifically, if a water agency’s elected leaders vote in favor of pursuing independence from the other entities, the bill would require additional sign off by all voters in San Diego County. That conveniently gives the city of San Diego, because of its large population, the ability to pre-empt local control sought by smaller communities that is fundamental to a fair and equitable system across our state.
Earlier this month, The San Diego Union-Tribune published an editorial opposing the bill. It called AB 399 “a triumph for hardball politics — not expanded democracy,” and we share that newspaper’s deep concerns about the bill’s laundry list of potential pitfalls.
The San Diego County LAFCO has the job of making sure that changes to local district boundaries happen sensibly and on time. This includes adding or removing areas from a region, combining or joining districts
, and ending districts. LAFCO’s main aim is to help local organizations grow so they can meet the needs of the county and its communities now and into the future.
This rushed bill removes LAFCO from the decision-making process and was introduced without prior outreach to other San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) member agencies. We fear that this bill will set a precedent where other large agencies throughout the state can essentially bypass LAFCO by using the Legislature to thwart local decisions.
We can agree, however, that the current San Diego County Water Authority voting system is untenable. At present, the County Water Authority Act allows for a small minority of the larger agencies to carry the vote even if a substantial majority of the member agencies oppose. The voting structure, as it exists today, is at least part of the reason that two water districts recently sought — and were granted — detachment from the SDCWA.
While these districts clearly benefit from detachment with lower rates for their customers, they are also seeking to regain the ability to make critical financial and strategic decisions on behalf of their ratepayers. These decisions are currently undermined by the weighted vote at the SDCWA — dominated by the city of San Diego which possesses nearly 40 percent of the weighted vote. It is not surprising that AB 399, as currently drafted, gives a tremendous amount of power to the city of San Diego — which is also, conveniently, supportive of the bill.
If passed, AB 399 has the potential to lead to significant legal and administrative complexities, resulting in expensive court battles between agencies seeking separation in the future. These resources could be better utilized in finding practical solutions to address water rate issues and improve the overall relationships among member agencies.
Put simply, AB 399 is nothing more than a power grab that seeks to eliminate the purpose LAFCO was created for, potentially undermine the County Water Authority, and ignore decisions made by democratically elected local officials. We urge supporters to reconsider the urgency of this bill and allow time for dialogue within the members of the County Water Authority so that reasonable changes can be considered. The residents, small businesses and farmers across San Diego County deserve better than this rushed, misguided bill.