by Leslie Layton
posted Sept. 16
Ballots on whether to form the Tuscan Water District (TWD) in northwestern Butte County have been mailed to landowners — without any argument opposing a formation. The proposed district was the subject of debate for hours at public meetings earlier this year.
Only an argument in favor of formation of TWD -– which will have a landowner-based voting structure that will give the largest enterprises thousands of votes -– appears on the ballot that must be postmarked by Sept. 20. The ballot asks, with a single question, whether TWD should be approved with an annual parcel assessment of up to $10 per acre. Landowning voters can also choose nine people for the board of directors from a list of 11 candidates, most of whom are known already as TWD proponents.
A group of Butte County residents who live within the Tuscan boundaries issued a press release earlier this week, arguing that the ballot is “flawed” and “should be rescinded.” The group’s statement says residents who oppose the formation of the district had no opportunity to submit a ballot argument or nominate themselves as trustee candidates.
The press release says that Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs failed to meet the requirement for “mailed notice of the upcoming election to all registered voters in the proposed district.”
Grubbs referred questions on the matter to Elections Manager Keaton Denlay, who said landowners in the district were noticed early this year by the Butte Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo), which sent mailed notices on the process to each landowner. Two weeks after the Board of Supervisors voted in favor of TWD, the Clerk-Recorder’s office added a page laying out the TWD election calendar.
That calendar shows that June 24 was the deadline for nominating candidates and July 28 the deadline for submitting ballot arguments.
Interested parties therefore needed to visit the Clerk-Recorder’s home page, click on “Elections,” click again on “Scheduled Elections,” and finally on “September 20, 2022 Tuscan Water Landowner District Election.”
TWD would form as a special district acting as a quasi-public agency run by private landowners charged with maintaining water supplies for agriculture. It would be one of the largest water districts in the state. Perhaps what most rankles TWD opponents is the one-vote-per-acre-owned voting structure that favors large landowners who may be out-of-county corporations. (The largest landowner, for example, would be Deseret Farms, a subsidiary of Salt Lake City, Utah-based Farmland Reserve. Deseret has more than 11,800 acres in the district and that many votes.)
The district, assuming it’s approved, will be more than 97,600 acres that stretch from Butte’s northern border to the Sacramento River in the west, Highway 99 in the east, and south to the Durham area. Although it bypasses most of the City of Chico, the press release notes it will have “significant power” over the aquifer that serves the city.
The press release finds fault with other aspects of the election as well, including that it seeks approval of a $10/acre assessment to reimburse TWD proponents for costs incurred in formation. TWD critics say that an assessment fee requires an engineer’s report describing the benefits to each parcel. If the fee is actually a parcel tax, Proposition 13 requires the approval of two-thirds of the landowner voters.
That fee, critics say, would produce almost $1 million a year, and it’s not clear whether this is an ongoing or one-time charge or how much has been spent to date. The ballot describes the fee as an “annual parcel assessment” to fund “initial organizational/administrative activities.”
Emily Alma, whose name appears on the press release, says she could have submitted an opposing argument had she known the election was this month, but it wasn’t clear to her that she should be watching the Clerk-Recorder’s Web page. She also wonders how many landowners have ballots sitting under piles of mail on their desks and don’t know there’s a deadline approaching next week.
Alma is one of more than 6,000 landowners in TWD and lives on a parcel that is more than 12 acres in size. She depends on a domestic well for crops and showers.
Jim McCabe, a Durham attorney who lives in TWD and depends on a domestic well, says state law clearly required “mailed notice” to both landowners and registered voters in the district.
“The county administration has bent over backwards to keep the whole process away from the public,” McCabe said. “There has been an extended effort to evade public control over a public asset.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.