Tuscan Water District ballot-counting cancelled; election to be “redone” Ballot deficiencies had "consequences," attorney says

by Leslie Layton
posted Sept. 29

Ballot-counting in the election on the Tuscan Water District (TWD) was cancelled Sept. 27 because of defects in the noticing process, the Butte County Clerk-Recorder’s office has said.

photo by Karen Laslo
Deseret’s facility on Wilson Landing Road.

In a press release Sept. 28 -– the day the ballots were to be counted -– the clerk-recorder released a statement saying that concerns had been “raised regarding whether adequate notice” to voters had been provided. Today Clerk-Recorder Candace Grubbs said the election “wasn’t noticed properly and will be redone.”

TWD was the subject of heated debate early this year at public meetings, with many county residents objecting to the voting structure, which allocates votes based on the number of acres or value of the land owned. That structure thus gives several large corporate landowners far more influence over groundwater management than small landowners and tenants.

In an earlier story, ChicoSol reported that the ballot -– with an argument in favor of formation but none opposing — was mailed to Butte County landowning residents who live within the boundaries of the special water district that TWD proponents are trying to form. The ballot asked for a vote for or against formation and with an annual parcel assessment fee of up to $10 per acre, and offered 11 candidates for nine positions on the board of directors.

Elections Manager Keaton Denlay told ChicoSol prior to the Sept. 20 deadline for ballot submission that landowners were noticed as TWD went under consideration by Butte Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCo) early this year.

Attorney Jim McCabe, a TWD critic, said that wasn’t adequate, and the lack of updated notice to all concerned “had consequences.”

“There was no notice for an opposition argument on the ballot,” said McCabe, who lives within the proposed district in Durham. “[Potential] candidates had no way of knowing they could run.”

McCabe said the law requires that election officials give “mailed notice” to all landowners, and if the proposed district is inhabited, to all the district’s registered voters. “There may well be more than 3,000 registered voters” in the district, he told ChicoSol.

McCabe thus sent two letters to Grubbs -– one in June and one in September.

In the Sept. 16 letter, McCabe quotes the statute requiring the notice, and says: “There is nothing in the Government Code that permits you to rely on website notices, or on prior mailings by other agencies about the TWD formation process…”

McCabe’s letter continues: “And given the absence of notice, none of the roughly 6,500 people who reside in the proposed district were advised of the possibility of submitting a ballot argument in opposition to the formation of the district or the imposition of the parcel tax.”

McCabe’s letter says the parcel tax comprised a “new error” in that it was combined with a question asking landowners to vote on formation. He says the tax requires a “separate ballot distributed to registered voters within the proposed district” and under California’s Proposition 13, needs 2/3 or more of the registered-voter ballots cast.

“Butte County voters will not stand for elected officials ignoring Proposition 13, particularly if they are ignoring it to do a favor to campaign contributors,” the letter states.

ChicoSol tried without success today to reach a spokesperson for TWD.

Grubbs’s office hasn’t handled an election on formation of a special water district in quite a long time, some observers note.

The letter details what it says are other violations of law in the formation process or ways in which TWD may be unconstitutional, according to McCabe. The attorney argues that the board candidates appearing on the ballot were “overwhelmingly handpicked.”

The ballot argument submitted in favor of TWD said the petitioners represent “more than 75 family farms and hundreds of landowners and domestic well users within the Vina and Butte subbasins.”

“We need the Tuscan Water District now more than ever to protect our access to groundwater, given the challenging climate, ongoing drought and increasing regulatory pressure … If we don’t act now … to solve the overdraft problem, others will fill the gap in leadership and force much more troubling and costly solutions on farmers,” the ballot argument reads.

In a Sept. 28 interview on KZFR’s “The Real Issue,” McCabe said some farmers are less than certain that the TWD proponents are trustworthy managers. (If the so-called assessment is approved, for example, the district would collect roughly $976,000 a year in parcel taxes.)

“[there’s] a lot of skepticism with some farmers whether these guys are wise stewards of money or whether they’re like the Keystone Cops of water district formation,” McCabe said. “This is an effort to give large farmers — the largest farmers, really — a leg up in deciding how that water is exploited,” he said.

Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.

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