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Give Our Community What We Want – Smaller Government and Local Control

When looking at this year’s Presidential campaigns on both sides of the aisle, many people are surprised to see how successful the outsider candidates have been and what a tough time the traditional “establishment” candidates have had. Everyone has their theories, but a popular and recurring theme is that both parties are not listening to their base. On the Republican side, conservatives have been unwavering in their commitment to smaller government and receiving the best service possible for their tax dollars and not simply rewarding big donors or making big government agencies bigger.

Locally, in Orange County, those of us in the unincorporated area of Central Orange County have adamantly opposed being swallowed up by any of our neighboring cities because our residents are fiercely independent and value local control in our governance and in our lives.

For two years, East Orange County Water District (EOCWD), a small local water district that has a board made up of the neighbors and community members of Tustin, North Tustin, and East Orange, has been fighting to obtain control of their local sewers after the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD) announced they were looking to hand them off to a local agency in order to focus on their large sewer collection systems.

EOCWD has a staff of six and operates out of a double-wide trailer. EOCWD keeps a core of highly productive and responsive employees, the District has no debt, it has no unfunded pension liabilities and it outsources specialized work to the private sector when it needs to in order to ensure efficient use of customer dollars. In short, all government agencies could learn a thing or two about operating efficiencies from EOCWD.

Because EOCWD makes up 97% of Sewer Area #7, it seemed commonsensical that EOCWD would be allowed to provide sewer service in an area where they were already providing wholesale and retail water service. In addition to being the local agency in the community already, EOCWD agreed to:

• Reduce the local sewer rate by 50%
• Maintain the excellent inspection and cleaning schedule of once per year that was pioneered by OCSD and has worked so well

However, an Irvine-based water bureaucracy submitted its own application to take over the sewers. Although they provide water service to only 3% of the customers in Sewer Area #7, the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) submitted an application to push north into Tustin, North Tustin and East Orange.

IRWD also has committed to a 50% rate reduction, but they will commit to inspecting and cleaning the sewers only every other year, or half as often as EOCWD.

EOCWD conducted a public opinion research survey of residents in Sewer Area #7 asking them if they prefer their small hometown water district that will offer a 50% rate reduction and maintain the same level of service they receive now, or if they’d prefer IRWD to also offer the 50% rate reduction, but clean the sewers only half as often.

After hearing arguments on both sides, the residents in Sewer Area #7 strongly support EOCWD’s application by an astonishing 15-to-1 margin. Unfortunately, the item doesn’t go to a vote of the people. Orange County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) will vote whether IRWD or EOCWD will take ownership of the sewers. And here is where disenchanted voters get a lesson in politics: Two of the members of the LAFCO commission making the decision include an IRWD Board Member and a former IRWD consultant. While it may be legal, it sure isn’t right.

Yet, hundreds of local residents have made their voice heard. Through online petitions and postcards mailed in, the local community is backing EOCWD. The surrounding cities of Tustin, Orange and Villa Park as well as the local community association of which I am President (Foothill Communities Association) have all endorsed and supported the EOCWD application.

Will the voice of the local community be enough to overcome the political power of IRWD? That remains to be seen, but we residents in Tustin, North Tustin and East Orange will be watching closely.

Rick Nelson is the President of the Foothill Communities Association, which represents the residents and businesses who live and work in the unincorporated county area of Central Orange County.