Public comment gets heated at council meeting
Tuesday night’s city council meeting was proof positive that water remains a constant concern for Claremont residents.
Following ceremonial matters on the council’s agenda, including the introduction of Architectural Commissioner Robert Perry and the recognition of Francine Baker for her many years of volunteer service as the city’s art coordinator, Mayor Joe Lyons opened up the room for public comment on items not listed on the agenda. Water dominated the discussion.
Brian Bowcock, Division III director with Three Valleys Municipal Water District, first took to the podium and opened up the floodgates by providing an update on our aquifer and other areas where water is becoming scarce.
“The key well, under good conditions, is normally at 200 feet. Today, as of right now, it’s at 181 feet. That’s an all-time low,” Mr. Bowcock explained. “To put it in perspective, each foot of drop is 8,000 acre feet of water in the basin. Since last year, it has fallen 15 feet. “
Mr. Bowcock went on to warn the council that should the well drop an additional 20 feet or so, down to 160 feet, it is going to have to run all day to make up for the water that can’t be pulled from the ground.
“If we get down to 160 feet, you’re looking at an assessment of energy costs to exceed $23 million a year,”?he said. “That doesn’t give anyone any penalty money, that’s just actual cost. If you’re running a well eight hours a day now and you’ve got to turn it on for 24 hours, that’s how serious it is. And we better start taking it seriously.”
According to Mr. Bowcock, our local reservoirs aren’t faring well either.
“We have three reservoirs, Cogswell, San Gabriel and Morris. Again, that’s 84,000 acre feet of water. Last month, I told you we’d be below the 11,000 mark and we are below the 11,000 mark,” he said. “That’s 13 percent of what normal capacity is. It’s all we have, there’s no other water and I can’t emphasis that enough.”
Mr. Bowcock notified council that state government will not be sending water south until April 2015, although the state did cut the San Gabriel Basin a little slack last week by sending 5,000 acre feet of water, roughly half a foot, at a very expensive price. Claremont has been and will continue to get all of its water from the Colorado River with not much of a difference in price.
Taking the water issue in a different direction was CAWA member and No on W advocate Mark Sterba. With visual aids in hand, Mr. Sterba set up his easel and charts and was immediately, and repeatedly, reprimanded by council and city staff for addressing the audience.
“You are to address the council,” said City Manager Tony Ramos as Mr. Sterba began his opening comments facing the audience.
“While I appreciate all the time and money Claremont has spent looking at the acquisition of the water company, I would like to throw out that there are major issues with the analysis of the feasibility study that was completed,” said Mr. Sterba, as he addressed the audience a second time. “My first chart, which you guys can’t see…”
“Excuse me, Mr. Sterba, you’re addressing council, please,” Councilman Larry Schroeder said.
Mr. Sterba continued to direct his public comment at residents gathered in council chamber, only to be once again directed by Mayor Joe Lyons.
“Please! You can move [the charts] outside the building for public viewing but they are not part of your opportunity to speak to council,” Mr. Lyons said.
Mr. Sterba resumed his presentation, citing inconsistencies in the city’s position on Measure W and the feasibility study, referencing the chart and the city’s sustainability plan to reduce water usage by 40 percent in 2017 as presented on the their website.
“The problem starts when we get to the next chart, which shows that the city intends to increase the sale of water by 15 percent over the duration of the feasibility study,” Mr. Sterba said.“I concluded this study is flawed on page 2. Line  assumes that we’re going to use more water year-on-year-on-year over the next 30 years. How can someone produce a feasibility study that talks about increasing water usage weeks after a report that was completed talks about decreasing water usage?”
“We talk about $28 per month, that’s what we keep hearing. $28 per month assumes that we’re going to use more water. That’s dishonest,” Mr. Sterba continued. “To fund a $135 million bond with coverage ratios of 5 percent interest is $1,217 per year per family per home. That’s $101.42 [per month]. There’s a big difference between $101 and $28.”
Jeanne Sterba followed her husband to the podium and discussed the escalating legal costs expected in an eminent domain battle to acquire the water system.
“It’s my understanding that my learnered colleagues at Best, Best and Kreiger have already billed and/or been paid by the city of Claremont $1.3 million, and we haven’t even filed a lawsuit yet,” said Ms. Sterba. “I didn’t see anything in the feasibility study to let the voters know that it’s not guaranteed. Just because you buy a lottery ticket doesn’t mean you win. Just because you file a lawsuit, doesn’t mean you win.”
Ms. Sterba continued, addressing the council, “Do the voters know, do you all know, the estimated costs and legal fees of an eminent domain proceeding that’s going to have a full cadre of attorneys presenting that case?”
Councilman Larry Schroeder and City Attorney Sonia Carvalho both offered explanations.
“As far as the water bond issue goes and the possible eminent domain action, council is not decided on that yet,”?Mr. Schroeder said. “The city has had a cadre of professionals, including attorneys and financial advisors, working on this for many years. Much of the money we’ve spent was to defend lawsuits that have been placed against the city by Golden State Water.”
Ms. Carvalho tried to provide a further breakdown of the city’s legal expenses.
“I just want it to be clarified that while the city has been billed approximately $1.3 million—and some of those charges have come through the firm Best, Best, & Kreiger—nearly $500,000 has gone towards paying these type of financial consultants to prepare the feasibility study,” she said.
The city attorney went on the explain that the appraisals relating to the feasibility study are required by law and during this process the city has published the staff reports and kept the city’s residents well informed on any moeny spent.
“The public has been informed that the cost of eminent domain is very costly and it could range from anywhere from $2 to $5 million, depending on how long it takes to go through the court system,” Ms. Carvalho said. “We’ve also acknowledged in some of those documents that an eminent domain process could take several years and that doesn’t include the potential for appeal.”
Mayor Lyons added, “We have added to the list of documents generated during this lengthy and often patience-testing process all on our website, so this isn’t an absence of information,” he said. “The insinuation that the public doesn’t have access to information that would allow them to be informed is a bit misleading, if not disingenuous.”
With the water discussion closed, the council moved on to matters presented on the agenda. Included on the consent calendar and passed by council was the adoption of resolutions related to the calling of the General Election to be held on March 3, 2015, the approval of an agreement with RRM Design pertaining to the Foothill Boulevard Master Plan and the approval of the final tract map for William Lyon Homes on the southeast corner of Towne Avenue and Base Line Road.
Also brought before city council and unanimously adopted was a resolution of support for the preservation of the La Casita Girl Scout property, a matter that was discussed during public comment at council’s last meeting in September.
“I wasn’t at the last meeting when this matter came about but I can tell you, I was in Washington, DC and I heard the Girl Scouts over there, loud and clear,” said Councilman Sam Pedroza.
“This is a big part of our overall open space programs that we have here in the city, so I’m in favor. I’ve been on the council long enough to know you never, ever cross Girl Scouts in this town,” he continued, jokingly.
The meeting closed with Councilman Corey Calaycay clarifying the purpose of public comment.
“Public comment is an opportunity for people to address their concerns to the city council and why we ask them to address the council, “ said Councilman Calaycay. “This is not a venue for a presentation to the public and so, in that sense, a portion of that presentation was out of order….This is not a venue for a campaign forum.”