Over the Hill

Paso water district plan is a fair one

March 14, 2014 

Phil Dirkx

The future is clouded for the Paso Robles groundwater basin. Underground water levels continue to decline, and two local landowner groups proposed a water management district to restore the basin. But the state Legislature may never get to vote on that proposal.

It seems the folks at the state Office of Legislative Counsel doubt the proposal’s legality. Some state and local officials discussed the problem last week. They said the Legislative Counsel folks criticized the proposal’s hybrid board of directors, which is a compromise hammered out between the groups that represent mostly irrigated agriculture and rural residents in the area.

The district’s governing board would have nine members: two elected by the district’s largest landowners, two by its medium-large landowners and two by its small landowners. The remaining three would be elected by all registered voters in the district. The voters in those three “landowner” categories would cast multiple votes, one for each acre they own. The voters in the districtwide election would cast only one vote each.

The Legislative Counsel folks seem to think such a voting system is unconstitutional. But California already has a law that authorizes similar local water districts whose election procedures seem even more questionable to me. They are called California water districts.

I’m no lawyer. I learned about California water districts on Google. I realize a little Googling is a dangerous thing, like a little learning, but here’s what I think I know:

Several of those districts exist around the state. State law prescribes how they should elect the members of their governing boards. It says each voter “shall have one vote for each dollar’s worth of land to which he or she holds title.”

But if there is no equalized assessment book of that district, then each voter is entitled to one vote for each acre he or she owns. So either way, the big landowners have the biggest voice in the district’s government.

To me, that sounds less constitutional than the Paso Robles basin’s proposed system, which at least favors more than one class of people. Personally, I’d prefer just one simple election with each voter getting just one vote.

But the Paso Robles basin’s complicated system was a necessary compromise. It got the two main opposing groups to agree to back the same district proposal for the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

The election system in the Paso Robles basin proposal isn’t perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction, toward equal voting rights for all, and it should be approved.

Phil Dirkx’s column is special to The Tribune. He has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column appears here every week. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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