Six hours after starting to interview applicants for Greg Sanders’ seat on Cambria’s services district board, directors found themselves right where they started — and following a familiar pattern.
Just as they had when looking at applicants to replace Michael Thompson in October, board members had to continue Monday’s special meeting after failing to reach a decision.
In the case of Thompson’s seat, directors moved on to a second day of deliberations after deadlocking 2-2 on eight separate votes. Monday’s meeting at the Veterans Memorial Building produced just two votes, but the results were the same: 2-2 deadlocks.
The stalemate came despite work by an ad-hoc committee of Vice President Harry Farmer and Director Aaron Wharton designed to improve the process this time out.
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The divisions on the board reflected divisions in the community over growth, water and related issues. They were apparent during comments from the public, which was mostly divided into two camps, supporting either Tom Gray or Dewayne Lee.
Eleven of those who spoke supported Gray, who served as the district’s public information officer from February 2014 to April 2016. Nine spoke in favor of Lee, who finished fifth in the 2016 election for three seats on the board. (Four speakers explicitly opposed Gray, though none spoke out specifically against Lee.)
Karen Dean also received some support from members of the audience.
When it came time to vote, Director Jim Bahringer nominated Gray, with Wharton — who replaced Thompson on the board — seconding the motion.
“I received overwhelming support for Tom Gray in my emails,” Wharton said, adding that 55 of the 90 emails he’d received from community members had backed Gray. “They know his stance. They support his stance.”
But both President Amanda Rice and Farmer opposed the nomination, with Rice saying Gray “could easily be a lightning rod for this board if he’s appointed.”
The vote went the opposite way for Lee, who was nominated by Farmer, with Rice seconding, before Wharton and Bahringer both voted “no.”
After the second vote, the board voted to adjourn for the day and continue the meeting at noon Monday, Dec. 11, “and hope and pray that we come to a decision on that date,” Farmer remarked.
If the board fails to reach a decision, it could eventually fall to the county Board of Supervisors.
Eleven candidates applied to fill Sanders’ seat, including seven who were considered for the October vacancy: Ron Cristando, Karen Dean, Mark Herrier, Lee, Allan MacKinnon, Dave Pierson and Jeff Walters. The new applicants this time around were Gray, Steve Kniffen, Brian Morrow and Dennis Perry. Wharton said Herrier could not be present because of a previous commitment.
Each candidate gave a 4-minute introduction, followed by public comment. The board then called seven of the candidates back for questions. Each director was allowed to write down up to three names, and the only candidates not selected were Kniffen, MacKinnon, Morrow and Walters.
Kniffen’s exclusion was somewhat surprising in light of an exchange between Bahringer and Rice at a Nov. 22 meeting, where the board set up the process for filling the seat. At that meeting, Bahringer called Kniffen “one of the best people we could get … who I probably think would get a unanimous vote, if we could have such a thing.”
Rice responded then: “I clearly don’t disagree, since I nominated him last time.”
Kniffen did not, however, receive a nomination Monday, nor was he called back to be questioned after the candidates gave their introductions. Still, directors made clear that any of the applicants — even those not questioned — were still eligible to be nominated.
Each of the four directors chose one question to ask all the applicants from a list of 10. These, in turn, had been gleaned from 60 questions suggested by members of the community.
The questions involved:
▪ Fiscal challenges facing the district.
▪ Identifying something the district does that “needs attention.”
▪ Research and decision-making.
▪ Ways to improve civility.
During their responses, several candidates suggested that the board form standing committees to get members of the community more involved in the district’s decision-making — a suggestion Rice said she supported. Pierson mentioned forming a committee specifically tasked with pursuing grants.
On other issues, Gray suggested surveying ratepayers on water use and property owners on whether they intend to build on vacant parcels, while Morrow (in his introduction) proposed lobbying the county to establish a sheriff’s substation in Cambria.
Perry and Cristando, meanwhile, both mentioned the problem of dead and dying trees, with Cristando suggesting that the district “hold the owners of vacant lots responsible for their property” and place liens on those lots the district is forced to maintain.
As has been the case previously, however, the issue of the $13 million water plant was foremost in the discussion — especially when it came to Lee and Gray.
Farmer suggested that Gray’s support for the plant didn’t square with the applicant’s stated concerns about budget imbalances: “Our financial problems exist because of the facility that Mr. Gray was intimately involved in, not proposing, but promoting” as public information officer. “We spent almost $1.5 million (in 11 months) on a project that isn’t even operating.”
Gray called the plant “a necessary expense” for the community, in part to safeguard against future drought.
Lee, meanwhile, said he supported the plant’s use for emergencies. “We have a plant out there,” he said. “If we need it, let’s use it."
But he also said he needed more information before deciding whether it should be used on a regular basis: “I haven’t been convinced yet that it’s affordable. If it’s affordable, I’m all for it. But it’s just a matter of economics.”
The CCSD board will continue to deliberate and attempt to choose an applicant to fill the vacant seat in a meeting set for noon Monday, Dec. 11, at the Cambria Veterans Memorial Building, 1000 Main St. For more information on the district, visit its website, http://cambriacsd.org.