The Oceano Community Services District has faced heavy turnover at its general manager position while also dealing with financial challenges, aging infrastructure and the reliability of its water supply.
As the district moves forward and strives for stability under the guidance of new general manager Paavo Ogren, the district’s ninth general manager since 2007, three seats on the board of directors are open for the Nov. 4 election.
One of the candidates is a former general manager who was fired earlier this year.
The district provides water, sewer, fire protection and street lighting services to more than 7,200 residents with an annual budget of just over $4 million.
Races for two four-year seats have already been decided because the incumbents are running unopposed. They are Lori Angello, a realtor and local ATV rental business owner, and Karen White, a retired journalist. But three candidates are vying for the third seat, which has a two-year term.
Incumbent Jennifer Blackburn, a stay-at-home mother whose background includes an effort to bring a farmers market to the community, is being challenged by Michael Ebinger, a media consultant in radio broadcasting and Lonnie R. Curtis, a civil engineer who served as the district’s manager for five months until he was fired in March.
Blackburn’s focus is on “fiduciary responsibility” and “clear and transparent government,” she said.
“I believe that setting the district ‘house’ in order is crucial for its responsible management,” Blackburn said. “Looking at what we have, what we will need in the future, and whether our reserve policies and our rates will cover those things is imperative and is the direction I do believe we are moving in.”
Ebinger said his goals are to “improve financial management and fiscal responsibility, infrastructure improvement, water allocations and water entitlements, sewer oversight management.”
Curtis said the key issue facing the district is gaining financing and grants to fund infrastructure improvements.
“The district’s current leadership and sitting board needs to be replaced without delay for running the district to near bankruptcy and to stop the revolving door of their general manager. The board’s ineptitude knows no bounds.”
Board members didn’t give specifics as to why they fired Curtis last spring, though he was suspected of plagiarizing a writing sample for his job application; violating California’s open meeting law; and overcharging residents for district services.
Curtis — who said he plans to sue the district for wrongful termination — said he supports Blackburn, but that he doesn’t think “the other folks on the board are serving the district well.”
“The district is falling apart and has no money,” Curtis said. “I’ve been inside the four walls, and I know what it looks like. The board didn’t want to hear me tell them that.”
After Curtis’ departure, the district hired Ogren, who led the county’s Public Works department for seven years and oversaw the Los Osos sewer project and the Nacimiento water project. The district made him the highest paid general manager of a local services district in the county, with a four-year contract paying him $196,000 plus benefits annually.
Ogren has laid out a long-term plan to assess district needs, financial resources and how to best implement projects and operations.
Maintenance needs include fixes to aging water pipes to make sure they don’t leak and provide adequate fire flow, and a new backup generator, among other ongoing concerns for the Oceano CSD.
The reliability of the water supply also will be a key issue for the district in coming years, whether the drought persists or not, Ogren said.
The district has three water sources — Lake Lopez, state water and well water — and must assess renegotiations on the Lake Lopez supply, the reliability of state water, and how to best manage the ground water basin in partnership with neighboring communities.
“Even if we get rain, we still need to address these water resource issues,” Ogren said. “They’ll continue to exist beyond the current drought.”
Education: Associate degree in liberal arts and sciences, Ventura College
Political party: Libertarian
Lonnie R. Curtis
Occupation: Civil engineer
Education: Bachelor of science in civil engineering, University of California Irvine
Political party: No party preference
Occupation: Media consultant, El Dorado Broadcasters
Education: Declined to provide
Political party: No party preference