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PCWA board opponents argue over water funds

By: Tom Durkin
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It was billed as an election debate between Placer County Water Agency board incumbent Otis Wollan and challenger Ben Mavy, but it turned into a debate between Wollan and the audience. About two dozen residents gathered at the Sierra Vista Community Center Thursday night to hear Wollan and Mavy debate issues facing District 5 of the Placer County Water Agency. Although the debate didn’t quite go as planned, it was nevertheless generally civilized, mostly respectful, and frequently productive. The majority of the audience – both by show of applause and by the questions they asked – appeared to support Mavy. In the end, it was Wollan who got 75 percent of the mostly negative attention from the audience. The debate, which was moderated by Colfax Record Editor Gloria Beverage, started out formally. Both candidates responded to two prepared questions, then rebutted within the time limits. However, when it came time for written questions from the audience, several people spoke out in favor of direct questions from the audience. The candidates agreed and Beverage modified the format. The major issue of the debate was how to spend the millions and millions of dollars that will begin pouring into Placer County in 2013. As the result of a $140 million bond passed in the early 1960s, ownership of – and revenue from – the complex of reservoirs and hydroelectric plants known as the American River Middle Fork Project (MFP) will revert from PG&E to Placer County and PCWA in five years. Revenues from the sale of water and power from the project are estimated to range anywhere from $10 million to $100 million a year (depending upon any given year’s annual snow/rainfall). According to a joint powers agreement between Placer County and PCWA, the county and the water agency will split Middle Fork revenues 50-50. Mavy stated he believes 100 percent of the project revenue should be spent exclusively on water and power infrastructure. Wollan said all of the agency’s share of the revenue will absolutely be spent on water and power infrastructure, but PCWA has no control over what the Placer County Board of Supervisors will do with its half of the revenue. Mavy described the JPA as a decision by a group of politicians who created a box and are now claiming, “Help, we’re trapped in a box.” Wollan explained the JPA was created with the specific intent – by a 10-0 vote of both the board of supervisors and PCWA – of not adding “another layer of government” to the distribution of Middle Fork funds. Mavy advocated restructuring the JPA from its current four-member board (two county supervisors, two PCWA directors) to a seven-member board (to include representatives of special districts and other interests). Rather than simply channeling project revenues 50-50 to the county and water agency through the JPA (as it is currently structured), Mavy argued the restructured authority would have total control over where and how much money would be spent on water and power infrastructure in Placer County. Wollan noted only the JPA has the legal authority to restructure itself – and good luck with that. Furthermore, PCWA is bound by state legislation – and its own policy – to dedicate all MFP revenues to water and power infrastructure. He suggested Mavy’s energies would be better directed at attempting to influence the Placer County Board of Supervisors as well as the state Legislature. Mavy insisted those revenues could be used to assist Colfax with its wastewater problems. Wollan pointed out it would take an act of the legislature to give PCWA the legal authority to do that. Unlike much higher-profile campaign debates, both Mavy and Wollan treated each other with sincere respect and refused to engage in character assassination. They agreed to disagree, but they did agree in urging the audience to treat each other peaceably and respectfully, despite their differences of opinion. The audience seemed to appreciate that both candidates took the high road. Even though Wollan took virtually all the heat, both he and Mavy got an equal round of applause at the end.