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Controversy Over Attempted Acosta Appointment

| News | December 20, 2018

It’s a really small piece of the greater water picture. It’s an area in Castaic and Val Verde that serves between 900 and 1,000 customers. It’s a board position that’s going to go away no later than 2023.

And for one moment, it was the center of controversy.
On Tuesday night, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency board of directors deferred approving former City Councilmember and Assemblyman Dante Acosta to sit on the water board as Los Angeles County’s representative.

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger had nominated Acosta

during the Dec. 11 Board of Supervisors meeting to replace county employee Dean Efstathiou, who represented County Waterworks District 36, which covers Castaic and Val Verde. Efstathiou, who didn’t return calls for comment, had been appointed by former supervisor Mike Antonovich and served for more than 20 years.

The appointed position, served as a 4-year term, will no longer exist as of Jan. 1, 2023, the result of Senate Bill 634, which created the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency. The law requires the number of directors to be cut from its current 14 to nine all-elected positions.

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But board president Bill Cooper and member Lynne Plambeck said they don’t want to wait to reduce. They would like the seat eliminated now, either by the county merging the seat into the SCVWA or by having the county operate District 36 without a board seat. If that happens, Cooper said, the agency stands to save $25,000 a year in benefits, stipends and convention costs.

“The discussion of merging District 36 might be more viable now,” Plambeck said Wednesday morning.

Barger spokesman Tony Bell made it sound like the county isn’t considering that. “The agency will not consider he nomination when it meets again on Jan.
7,” Bell texted.

Either way, it’s becoming more and more likely that if Acosta serves on the board, he would have to be elected. He didn’t return calls for comment.

The controversy stems from two issues: the perceived politics behind the appointment and those who believe Acosta lacks the experience with water.

At least one person wondered if Acosta wanted to use the appointment to get back into elective office. Scott Lay, who writes “The Nooner” blog as part of the website aroundthecapitol.com, thinks Acosta will challenge Christy Smith, who defeated him last month, for the Assembly seat in 2020, “and with the appointment gains a strong ballot designation.”

One reason the board declined to approve Acosta’s nomination was that it objected to the process by which Barger nominated him.

Board Vice President Maria Gutzeit said she asked Barger’s office for information on how the position was publicized and about Acosta’s relevant experience, but received nothing back.

“There’s no backup, no resume, no information, no comments about the process or how this person was selected,” Gutzeit said. “It doesn’t have to be a political person. It can be just a staff member to represent the agency’s interests if they want. It’s quite broad, who they could appoint. I don’t think this was publicized at all by Barger’s office, at least not what I’ve seen. The water agency is taking the heat for it and Barger’s office’s decision should be done transparently, and I’m not happy it wasn’t done transparently. It’s quite irritating to me.”

Stacy Fortner, calling herself a “concerned citizen,” accused the board of committing a violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act because Acosta’s name was not on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting, and sent the allegation to the water agency and the county district attorney’s Division of Public Integrity.

Head Deputy District Attorney Alan Yochelson, one of the two lawyers Fortner sent the complaint to, referred the Gazette’s inquiry to the Media Relations Division. Spokesperson Shiara Davila-Morales emailed to confirm the division had received and was reviewing the complaint.

The Brown Act, among other aspects, guarantees that certain legislative meetings must be open to the public and proscribes when and how those agendas are prepared and circulated. Nowhere does the Act specify that the name of a nominated person must be in the agenda, and water agency attorney Thomas Bunn III sent Fortner a reply referring to Sec. 54954.2 of the Government Code that says the Act requires “a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting.”

“Our agenda satisfied that requirement,” Bunn wrote. “It is therefore my opinion that there was no violation of the Brown Act.”

Plambeck agreed with the notion of a Brown Act violation, saying, “It’s an intent issue. They knew who it was going to be and they didn’t put that on. Now, that isn’t right. That’s an intent to not fully inform the people of what’s going to be on the agenda.”

She also said that the issue is moot because the matter will be fully placed on the Jan. 7 agenda.

Kiza Hilton, who represented the Castaic Lake Water Agency as a consultant from 1996-2000, was one vocal critic of Acosta’s appointment. She said Cooper wanted Efstathiou replaced because he opposed Cooper’s elevation to board president.

“I would question if that played into his being replaced,” she said.

Cooper said he could not recall if Efstathiou voted against him in January – Plambeck said she recalled Efstathiou voted against Cooper the first round but wasn’t sure of the second round – and he did not speak to anyone in Barger’s office. “Absolutely not,” he said. “Not a soul.”

Hilton questioned why the board would appoint someone who doesn’t live in the area he represents. Acosta lives in Canyon Country; Efstathiou’s phone numbers indicate he lives in Sierra Madre.

“What most concerns me is why they would choose an individual that does not have education or experience in water policy,” Hilton said.

To that, Bell said, everyone has some background in water somewhere.

“I would argue that water, that management, leadership, values, character, logic – all of those aspects, as important management skills, are as important as experience in water,” Bell said. “Water is a really important commodity as well as a resource. He is familiar with resources. He’s familiar with how resources ought to be managed, and we think his abilities will pan out in his position.”

According to the website votesmart.org, Acosta spent time in the financial world and as a general sales manager for a San Fernando Valley Chevrolet dealership before getting into elective office, first on the Santa Clarita City Council and then the Assembly.

While in the Assembly for his single term, he served on 11 different committees, including arts, aging and long-term care, legislative audit, aerospace, and small business and entrepreneurship.

Cooper and former Acosta chief of staff David Creager pointed to Acosta’s time on the Natural Resources Committee as relevant experience, and they credited Acosta with helping move Senate Bill 634 through the Assembly.

The Natural Resources Committee’s website says its jurisdiction includes: “air quality, climate change, energy efficiency, renewable energy, California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), coastal protection, forestry, land conservation, oil spills, solid waste and recycling.”

It does not mention water, nor does SB 634’s legislative history show it went through that committee. Nor do any of the hundreds of bills Acosta sponsored or co-sponsored relate to water, according to billtrack50.com.

Before Tuesday’s meeting, Cooper called Acosta “a very nice person, very capable, and I’m sure that the board will take all of his qualifications under consideration. I don’t see any reason why they would reject Dante.”

On Wednesday, he said the meeting was “very interesting, and it’s good to see the community turn out. People have opinions and we like to hear those.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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