SUPERVISOR ROWE COMES OUT SWINGING IN SUPPORT OF TPWD TAKEOVER
Politics in Play at Contentious July 20 LAFCO Meeting
At the July 20th LAFCO1 meeting, without anyone representing either TPWD (Twentynine Palms Water District) or the City of Twentynine Palms present, County Supervisor Dawn Rowe voiced strong support for the City taking over TPWD:
This is exceptionally disappointing for me personally. I was excited to see this come to fruition. I understand the people and politics behind the decision. We have five water districts in the Morongo Basin. There's a lot of duplication of services, this made sense from a delivery perspective to have both of these entities folded into the City and have them provide the service.
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On July 20 both Twentynine Palms City Manager Frank Luckino and TPWD General Manager Matt Shragge were out of town, so LAFCO staff set the Service Review for the Twentynine Palms Community as just a discussion item on the meeting agenda, rather than a vote to actually approve the Service Review.
Alternate Commissioner Rick Denison — from the town of Yucca Valley — joined Rowe in staking out a notably pro-takeover stance so that the City could run both water and a future sewer system:
[The City of Twentynine Palms] sees the need in the future for wastewater collection. They've been reviewing those opportunities and they've engaged in discussions on that. That was the City itself, not the water district working on it. I'm looking at how these large infrastructure services are going to work together when we have different agencies working alongside each other. One [consideration] is that the personnel is in place today to manage these services [so if the City took over TPWD] it would just be a change in administration. That's how we would most likely be able to streamline and make the services more efficient, especially amongst the different pieces that we have of those agencies as opposed to having different bodies [City and TPWD] running different parts of exactly the same system. Because I see water delivery and water recovery as one system. It should have a complete ecosystem that it manages within our areas.
But as we reported on May 21 in our article LAFCO Report Supports Collaboration -- Not Consolidation, anyone who reads the recent LAFCO Service Review for the Twentynine Palms Community will find little direct justification in it for City takeover of the Water District.
At the July 20 LAFCO meeting Supervisor Rowe floated several possible takeover rationales: cost savings, avoiding duplication of services, and improved electoral representation. But the recent Service Review examined all these in detail — and discarded each as weak and insignificant.
The other LAFCO board members seemed taken aback by Rowe seemingly ignoring the report’s actual findings and saw politics behind Rowe and Denison’s stances. For example, Commissioner Kimberly Cox from the Mojave Water Agency:
I thought the service review was very positive. The water district has made some excellent strides… With all due respect to the City's request, this is a non-political body in that we have been charged by the state legislature to do these municipal service reviews. This [Service Review] is a great body of work, it's actually a very positive report saying these services within this community are doing a good job and making improvements. I can't see any harm to the City if we take over the process moving forward and complete [this Service Review].
Commissioner Jim Bagley, one of the founders of the City of Twentynine Palms in 1987, who still resides there today, spoke to the strong opposition to City takeover of the Water District which he was hearing personally from local City residents:
This always comes down to all politics are local. As somebody who lives in the community, this was the discussion I was getting — people were wanting to know why LAFCO and the City are trying to take over everything. That's the discussion I got at the farmers market on Saturdays. This is why the City put in this request [to halt approval of this Service Review], because they were taking all this heat, and then it got politically out of control.
Much discussion at the July 20 meeting was devoted to how LAFCO should handle the City’s unprecedented request to halt (not vote to finalize and accept) a LAFCO Service Review — a Service Review which the City itself requested.
The City hoped this Service Review would support it’s aspiration to take over TPWD.
But when the Service Review found just the opposite — when the result wasn’t what the City wanted to hear — Twentynine Palms suddenly backpedaled and requested that LAFCO pull the plug on the whole process. Per Commissioner Phill Dupper:
My concern is if this sets a negative precedent, the ability for entities to ask for [a service review] and then remove those requests? Obviously we put staff work and time into this… This is an unusual request to come back and ask us to stop.
To prevent cities in the future from trying to game the LAFCO process, as the City of Twentynine Palms was apparently attempting to do here, LAFCO ended up declining the City’s request to halt approval of the Service Review.
Instead, LAFCO voted to put approval of the Twentynine Palms Community Service Review on the agenda for its Sept 21, 2022 meeting. At this Sept 21 meeting, public comment will be taken prior to vote to approve this Service Review.
For Twentynine Palms to take over the Water District, the City would also have to annex Desert Heights and some other areas within the Water District boundaries.
By the end of discussion on this item, Rowe’s frustration that a fact-based review had found little basis for City takeover of TPWD, and that there was little option but for LAFCO to approve this Service Review, seemed almost palpable. It’s hard to believe Rowe and company won’t be returning for another bite at this apple, facts notwithstanding.
Per Wikipedia, “Local Agency Formation Commissions or LAFCOs are regional service planning agencies of the State of California. LAFCOs are located in all 58 counties and exercise regulatory and planning powers in step with their prescribed directive to oversee the establishment, expansion, governance, and dissolution of local government agencies and their municipal service areas to meet current and future community needs.” The specific LAFCO in this article is the LAFCO for San Bernardino County.