By J.P. Crumrine
News Editor
and Jack Clark

Wednesday evening, Aug. 5, about 30 people, not all Idyllwild residents, came out to listen to the candidates for the Idyllwild Water District board answer questions from the public.

Besides an opening and closing statement, the five candidates — Jim Billman, Dean Lattin, Steven Kunkle, Warren Monroe and June Rockwell — responded to dozens of questions. The attendees wrote their questions and forum moderator Idyllwild Fire Chief Patrick Reitz posed the questions to the appropriate candidate or to all of the candidates.

The event began with two-minute opening statements from each candidate.

Incumbent Lattin outlined that IWD serves private, commercial, institutions, camps and churches, and would be able to do so in the future because the district was not burdened with debt and was operating within its budget. He stressed that the board expected to finance future development through grants and loans. The district was keeping up with technology, he said, and would be drilling new wells, but would be rehabilitating old ones that were less of a risk. He characterized the existing board as being very conservative with regard to planning.

Incumbent Monroe emphasized his background as a systems and security engineer, which expertise he has been able to bring to the board, and described his services on another local board as well.

Incumbent Billman stated he was very proud of the existing board, saying it is a very good, pro-active board that is meticulously monitored from a financial standpoint. They make sure the employees are well taken care of and the infrastructure is kept strong.

Challenger Kunkle stated that his 20 years as an IWD employee had let him understand the inner workings of the facilities and he disagrees with some of the board’s actions and was inspired to run for the board, hoping he could shed light on “what’s been going on here.”

Challenger Rockwell stated she has her own business and is hoping to turn the board in the direction of being more respectful and responsive to the public it serves.

The campaign has taken a slightly contentious tone since July. Thus, the first question posed to all five was: “Being on the board requires you to be a team player. How have those on the board already been a team player and for the new [possible] members, how can you come in and be part of the board?”

Monroe was the first to respond: “As an incumbent, I’ve been working on the team for quite a while. One thing we encourage all new members to do is go to school.”

And Billman said, “When I joined the board, it was a new experience and definitely a learning curve.” After mentioning the value of the classes offered by the California Special District Association, Billman added, “[We’re] primarily a governance team. Primarily as board of directors, we create policy.”

In contrast, Lattin, a pilot who has been on the board since 2013, admitted, “I thought I’d be more involved in the technical thing but was quickly informed that the board members, instead of reaching into district mechanics, board members are supposed to reach out to the community and gather information.”

The prospective members, Kunkle and Rockwell, are both looking forward to an opportunity to represent the community and fully expect to benefit from these classes.

“I have no personal agenda, and will focus on the benefits for this community,” Kunkle said. Rockwell opined that being a female would be a plus for the board.

The next questions asked the incumbents what their proudest achievement has been on the board and asked the challengers what their goals would be if elected.

Billman said getting the recycled water facility approved has been a proud achievement for him. “X numbers of gallons of water are going over the side of the Hill, minimum calculation. That’s a full lake every year. There’s no benefit to this area and it seemed like a worthwhile project.”

Lattin said he was proud of the board’s outlook toward the future, the new technologies on the horizon, solar power, for one.

Then Monore said, “Probably the best thing and one I should be most proud of is we worked together as a board to keep the district out of bankruptcy in the future.” He compared the potential financial problem confronting the district to the problems at CalPERS. Then he added, “We put together a very good and equitable plan for the employees and something that is sustainable by the district.” He also expressed his pride in the district’s construction of the solar facility at Foster Lake.

Rockwell and Kunkle were asked to describe their goals as directors if elected. She replied that the district’s ordinances should be reviewed. “Not everything is easy and so black and white; there’s loop holes in some of them. I’d like to have them spelled out and not dictated.” She also questioned what the source of the local funding for the recycled facility would be.

Kunkle, without hesitation, said, “First, I would like to analyze all the projects. Find out if they’re really working and see what the benefits are. Part of that is to stop the bleeding. Some of the things are not really working and cost the district money. I don’t think there’s been any real analysis of pros and cons.

“One of those is the recycled water project. All I hear is an idea. I don’t see any real plan. I’d like to see more facts before going forward,” he said. In addition, Kunkle questioned the budgeting of $70,000 for new meters. “I don’t think there’s been any real analysis of that either.”

Another favorite question of local water district candidates is their position on consolidating the three districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove.

Kunkle replied first and acknowledged, “It’s something that needs to be looked at. From conversations in town, it’s a hot topic for all the districts. We’re all our own entities. In the past, we didn’t want to join forces, but I’m hearing more about the drought.”

He mentioned the Idyllwild Community Center possible pool. Since the whole community, including Fern Valley and Pine Cove, will use and benefit from the center, he suggested that one district should be open for discussion.

Rockwell also agreed with the idea saying, “When you think of Idyllwild, you think of Fern Valley and Pine Cove, too.” She suggested that any cost savings from consolidation might go toward helping people who can’t afford to pay water bills.

While the three incumbents acknowledged that the official IWD position favors consolidation, only Billman expressed any strong support for the idea. “Why three of everything in area with a population of 4,000 people? … We basically have an inter-tie for the [infrastructure] system. If we can do that, why can’t we create an inter-tie to bring it together structurally and get rid of duplicity?”

Lattin and Monroe slightly demurred for personal support or offered alternatives to formal consolidation. Lattin said, “This has been presented to voters several times and voted down. The feeling of people in Idyllwild is to keep their district close to them and governed by people they know.”

But Monroe said, “The three districts already work closely. We have the capability of wheeling water between the districts if one is running short.” Then he recalled the former joint agency — San Jacinto Mountain Water Agency — that disbanded due to lack of interest.

The candidates also were asked their views on providing water for the Idyllwild Community Center project. Currently, the district’s policy does not permit the issuing a new “will-serve” letters during water emergency stages 2 or 3.

While referring to the current IWD policy, Kunkle opined, “I don’t think the district has a policy on how much water we have or need. If we have water, I don’t see a problem.”

And Rockwell said decisively, “I would work with them because it’s something everybody benefits from.”

But Billman stressed that the Community Center project must follow the same protocols to which other projects are subject. Monroe simply referred the audience to the district’s July newsletter that states, “IWD is working to refine the criteria for new service availability (will-serve letters).”

Lattin clearly opposed the idea unless it was clear that the district had sufficient water to supply the center and its current customers.

Other questions included how to attract more people to the IWD meetings, whether to charge the public for the cost of board packets or alternatives, whether private wells could or should be permitted in the district, what they will do to encourage more water conservation and directors’ attendance at special district meetings.