Watchdogs howl for open meetings
El Dorado Irrigation District officials have agreed to let the public sit in on previously closed meetings of a Redistricting Advisory Committee tasked with recommending boundary alignments to the five El Dorado Irrigation District divisions.
The shift toward greater transparency in the redistricting process came as a result of a contentious Community Council meeting in El Dorado Hills on Wednesday, April 13.
EID General Manager Jim Abercrombie, Director Harry Norris and Counsel Tom Cumpston spent much of the evening defending various aspects of the redistricting process, which watchdog groups claim is overly secretive, and under-represents El Dorado Hills in the November elections.
EID is governed by elected board members from five geographically defined divisions. Once each decade, following the federal census, EID adjusts division boundaries primarily to equalize populations, factoring in communities of interest, topography, geography, school and fire district boundaries and subzones for water and sewer service, according to a district fact sheet.
Roughly 35 residents turned out on Wednesday to hear what the EID leaders had to say. Many seemed more concerned with the ballooning sewer rates in El Dorado Hills than the details of EID division boundaries or the openness of its meetings.
Members of the Four Seasons Civic League complained that redistricting won’t be complete before the November election, thus leaving El Dorado Hills and Cameron Park in a minority position on the board, despite the fact that they provide 67 percent of EID’s annual rate revenue, and comprise 88 percent of its sewer customers.
Members of the Bass Lake Action Committee joined the Four Seasons activists as self-described “EID watchdogs,” and reacted angrily in newsletters and e-mails when EID announced that the Redistricting Advisory Committee meetings were closed to the public, and that the committee was made up entirely of appointees.
“To hand-pick five people reeks of trying to control the process,” said El Dorado Hills activist Rachel Michelin, who said she’s a veteran of redistricting efforts at both state and local levels. “People are watching. This has to be aboveboard.”
In the April Bass Lake Bulletin, John Thomson states everyone who lives within district boundaries, whether or not they are an EID customer, is eligible to vote for their EID director in the November election, including Placerville residents, who are not direct EID customers.
The result, according to Thomson, is that 35,000 out of 74,430 voters aren’t EID customers, and aren’t subject to the rising water and sewer rates that have the watchdogs howling.
State law prohibits special district boundary changes within 180 days of an election. That gave EID only two months after receiving the census data in March to complete redistricting in time for EID’s “off year” election this November.
EID Counsel Cumpston, who’s managing the redistricting process, told the audience Wednesday night that EID has never tried to have the new division boundaries in place in time for the first election after the census.
He explained, at length, the complexity of marrying census data to EID divisions.
Abercrombie concluded that the only way to get redistricting done in two months would have been for the board to handle it internally. “There simply wasn’t enough time to include the public in the process.”
In fact, the entire process was handled internally in the past, said Cumpston, with little fanfare and almost no opportunity for public input.
But in the current era of government transparency, he explained, the EID directors opened the process by appointing an independent advisory committee consisting of respected residents representing each of the five divisions, none with any prior business dealings with EID or ties to special interest groups.
Each touts a strong public service resume. The committee includes a former assessor, former postmaster and two retired judges. El Dorado Hills is represented by Bob Luca, who recently ran for sheriff, and was in attendance Wednesday night.
Abercrombie defended the decision not to open committee membership to the public. “I didn’t want to have to turn down a lot of willing volunteers, many of which represent special interests with preconceived notions of what the divisions should look like,” he said.
Michelin, who recently served on a similar advisory committee for the El Dorado County Transportation Commission, took issue with Abercrombie.
“You should be soliciting public input at every step of the way, starting with applications for the committee,” she said. “This happens all the time. People have no hard feelings that they aren’t chosen.”
Abercrombie responded respectfully but firmly. “I believe the end product, the committee, speaks for itself.”
Four Seasons Civic League Vice Chairman Jon Jakowatz insisted that the committee is subject to the Brown Act, and that as such, should be open.
Cumpston argued that the committee’s working meetings are closed “so that the process doesn’t get dragged down,” and that the process, as a whole, is open because the committee updates the board monthly in public meetings, with periodic community workshops where residents can get even more involved.
He responded to charges that the process disenfranchises El Dorado Hills, which currently comprises all of Division 5, but is certain to expand.
“You won’t be disenfranchised,” he said. “In fact, some of you will get to vote twice, because part of Division 5 will likely end up in Division 4 or 2, both of which come up for election in 2013.”
Cumpston said he hopes to have a draft redistricting proposal for public review in May, and targets the finished product for final approval during the Aug. 22 board meeting.
Michelin pressed the EID leadership to open the committee meetings. “I get it. You don’t want people interrupting the meetings, voicing their comments. But I don’t need to talk at every step of the way. Letting us watch the process helps with buy-in.”
“The way you’ve handled this … leaves me wondering what you’re hiding,” she said.
Turning to Norris, she continued, “I have a lot of respect for you. I think you’re a good government guy. You say you don’t want the public to feel disenfranchised, but just listen to your staff. Why wouldn’t this board want this committee functioning under the Brown Act?”
Both Norris and Abercrombie mentioned conference room capacity concerns, but Michelin’s comments seemed to strike home.
Norris conducted one of his signature “parking lot” meetings with Abercrombie, Cumpson and Communications Director Mary Lynn Carlton, then returned to the group and reported that if the committee members agreed, they would open the committee meetings.
Two days later Carlton issued a press release indicating the Redistricting Advisory Committee meetings would be open for public observation.
Four Seasons Civic League Chairman John Raslear moved and the Community Council agreed to send a letter to the El Dorado Hills state legislators suggesting that the election cycle for EID directors be changed so redistricting is complete before future elections.
The next Redistricting Advisory Committee meeting has not been scheduled yet, but up to four more meetings are planned. EID asks that those wishing to attend contact Karen Cross at 530-642-4168 or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
Information on the redistricting process including the meeting schedule, is available at eid.org/redistricting.htm.
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