Discovering Essential Services

By Judy Ishkanian   |   October 4, 2018

A few years ago, Jean Paul Cousteau spoke at a CASA Conference (California Association of Sanitation Agencies). He said that he was one person who could claim that he was raised on the Seven Seas. He was home-schooled by his mother on the Calypso. He said that it was always a thrill to come into port in a “First World” country because the ocean was so clean. 

The very definition of civilization is one that can provide safe, clean drinking water and dispose of its wastewater and refuse. Clearly, we are continually upping our game, but water and wastewater continue to be the defining essential services in civil life.

(I know, I should include the smartphone on that list!)

Independent Special Districts are the closest to the community they serve than any other kind of government structure. They are committed to doing one, possibly two essential services exceptionally well. There is no bureaucracy between the Independent Special District and the community it serves. It stands or falls on its own decisions and long-range policies.

A board of directors must first build a sound financial base. It is on that solid foundation that dreams can come true. Organizing dreams around that fiscal base should begin with a master plan. Times and people change but the master plan, if wise, will point the way.

The Sanitary District has maintained a solid financial base, and its commitment to a master plan. For example, as recycled water issues come into focus, we have a place for it in our master plan. Our pilot project will be set up by November and it will serve as a learning exercise for our team, as well as providing our plant the use of recycled water. Funds for this project will come out of our Capital account.

When disaster strikes, as it did January 9, we had an emergency fund set aside and ready. Regarding the disaster, the board met with staff about two days later and after hearing the assessment of the cost of recovery, we authorized $2.1 million from that emergency fund for ready use. Our wonderful staff came in with completion earlier than anticipated and under budget. We will recover our costs from the Federal and State agencies and be made nearly whole. We will then return the money to the emergency account.

And so it goes, myriads of decisions, large and small, affect the life of the community. Its complexity is much like running a small business. For this reason, it takes time to learn the puzzle of finance, labor laws, State oversight requirements, and yes, the governmental ethics – the Brown Act. For the first two years, I served on the Sanitary Board, I kept my mouth shut, studied, and went to many conferences. Then I felt ready to fully participate and, finally, lead. (I have served as president four times).

I just returned from a conference where I talked with a director who had retired from a career in theoretical physics and is now serving on a sanitary district. He was certainly no dummy! But he shared the same experience as I had experienced. He said he listened and learned for about two years to master the unfamiliar terrain of an independent sanitary district. Every discipline has its matrix.

That is why these positions are not popularity contests. They are, thankfully, non-partisan. Please consider, that if the Water Security Slate wins all of the seats in the Montecito Water District and the two it seeks at the Sanitary District, half of those 10 directors will be brand-new and at the beginning of their learning curve. Intelligent as most of them are, and as certain as they are that they know just what needs to be done, they will be talking mostly to one another.

And what about the Investors from the “group” who recruited them? Then, counting the two investor-sponsored directors already seated on the Water District since 2016, they will control seven of the 10 directors of the two districts. Perhaps that is exactly what want.


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