By Jonathan Volzke
To be honest, my heart sank when I learned the Capistrano Common Sense Taxpayers Association had prevailed in its lawsuit against the city over our water rates (And yes, I know that’s a mash-up of two groups, but they’re virtually the same, so I’m going with it).
Now, I pay a San Juan Capistrano water bill just like most of you, although I am proud to say I usually keep my bill down in the cheapest first tier, despite keeping a pretty healthy garden going (Drip irrigation and I don’t water grass). And just like most of you, I want my water bill to be fair.
I won’t get into minutiae the lawsuit here—enough has been said and I’m no attorney. What I will say: the city worked with Black & Veatch on the rate study, and Black & Veatch is universally known as the gold-standard in such reports. Additionally, nobody in City Hall was trying to pull a fast one, rip off residents or anything else. Water rates are, perhaps surprisingly, incredibly complex, and the rate system used in San Juan Capistrano is similar to that used in half of Orange County, and likely in at least half the state.
It will all get straightened out. If it’s wrong, kudos to Capistrano Common Sense Taxpayers Association for the challenge. The city, of course, is considering a challenge to the Superior Court judge’s ruling, which is the right thing to do in such a complex issue that can have such far-reaching impacts. Complex? Yes. The city, every city, is under a mandate to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2020. Part of Capistrano’s plan was to create a recycled-water system that would deliver recycled water to Marbella golf course, HOAs and other entities that use large amounts of water for irrigation. That would help Capistrano meet the mandate. Makes sense, right?
Sure, except a key element of the Superior Court judge’s ruling is that we everyday water-using residents can’t be charged in our water bills for the recycled system, since we won’t directly use the recycled water. So, the city has a mandate and a plan to meet the mandate, but no way to pay for it (I’d argue that freeing up drinking water that will be available to all of us is a benefit, but again, I’m no lawyer).
Most of you know, I’m geekily fascinated by how local government works—or doesn’t. This is a pretty interesting lawsuit.
So why did my heart sink when I heard about the ruling? Because it just amplifies the noise that’s already grown pretty tiresome. Water rates, the ghost train, banners, this, that and everything else the city tries to do. Criticism is fine—especially when it’s correct and might put a few more bucks in my pocket—but the constant drumbeat is just annoying. In my new career, we do some SWOT studies on agencies: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. Guess what? I’ve yet to turn in a report that lists “zero” under weaknesses or “zero” under threats. Strengths and weaknesses are internal measures, while opportunities and threats are external. Everybody has a bit of each, and our city is no different. It doesn’t necessarily mean crooks are in control or incompetence rules the dais. It just means that within complex organizations that are carrying out increasingly complex tasks, some things go well and some things don’t.
Fix what doesn’t go well, replicate what does. And unfortunately the fixes don’t always come as quickly as we think they should. But they do come.
So, the judge issued his ruling. City leaders—and we have a very competent leader in our water division these days, let’s not forget he’s been there just two years this month—will address it and fix it, whatever the final decision. And we will move on to the other things, some that will go well and some that won’t.
In the meantime, let’s also celebrate the good stuff around town: progress is underway on the old Vaquero West building on Verdugo in the downtown, and plans to give Verdugo a major facelift are moving forward; the city got a grant to move ahead on the widening of the chokepoint on Ortega Highway; the county plans to start construction on connecting La Pata between Ortega and San Clemente this year; Guapas Tapas is open downtown and busy most every night; Fiano’s has replaced the struggling Vito’s; the Mission Gift Shop gives us a beautiful place to shop in town; the Regency downtown dropped the prices for its VIP theater, and now you can have beer or wine in any theater there; the Ortega interchange work is proceeding smoothly and on schedule; Ocean Auto Group has moved into town; Five Vines Wine Bar is a great new spot, and Hamilton Oaks at the north end is looking good, too; we have a dog park, Summer Nites Concerts and free Movies in the Park, too.
And that’s just off the top of my head. Take a look around and you’ll find more. It’s a great way to drown out the noise.
San Juan Capistrano resident Jonathan Volzke is a former award-winning journalist for the Orange County Register and founder of The Capistrano Dispatch. He’s since moved on and now works for Communications LAB, a public relations and community outreach firm in Lake Forest.
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