Recalling Councilman Allevato might not be the answer to the city’s water controversy
By Jonathan Volzke
The pitchforks and torches are out. The folks at Common Sense are taking aim at Councilman Sam Allevato with a recall. The papers filed with the City Clerk say it has to do with water rates, lawsuits and appeals, but that’s only half the story. I’ve heard a lot of anger and vitriol, but one thing I haven’t heard: alternatives.
As I’ve written before, the city owes tens of millions of dollars on the bonds that paid for construction of the Groundwater Recovery Plant. Shut down the plant? What do we do with that debt? Should we try to sell it? We tried that. A few years back, led by then councilman Tom Hribar, the city explored getting out of the water business. City leaders notified all of the surrounding water districts that San Juan Capistrano would be open to turning over water operations. Nobody showed any interest but the South Coast Water District, which spent quite a bit of time and effort with the city exploring our water system. In the end, the deal didn’t go anywhere. One of the chief reasons? South Coast officials notified the city our water rates would go up—way up—if they stepped in.
So the plan is to make the best with the system we have: managing the increases from the Metropolitan Water District that average more than 6 percent a year, get the GWRP running at maximum performance and try to keep the aging infrastructure beneath our feet from falling apart. As I said before, I think the city’s doing a pretty good job.
So what do we hope to accomplish with a recall? Who is the candidate recall proponents hope to push forward? A water expert, if that’s the reason for the recall? To me, that’s the biggest question—and one recall proponents aren’t answering beyond the usual rhetoric.
It needs to be answered. Unless it’s someone who has the credentials to handle the water system, why recall? The soonest any recall question will hit the ballot is July 2014. The majority of the City Council—Mayor John Taylor and councilmen Larry Kramer and Derek Reeve—face reelection in November 2014, so if residents truly want a new direction from the council, that decision can be made then. So why put the city through a recall battle?
We’re just settling down after the recall battles at the Capistrano Unified School District. Two long-term trustees recalled. Two “reform” trustees installed. Two years later, two “reform” candidates were themselves recalled, including one who had gained his seat in the first recall. The district also went through seven superintendents in four years during that period. Was that good time for our school district? Is that want what we want for our city?
I went to high school in Covina, a San Gabriel Valley town with similar agricultural roots to San Juan Capistrano, with a slightly larger population. But unlike San Juan, where a city council member has never been recalled, voters in Covina recalled its entire council in 1992. Today, it’s a cautionary tale about recalls and their ultimate outcome.
Facing economic pressures, the Covina City Council instituted a 6-percent utility tax in 1992—in the post-Proposition 13 world, a utility tax is the last tax a council can hike. The new 6-percent tax hike, however, outraged voters and a recall attempt was launched.
It was successful. All five council members were kicked out of office and the 6 percent utility tax was rescinded on October 31, 1993 when the new “reform” council was seated. End of story? No.
Because a few months later, that very same council approved a five-year, 8.25-percent utility tax. Yes, the council seated specifically to dump a 6-percent tax turned around and instituted an 8.25-percent utility tax less than a year later.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the same voters who tossed out the original five council members over the 6-percent tax approved the 8.25-percent utility tax in an advisory vote in 1995. The tax stepped down over the years, but in 1999, voters again approved a tax, this time back at the original 6 percent. Seven years, five council members recalled and back where they started.
Recalls aren’t the way to solve disputes and disagreements. Recalling Allevato won’t bring us lower water rates. If someone has ideas on how to improve our water system, that’s where we should be devoting our energy—not on anger-fueled political stunts. It’s only common sense.
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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