JONATHAN VOLZKE, San Juan Capistrano
In 2010, the City of San Juan Capistrano purchased 132 acres of Rancho Mission Viejo property, which included the 40-acre Blenheim Riding Park, in a behind-closed-doors deal that alienated many residents. History has shown that the $30 million deal has benefited the city with new permanent open space and a riding park that is a crown jewel in Capistrano’s equestrian lifestyle. But the opaque process planted seeds of mistrust in City Hall that blossomed into political weeds over the next eight years.
I fear we failed to learn from that experience: the city for months has negotiated with agencies interested in taking over Capistrano’s water service. Yet, none of the information has been shared with residents—who will live with, and pay for—this critical decision. The issue has not even gone before our Utilities Commission, comprised of residents tasked with being experts about our water system.
Councilmembers must represent residents, not City Hall, in this decision. While it’s easy to see any transaction as a “sale,” and demand the city be compensated for the assets of the water system, our leaders must remember the system does not belong to City Hall; it belongs to residents.
Through rates, residents have already bought and paid for the water infrastructure. Any transfer of the system will be to another public agency, which can only raise funds through water rates. Any money extracted from a new agency will ultimately be passed on to ratepayers, and Capistrano residents will again be paying for infrastructure they already own.
As our leaders make good on their promise to “get out of the water business,” they should recognize that only City Hall is getting out of the water business—but residents will forever be tied to the system as ratepayers. The decision is best framed that City Hall is merely the operator of the system, while the residents are the owners. Any transaction is changing the system operator, not the ownership.
Regardless of what agency is selected, two things are certain: our rates will go up as the new operator makes much-needed repairs, and Capistrano residents will have less voice as we become a small part of a larger agency. These negotiations are our last chance to be heard. The process needs to be inclusive and transparent. One thing we know: nothing will make the weeds of discontent sprout faster in Capistrano than water.