LA HABRA HEIGHTS, CA – Despite receiving no objections from Los Angeles County election officials to have a table at the County’s polling place earlier this week, Stephen Blagden, a local journalist spearheading the protest of an upcoming La Habra Heights County Water District water rate increase, was questioned by a city official and targeted by a District employee who pulled up in a district owned vehicle, snapped several pictures, and drove away.
“I was asking and helping ratepayers to fill out cards to protest the water rate increase,” says Blagden. “Ratepayers expressed the desire to do something to oppose the rate increase but did not know how. The mailer gives them an easy way to say “no”.”
Photos and video show Blagden with a small table set a distance from the entrance of the polling place at La Habra Height’s main park known as “The Park.” A witness says that Blagden had been there for a few hours when a white pick up truck pulled up some 10-feet from Blagden, blocking one of the entrances to the polling place.
A man exited the District owned vehicle, stepped a few feet in front of the truck, with the drivers side door still open, and began taking pictures of Blagden.
The man is identified as Rick Vigil, superintendent and longtime employee of La Habra Heights County Water District (LHHCWD). He never spoke with Blagden, but after scanning the pictures taken by his digital camera, re-entered the vehicle and drove away.
Blagden said that ratepayers at the table were disgusted by Vigil’s actions, but was not so surprised himself, “If [Vigil] was doing it at the direction of the Water District or on District time, it is another example of the District not spending ratepayers’ money wisely.”
Undeterred, Blagden, continued to meet with ratepayers when Grace Andres, a La Habra Heights deputy city clerk, approached the journalist with a large measuring wheel in hand.
City Manager Shauna Clark, who is also facing her own levy on taxpayers and which some feel that the recent rate increase attention will make it hard for the city to push its $500-$600 assessment, says that Andres was sent to speak with Blagden as a courtesy, after receiving a complaint that Blagden was circulating a petition.
“I didn’t think that was something we need to be involved in but our city attorney was here and looked up the election code and saw it did say something about electioneering at the polls.”
She continued, “Grace, one of our people, went out to talk to Stephen, and told him about the 100-feet requirement if you are electioneering during an election. My understanding is that he agreed to move and nothing else happened.”
Blagden confirmed that he moved, but only out of courtesy for the city’s concern.
Clark made it clear that the city and LHHCWD are two different bodies and that the city has no say in what the District does. She said that a clerk contacted LHHCWD to verify whether the District had an initiative on the ballot, but did not tell the District the reason for the call, “So as far the water department being out there, I know nothing about it.”
General Manager for LHHCWD, Mike Gualtieri, was not available for comment, despite several calls and voicemails to his office. We have previously tried to get comment from Gualtieri on a related rate increase article to no avail. Vigil was also unavailable for comment. A customer service representative for the District noted that Vigil was on vacation as of Thursday and would not return until Monday of next week.
Blagden feels the board was inadequate in its openness about the protest proceedings saying, “The District’s notice did not tell people how they could oppose, where they should send opposition or a deadline.”
Ratepayers who get water from La Habra Heights County Water District are facing a step-laddered rate increase through a series of 5 raises, over a 4-year period, that would lead to total increases anywhere from 31% to 1050%. Most residential customers have 1” meters and will see an increase of 11.98%, or $51.48, over a one-year period, as soon as the first increase goes into effect on July 1.
Ratepayers are not happy with the possible increase. Many have expressed a sense of betrayal, in particular regarding board members who ran in 2011 on a platform of no future rate increases.
Protesting ratepayers feel unable to handle increased rates, “I have cut back on watering and I am on a fixed income.” Another person wrote, “We pay a very high rate before we use any water.”
One protester cited past examples of possible abuse of power, “they have wasted money, entered into bad business deals with other water districts and abused the trust and confidence of the rate payers”. The protester went so far as to write, “[t]he gross mismanagement that the board has demonstrated will lead to a recall at the extreme”.
However, there are still those who support the increase. An Improvement Association board member, Adrienne Murphy, spoke to Blagden at his table, saying she would like to send a letter of support for the increase. It is reported that she also tried to encourage others who were at the table to also write that they support the increase, too.
District Vice President Pam McVicar is also on the board of the Improvement Association and her husband, Michael Higgins, is the editor of Heights Life.
The Association chose not to notify La Habra Heights households in this month’s issue about the rate hearing, saying it had become too much of a political issue. However, Heights Life has had no problem with discussing an upcoming road tax that will be up for vote later this year.
At least 200 protest letters have been turned into Blagden. Ratepayers who do not return a protest letter to Blagden still have an opportunity to turn them in on the day of the hearing. He says, responses have been 99.5% in favor of protest.
However, there is a chance that the increase could flounder if opposition from ratepayers is strong enough. If a majority of ratepayers, a total of at least 986 objections, submit a written protest, the increase will not go into effect. The hearing is scheduled for June 19 at the La Habra Heights City Hall.
The City of La Habra Heights currently has no plans to protest the rate increase, but according to Clark, “Anything is possible however, at this time the City had no involvement in the proposed rate increase.” The City is one of the largest consumers of water from LHHCWD.
McVicar and La Habra Heights City Councilman Howard Vipperman blame Blagden and fellow journalist, George Edwardz for the rate increase saying the two played a major role in delaying a water wheeling agreement that would have brought in a purported $200,000 a year in revenue.
The water wheeling agreement is shrouded in controversy as it does more than just move water from one district to another, the final destination of the water is not clear, leading some to calling the agreement a water “trafficking” agreement.
The claims of these elected officials have been shown to be misleading. What is more truthful is McVicar’s statement that the board was “overly optimistic” about the signing of the deal when they included it in the budget for the 2011-2012 fiscal year. When the deal did not come through on time, the board had to find money elsewhere. The board signed the water agreement last month but will not see revenue until at least 2013. The board anticipated a revenue of $200,000 a year, but is now asking rate payers to collectively raise $750,000 in revenue through the rate increase, half a million more than what was claimed to be needed to replace the delayed funding from the agreement.
Video of the incident at The Park can be see here.