Former water board member thinks NCCWD's time is over

By Chris Hunter
Tribune Editor

There was a time when suggesting that the North Coast County Water District should be merged with the City of Pacifica would result in immediate rejection from all levels of the Pacifica citizenry.

In fact, in the 1970s, when former Mayor Nick Gust tried to convince voters that the water district should be a revenue-generating extension of the city rather than an independent entity, he was met with a resounding defeat at the polls.

But in 1997, with Pacifica celebrating its 40th year of existence and the water district embroiled in a legal battle involving its general manager, David Stevens, and its elected board of directors, one former NCCWD board member thinks the time is now right to merge the two public agencies.

Paul Obney, a former Western Airlines executive and 8-year member of the water district's board of directors, believes that the public and private turmoils at the water district may have done irreparable harm to the district, even though the trial of Dave Stevens on 11 felony counts and the slander trial against board member Tom Piccolotti, filed by Chuck Gust, haven't even begun.

"Every human endeavor has a 'golden age,'" Obney said this week in an exclusive Tribune interview. "The NCCWD's ended in 1992-'93. Since that time, the board has gone from the spirit of cooperation to one of animosity and vindictiveness. When this occurs at the top, it extends to the bottom of the organization. In addition to this, events of the past year have accelerated the decline and it's just a matter of time before it shows up in the quality of service."

Obney, who has been a Pacifica resident for 35 years, is a veteran Navy pilot who saw combat in World War II. "I was on sea duty for 43 months," he said. "After combat duty, civilian flight duty isn't very interesting."

Rather than work as a pilot, he became an executive with Western Airlines. His involvement with the water district began in 1984, (although he claims to always have been interested in the district), when he was appointed to the board. He won re-election in 1988 and was defeated by Bob Vetter in 1992. He knows all the current board members and believes he knows much about their past actions and the actions of General Manager Stevens.

"During the past few years, the method of water management has changed," he said. "I would expect that in the not-so-distant future, the state of California will mandate that all water be handled by a single entity."

Obney believes that it is now time to investigate merging the water district with the city, something that has never been considered desirable by most Pacificans - even Obney - in the past.

"The general manager no longer has any credibility and his reputation is in tatters," said Obney. "He can no longer manage effectively. Notwithstanding his present alleged sins, brought on by his inability to handle success, he does have a fine employment record and should be treated with compassion. I recommend retirement as soon as possible."

Obney believes that the water district would simply be wasting time and money trying to replace Stevens with another executive. Instead, the district should merge with Pacifica. Such an action would require a vote of public approval, something that Obney believes would be possible in the current situation.

"I believe that when the merger is taking place, the operation can be handled by the superintendent, the experienced office staff and a board member selected by the board who is best qualified," said Obney. Given the traditional Pacifica belief that the water district is a well-oiled piece of machinery, making a profit and delivering water to its customers at a reasonable rate, Obney is aware of the good things that make up the district's history. He is also adamant that, should a merger occur, the city must maintain the water district at its traditional high standards of service - something he doubts the current water district management is capable of doing.

Obney is also hopeful that the city would not drain the coffers of the water district for its own purposes. "Obviously, the water sold would be a source of steady income and almost predictable revenue," said Obney. "However, and I repeat, however, steps must be taken to prohibit the council from 'looting.' Some members see this source as a cornucopia, a cash cow to milked at their pleasure. The citizens should demand that the present schedule for pipe, meter and equipment replacement be continued. Unless this is done, the system will disintegrate. The sale or reassignment of any properties must be considered carefully. Past attempts have been made but the time was not right."

Obney's decision to publicly promote the idea of merging the water district with the city has not been a "knee-jerk" reaction, "but the result of serious thought over an extended period of time.

"I have no emotional involvement in this plan, my stance is one of being the best for the most of our citizens. My opinions are based on the facts that presently exist, the timing and my past experience."

Ironically, this week there has been considerable interest in the North Coast County Water District's regularly scheduled meeting tonight at 7 p.m. in the district office, 2400 Francisco Blvd.

In addition to the normal agenda items related to the basic distribution of water throughout Pacifica, the board has scheduled several sensitive closed-session items, among them the employment status of General Manager Stevens.

Also, the board will discuss whether or not they have a fiscal responsibility to fund Director Tom Piccolotti's legal defense against Chuck Gust's slander/trespassing civil suit. It is expected that Piccolotti will be served with the lawsuit sometime before or after Wednesday's meeting. The board will meet in closed session first to discuss whether or not Piccolotti's request can be discussed in open session.

Board member and former President May Gee said she did not know what the legal counsel decision would be on paying for Piccolotti's legal defense.

"I think that I'm angry with him because he circumvented the board," said Gee of Piccolotti, repeating something that has become a strong belief on the part of some board members in the last year. She said she was also disappointed that the district's attorney was unable to tell the board how to proceed on the closed/open aspect of the discussion. "I think the attorney should have made a decision beforehand."

Gee was surprised that police protection had been requested for tonight's meeting, ("I don't think we need police protection," she said. "I never felt my life was threatened.").

And as for the notion of ending the independence of the water district, even Gee said it might be an idea worth looking into, although not for the reasons Obney cited. "I'll have to think about it," she said. "I think it would be different now because of Prop. 208. Any raise in taxes requires a 2/3 vote."

it is also expected that several water district employees and their families will be airing grievances during the oral communications segment of Wednesday's board meeting.

"I would hope that my opinion will be acted upon seriously," said Obney. "I am not too optimistic about the consummation. Some will be overjoyed, others will holler foul. In any event, there will be lots of jawboning."