In the Zone 7 Water Agency Board of Directors election, we endorse incumbents Sandy Figuers and Angela Ramirez Holmes and challenger Eric Thiel.
The board makes important financial, policy and administrative decisions, such as project budgets, contract approval and water rates for the agency that sells water wholesale to the cities of Pleasanton and Livermore, Dublin San Ramon Services District and Cal Water's Livermore division.
The agency is also in charge of flood control, regional water supply and balancing residential, commercial and environmental needs.
Before casting your ballot, it's important to understand key background information. The past few years have been challenging for Zone 7's board.
The drought had an intense impact on the agency's finances, cutting the amount of revenue coming in because the region's successful water conservation efforts meant Zone 7 was selling less water.
The board also attempted to avoid raising rates post-recession to help out municipalities, a move which several board members admitted had made the short-term easier while endangering the district's long-term viability.
As a result, after a series of layoffs, hiring freezes and years of delaying construction projects, the board passed a rate increase last year -- 28% for 2016 and an additional 10% in 2017, which include temporary drought surcharges -- that was contested by some residents and municipalities.
Tensions around transparency also permeated for Zone 7 in recent years, and the board decided late last year to pay to have its meetings broadcast on Tri-Valley Community Television's website like other agencies, such as Pleasanton's city council and school board.
Incumbent Sandy Figuers' geological knowledge is unmatched on the ballot, a specialty that is essential when considering management of the regional underground aquifer. He has almost 20 years of experience on the board, runs his own geological engineering firm and has a Ph.D in geology.
In addition to his institutional knowledge of the agency, Figuers approaches tough problems with empathy for community members on both sides of a given issue.
During the public comment session at a Zone 7 meeting where dozens of constituents asked the board not to vote to lend support to the state's controversial California WaterFix plan, Figuers stopped the regular flow of the meeting.
He wanted to "have a discussion" with the audience, vowing to stay as late as necessary to understand all views in the room. While that idea may not have been the most practical -- and the board ended up deciding to wait before it voted on the issue anyway -- it showed his respect for his community members and his relentless commitment to understanding other points of view.
Incumbent Angela Ramirez Holmes is an outspoken member of the board, and she often challenges seemingly routine items to make sure every expense is justified.
While the rate increase was the board's effort to catch the agency up to a safe financial state, she voted against it, saying she didn't support the idea that the majority of the money raised from the rate increase would be saved up for capital improvement projects that had been delayed over the recession.
She said such a drastic increase at once wasn't fair to retailers, and a 10% increase over several years could have been a better approach.
Ramirez Holmes isn't afraid to challenge other board members, and her knowledge of the political industry gives her a larger view of Zone 7's place in statewide debates. She has also emphasized transparency, once getting a discussion topic delayed because it was improperly listed on the agenda under public meeting requirements.
Challenger Eric Thiel will provide a fresh voice and valuable environmental perspective that is largely missing from the board.
As an Amador Valley biology teacher and a UC Berkeley instructor, Thiel has been monitoring Lake Del Valle for several decades. He's seen that ecosystem change with drought, pollution and due to a lack of water discharge from agencies such as Zone 7.
Water retailers' interests and the interests of vineyards are well-represented on the board, but there are times when board president Sarah Palmer is the only voice for discharging water to maintain aquatic habitats. Since environmental protection is also an important consideration, and part of Zone 7's charge, the board needs another strong voice for our streams, lakes, fish, birds and amphibians.
Thiel is also an expert in public education, and the board is going to benefit from someone who knows how to explain complex, sometimes bureaucratic, topics clearly if it is going to discuss with residents topics such as the California WaterFix, purified recycled water or aggressive conservation.
Incumbent Dick Quigley, who is seeking re-election to a third term, has worked hard on the board, serving in numerous capacities including as the agency's representative to the Association of California Water Agencies. He would be our next choice if a fourth seat were available. But Quigley appears to lack a focus on public engagement, something the board desperately needs to improve upon -- an improvement we believe Thiel will provide.
We also think the remaining candidates, challengers Alfred Exner, Victor Karpenko and Jacqueline Williams-Courtright, each have experience in niche aspects that could benefit the board, but they lack the big-picture understanding of the region's water needs and the authoritative voice necessary on such a governing body.
We prefer Sandy Figuers, Angela Ramirez Holmes and Eric Thiel.