Frank Discussions at Joint Water District Meeting, Part One
Bill Hudson | 5/13/09
A remarkable thing happened at Monday’s joint Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District and San Juan Water Conservancy District meeting.

And I’m not referring to the nearly three hour “executive session” that the two districts held that afternoon — during which I and a couple of other members of the public sat outside the Lyn Avenue offices, waiting to be allowed back in, and chatting about the ongoing political arrogance of our water district boards.

Nor am I referring to the surprisingly frank assessment of water district transparency — or rather, lack of transparency — by water district consultant and grant writer Sheila Berger.

And I'm not talking about the rather intense questioning to which Archuleta County Community Development director Rick Bellis was subjected at the hands of water district board member Windsor Chacey — whose husband Ron Chacey was asked to resign from the County planning commission, along with every other planning commission member, following the release of a critical assessment of that commission, written in part by Mr. Bellis.

No, the remarkable thing, which excited me on Monday afternoon, was a pair of “Nay” votes delivered by SJWCD members Fred Ebeling and Pat Ulrich, following a discussion of a proposed consulting contract payable to Southwest Land Alliance  executive director Michael Whiting.

In two years of covering PAWSD and SJWCD meetings, I believe these two “Nay” votes were the very first “Nay” votes I have witnessed.  As far as I can recall — and from researching the past minutes of the PAWSD board over the past three years — I’ve not come across a vote by either water district that was not unanimous — even though the two water districts boast a total of 15 board members, any one of whom could have voted “Nay” at least once over the past three years.

This voting record was in stark contrast to, say, the last four years of Archuleta County Commissioner votes, where I think maybe half the decisions featured at least one “Nay” vote, out of three commissioners.

The two “Nay” votes occurred during a discussion of a proposed contract with Southwest Land Alliance executive director Michael Whiting.  The complete details of the contract were not discussed during the public part of the joint meeting — most of the discussion had happened behind closed doors in the executive session — but as per Colorado law, the two water districts held their final discussion of the contract — and their vote — following the private session and where the public could witness the vote.

From what I could gather from the discussion, Whiting is proposing to negotiate some kind of “conservation easement” with the Laverty family, who own a parcel of land needed by the water districts if they are to build a 19,000 acre-foot Dry Gulch reservoir as proposed, a mile northeast of downtown Pagosa Springs.  The districts have already purchased about half of the land they need for the proposed reservoir — at a cost of about $9 million, paid for the 650-acre Running Iron Ranch.  That purchase was negotiated primarily by former SJWCD president Fred Schmidt, who was accused of multiple cases of fraud during the same time he was arranging the Running Iron Ranch purchase.

Schmidt has since resigned from the SJWCD board.

Schmidt was also attempting to negotiate the purchase of the Laverty property, but that purchase as so far eluded the water districts.  Whiting appears to be proposing that some kind of conservation easement, applied to the Laverty property, might make a sale more attractive to the Laverty family.  From the discussion, it appeared that Whiting would be paid up to about $50,000 for negotiating the easement — and $25,000 of that would be paid by the water districts, whether or not Whiting was successful in the negotiations.

Ebeling and Ullrich both contended that a contract was premature, without knowing more about where the Laverty family stands on the proposal.  The rest of the two water district boards — two boards which include overlapping members Windsor Chacey, Karen Wessels, and Harold Slavinski — seemed to be unclear about whether Whiting’s $25,000 fee was in fact non- refundable if no result derived from the negotiations.  In the end, Chacey’s motion was to authorize the two board chairs to sign the contract, once the “non-refundable” language was stricken from the wording.

Ebeling and Ullrich voted against the motion, nevertheless.

The Laverty land is not the only hang-up in the water district’s plans for Dry Gulch.  The districts also need to get access to about 500 acres owned by the U.S. Forest Service — and that access, it appears, will require a land swap of some type. 

The districts are negotiating with the Forest Service on two types of deals: either a straight-ahead swap of property, whereby the water districts would trade some other area property of similar environmental and recreational value for the land they need for the proposed reservoir — or to obtain a Special Use Permit, whereby the Forest service would allow the water districts to drown part of the National Forest with the reservoir.  The Forest Service, however, appears to want a land swap even in the case of a Special Use Permit — a sensible move, perhaps, considering it would be difficult to withdraw the permit once the reservoir is finished and filled.

To my knowledge, the water districts have not yet revealed what property they are proposing to swap for the approximately 500 acres of Forest Service land.  I would assume it would need to be a similar amount of land.

In a curious exchange earlier in the meeting, board member Windsor Chacey openly questioned the integrity of SJWCD board candidate Rick Bellis, who wrote a report critical of the County planning commission while Chacey’s husband, Ron, was still a member of that commission.  Bellis had applied for the seat vacated by Fred Schmidt.

County planner director Bellis’ membership on the board is further complicated by the fact that the Archuleta BoCC has publicly withdrawn its support for the proposed 19,000 acre-foot Dry gulch Reservoir.

“I have a serious concern,” Chacey stated with an air of intensity, “concerning your representation on this board as far as a County employee, because your responsibility as a County employee is also — your bosses are the County commissioners.  So I think there is a very definite conflict of interest here.”

Bellis defended himself, in part, by explaining, “In regards to the planning commission thing, that is extremely complicated.  First of all, I didn’t ask people to resign — and I told your husband well in advance what was going to happen, and I asked him to come back and that I would recommend that he chair the planning commission.  As to what was included in the [critical] report, I was not the only author of the report, as was reported [in the media.]  I don’t know how comfortable I feel, saying more than that.”

Following that exchange of views, the SJWCD board decided to delay the candidate interviews until additional candidates could be solicited.  The appointments to the SJWCD board are made by Durango water court judge Greg Lyman, but Lyman apparently relies to some extent upon the recommendations of the SJWCD when making those appointments.

Then we had the rather frank discussion of the water district’s public communications program by special projects director Sheila Berger....

Read Part Two...

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