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Candidates discuss future of North San Joaquin Water Conservation District at forum

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Posted: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 12:00 am | Updated: 6:30 am, Mon Nov 1, 2010.

Although all nine candidates for the four open North San Joaquin Water Conservation District board of directors positions had the option Tuesday evening, only five showed up for the public forum Tuesday evening at Oak Ridge Winery.

"I'm frustrated four name tags aren't filled tonight," said Division 2 candidate Joe Petersen, referring to the chairs designated for the candidates who did not attend the forum. "For some reason they aren't here tonight."

Amy Blagg, executive director of the Lodi District Grape Growers Association, the group that hosted the event, said all candidates were mailed a notice of the forum several weeks ago. Only Hugh Scanlon replied to the letter and said he wouldn't be available Tuesday night, she said.

All four candidates who did not attend Tuesday's meetings had handmade signs placed across the street from the winery advertising them as anti-tax candidates.

Both Martin Church and Roberto Martinez did not attend and could not be reached for comment. Marden Wilbur said in a telephone call that he is in Nevada and therefore unable to attend Tuesday's meeting. He declined further comment on the evening's forum or his platform.

For the five candidates who did attend, the evening gave them a chance to talk with the audience about their qualifications and ideas for the future of the district as it struggles to maintain its 20,000 acre-foot allocation of wet-year water, rebuild trust among the public and replace the outgoing district manager Ed Steffani.

"The biggest problem is, we don't have money for infrastructure," said Division 4 candidate Robb Hoag.

One possible way to raise money to pay for repairs to the district's crumbling infrastructure or start new projects, said Petersen, is to temporarily sell water to other cities or agencies.

"We need to look at a short-term sale, so the burden isn't on taxpayers," he said.

Petersen stressed selling water is a short-term solution and would need to be carefully written to ensure the district doesn't become entangled in something permanent.

When it came to rebuilding trust among members of the public, Division 4 candidate James Souther said improving communication is critical to the district's success in the future.

"It's been one-way communication between the district and the public," he said. "The board has not listened."

Division 1 candidate Mark Beck said more town halls and forums like Tuesday's go a long way in educating members of the public on what the district does.

Candidates also sounded off on what qualities they would want in a new district manager. Current district manager Ed Steffani announced his impending retirement at a recent meeting, but said he wouldn't leave his position until a new person was in place.

Beck and Division 5 candidate Joseph Merhten said Steffani's background as an engineer saves the district considerable amounts of money because he can conduct engineering reports. If the district were to use an engineering firm to develop studies or reports, it would costs the district tens of thousands of dollars, Beck said. The people the district looks at to replace Steffani need to have a background in engineering and be familiar with water laws, Mehrten said.

After the meeting, a member of the audience said he was disappointed not all the candidates attended the forum.

"It would've been nice if they showed up," said Jack Hamm, of Lima Ranch. "They missed a great opportunity."

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@ lodinews.com.

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