Various local water officials think candidates misled the public with their ballot designations. Others think one official intended to move but ran for re-election anyway.
Many people find water as boring as watching grass grow, water boil or paint dry. The faucet goes on, the water flows. The toilet flushes away the bad stuff, then clean water fills the bowl.
RJ Kelly, a Santa Clarita Water Agency director, understands. “People don’t care until the water comes out brown,” he said.
Water quality is just one subject Kelly and the rest of the 12-member SCV Water board of directors has to address regularly. There’s also buying the water from the state, mixing in the local well water, processing it so it’s safe to drink, figuring out what to charge to connect the water to the home or business, what pipes to use to bring the water to said home or business, approving and allocating water for developments that might not be built for 20 years, and approving new developments.
“The water board is a very powerful organization,” said Stacy Fortner, who serves on the SCV Groundwater Sustainability Agency’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which provides input to the GSA and its sustainability plan. “They decide where a developer can develop. They decide that there’s enough water. They decide, ‘Yes, we’ll provide water for this project.’”
There’s always a push and pull between developers and environmentalists. Based on board members’ makeups, Santa Clarita seems to favor development; Ventura County seems to be more environment-friendly.
There is infighting now going on in Santa Clarita. Current water board members, some of whom also serve on the GSA, claim Kathye Armitage and Fortner misled the public with their ballot designations, which they said elevated Armitage to the water board at Maria Gutzeit’s expense. In turn, Fortner and others claim B.J. Atkins, who sits on the water board and is president of the GSA board, knew he was moving to San Diego before he ran and won re-election to the water board.
“I saw this thing on [“Real Time with Bill Maher”] (about) how everybody’s divided,” Gutzeit said. “That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Objecting to ballot designations
Armitage won one of two available seats in District 3, edging Gutzeit by 111 votes (Atkins finished first, Fortner fourth and last). Armitage had previously served as a member of the stakeholder advisory committee.
“Water management takes a lot of time to understand,” Armitage said. “Every day, I’m sitting here doing more research. The more you learn, the more you realize there’s more to learn.”
When Armitage ran, her ballot designation read “water sustainability adviser.” Fortner, who still serves on the stakeholder advisory committee, had the similar-sounding “groundwater sustainability adviser.”
The state elections code limits certain ballot designations to a maximum three words “designating either the current principal professions, vocations, or occupations of the candidate.” This is where the disagreements start. Water board members Atkins, Gary Martin and Bill Cooper — all of whom also serve on the GSA board — have made it clear they think the two ballot designations don’t accurately represent a profession, vocation or occupation. Armitage was unemployed, Fortner works in information technology.
“I have not been paid for my work in a while,” Armitage said. “My husband has an opinion about that.”
Both women said they have spent hours upon hours researching water-related issues, reading the lengthy information packets they are given before meetings, attending seminars and taking water systems technology classes at College of the Canyons (Armitage said she completed the program and earned certification).
The state code of regulations details conditions for a designation’s rejection as well as how a candidate can provide supporting documentation should it be challenged. Dan Masnada, a former Castaic Lake Water Agency general manager and current GSA stakeholder advisory committee member, objected to Armitage and Fortner’s designations and detailed his reasons in a letter to the editor published in The Signal.
“Two challengers for Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency Division 3 director seats have filed for election using ballot designations that are unquestionably and intentionally misleading,” Masnada wrote. “However, neither works or has worked as a career professional in the water industry.”
Fortner said she and Armitage defended their designations by referencing their work on the stakeholder committee. The Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk accepted their designations but added in a note to Fortner that further action could be taken if someone filed a writ of mandate to challenge the county’s ruling. No one did.
In August, the water board requested the ballot designations be analyzed for possible violations of the board’s norms and expectations, specifically, whether Armitage and Fortner stood to gain personally from winning the election. All water board members are entitled to health insurance and $238 for each meeting (maximum 10 per year) as well as a maximum of 10 per diems per year for various conferences, meetings and events. Both women said they refused the insurance. Gutzeit said that means they’re entitled to extra cash, which neither said they knew.
Tom Bunn, the water board’s attorney, wrote an opinion on Sept. 18 concluding the ballot designations were fine, and he repeated his reasons during the Jan. 25 GSA meeting: first, personal gain is not a typical reason for running for office; second, if the board meant to say one couldn’t use experience on the stakeholder advisory committee as a qualification for office, the board should have indicated that when it wrote its norms and expectations.
According to the meeting’s audio recording, Cooper called the designations “unethical” and said, “If it were up to me, I would ask that they be removed off of the committee.” (Armitage’s election makes her ineligible to serve on the stakeholder advisory committee, according to the Jan. 25 meeting minutes. Fortner said she was “ecstatic” about Armitage’s election victory.)
Martin said the designation enhances the candidate’s ability to get elected, and running for office nets a person a gain, even if the gain is small (Bunn acknowledged this in his Sept. 28 opinion). Atkins called the ballot designations “deceitful.”
In March, Atkins told The Proclaimer he felt Fortner “lied” with her designation and said part of the complaining stems from Gutzeit’s defeat.
“Maria was a good water board member, forthright, diligent, informed, articulate,” Atkins said. “She was a good water board member. She studied. She was an asset to SCV Water.”
Lynne Plambeck, another GSA and water board member, defended the designations, saying she found it odd that some incumbents used “water district director” as their ballot designation “and it’s not your full-time job, either.”
Fortner and Armitage said they said they came by their designations independently of the other. Since the two were running for the water board, they thought they should use a water-related ballot designation.
Fortner said the designation was part of what got Armitage elected and Gutzeit ousted.
“Kathye hasn’t done anything (to earn a salary) in 18 years and she got elected to the water board,” Fortner said. “How is that deceitful? This is what we do. … Your ballot designation is your face to the voters. Your ballot designation leads voters to vote for you.”
Since Armitage was elected, there isn’t much anyone can do. “Nobody wants to undo the will of the people,” Gutzeit said.
The GSA, however, might not yet be done with Fortner. In that Jan. 25 meeting, Cooper called for Fortner to sign a promise not to use the same ballot designation again should she run again.
Cooper later said the GSA will approve new norms and expectations at its April 5 meeting and submit them to the stakeholder advisory committee for its May 19 meeting.
The exact changes are unknown, but ballot designations will be included. Bunn suggested, “Members may not use their position on the committee as the basis for a ballot designation.”
Cooper repeated that anyone who doesn’t sign should be removed from the committee. This caused fellow board member Russ Bryden, fearing a lawsuit, to request the Jan. 25 meeting adjourn to closed session, which Atkins denied.
Fortner initially said she won’t sign but later said she wants to read the wording.
“They’re afraid I’m going to get elected,” Fortner said. “They think I’m anti-development. “They’re scared to death of me because I’m no-nonsense, I speak my mind and I see through their B.S.”
In 2017, legislation authored by Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) created the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency. Deep in the bill is a statement that says if a board member lives outside the district for 180 days and fails to re-establish residency, the seat is vacated. A vacancy would allow the district to either call a special election or appoint someone to the seat.
In December, a month after he was re-elected, Atkins announced he would resign by July. Fortner said she found out when she received a text in late November.
“I said why?” Fortner said. “[The texter] said he moved. I looked at his address [on Cross Street] on Zillow. It sold in one and a half weeks.”
Fortner wondered if the 180-day period started when Atkins sold his house, and if he currently live in the district. She said Atkins either doesn’t turn on his camera for Zoom meetings or he uses a fake background.
“Are we taking his word for it?” Fortner said. “There’s no verifying.”
Atkins explained in March that he’s building a home in north San Diego County. “I am living in District 3, and I will continue to until I decide to move,” he said.
Atkins said he’s living at a property on Via Acorde owned by Roxanna Ramey, the sister-in-law of fellow water board member Dan Mortensen. “Dan Mortensen is a wonderful guy, and I consider him a dear friend,” Atkins said. “He’s willing to help.”
Asked if he’s paying rent, Atkins said, “That’s none of your business.”
Ramey did not return calls following an appointed time and Mortensen declined to comment.
Gutzeit said that Atkins owns a trailer, and he told her he was going to live in it. “I was excited. We have a trailer, too,” she said. “I haven’t seen him since.”
Atkins didn’t return calls when asked about the trailer and if he’s living in it on the Via Acorde property. The trailer wasn’t parked when a reporter drove by the property, and it didn’t appear the garage was built to accommodate one.
Fortner and Plambeck claim Atkins acted unethically.
“B.J. knew he isn’t going to be in the district,” Plambeck said. “He knew he was moving to San Diego. Rather than give the community a representative they wanted, he didn’t tell anyone.”
“It’s a cesspool of typical Republican politics,” Fortner said of the nonpartisan position. “You can’t win legitimately, so you have to cheat. … They don’t have to hold an election. They get to appoint a crony for the seat to fill the term. They get the benefit of appointing a crony and creating an incumbency.”
Gutzeit has, meanwhile, expressed interest in any possible appointment. She said she opened a committee “Gutzeit for Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency 2022,” and her voicemail message, before she changed it, mentioned something similar. She said anyone appointed will have to defend the seat in 2022 because the law allows an appointee only to serve until the next election, even if that seat isn’t up for re-election.
And yet she realizes that, while Atkins acted completely within the law, she thinks the average voter would want to elect somebody who would serve the full term.
“I’m not an average voter. I’m deeply involved in water,” she said. “Life happens. Opportunities happen. I would not be mad. B.J. has loved the water agency as I have. As long as he’s a resident in the district, we’ll take what comes next when it comes up.”