Election 2022: Changes could be coming to Silicon Valley water agency
The Santa Clara Valley Water District is located at 5750 Almaden Expressway in San Jose. Photo by Lorraine Gabbert.

    Motivated by what they call poor management and a lack of accountability, three political newcomers are challenging two longstanding incumbents to represent Santa Clara County’s wholesale water supplier.

    Two seats on the Valley Water board of directors are up for grabs in Districts 6 and 7, currently belonging to Tony Estremera, who has been on the board 26 years, and Gary Kremen, who is in his eighth year on the board.

    The district manages water for the county’s roughly two million residents, has an annual budget of $917 million and nearly 1,000 employees. In addition to contending with a statewide drought, major infrastructure projects could shift direction under new leadership, including $3 billion to build the Pacheco Dam. The project has seen costs soar to nearly three times original estimates and is currently facing a lawsuit from those who oppose it.

    Public relations manager Diego Barragán and business consultant and San Jose Planning Commissioner Chuck Cantrell are both running in Central and East San Jose’s District 6 against Estremera, while corporate attorney Rebecca Eisenberg is facing off with Kremen in District 7, from Palo Alto to Los Gatos.

    Incumbent John Varela is running unopposed for reelection in District 1, and in District 4, incumbent Linda LeZotte is retiring. Jim Beall, the former longtime Silicon Valley state senator, is running for that seat unopposed.

    Tony Estremera is aiming for a fourth term on the Valley Water board of directors. Photo courtesy of candidate.

    District 6 

    Estremera and Kremen are two of four board members who supported Measure A in the primary election in June, which many criticized as deceiving voters into extending term limits on the board. The measure enables members to serve four consecutive four-year terms, increased from the prior limit of three. The measure passed by a razor thin margin, getting 50.56% support.

    That change is what allows Estremera, who has served three consecutive elected terms for the last 12 years, to run in this November’s election for a fourth term. He was appointed to the board in 1996, prior to his three terms.

    A newly-released Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury report criticized the measure’s language as a “lie by omission,” because it did not clearly explain that a yes vote would extend the prior term limits. The board split over the decision to approve the unclear language, highlighting an ongoing rift between the men and women elected.

    Estremera, 72, said the grand jury report was a “hatchet job,” and was released outside of its normal schedule.

    “They want to affect the elections. That’s totally an inappropriate role for the grand jury,” Estremera told San José Spotlight. “It should not have been put out before an election when it relates to election issues.”

    Cantrell, 56, said the ballot measure is one of the major reasons he’s running for the District 6 seat.

    “To do this unethically and intentionally to deceive voters is reprehensible,” Cantrell told San José Spotlight. “We have to learn to transition power, we have to learn to consider our post a temporary position, not a lifelong position.”

    Chuck Cantrell is running against Tony Estremera for a spot on the Valley Water board. Photo courtesy of candidate.

    Cantrell says if elected, he wants to start a joint powers commission between the water district, other city and county agencies and nonprofits to address the longstanding issues of homeless people living along creeks and streams managed by Valley Water.

    He also opposes the Pacheco Dam project, and doesn’t support the governor’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta tunnel water project to move more water from the northern part of the state to the south. The water board supported a previous dual-tunnel version of those plans.

    Barragán, 41, said when he walks Valley Water’s District 6 door-to-door, he meets voters who are unaware about the water district as a whole, which he attributed to Estremera’s lack of outreach.

    “He’s been able to pass on through without really campaigning or answering serious questions from the voters. He’s taking the voters in District 6 for granted,” Barragán told San José Spotlight. He also opposes the Pacheco Dam project.

    Diego Barragán is campaigning for a seat on the Valley Water board of directors against incumbent Tony Estremera. Photo courtesy of candidate.

    Barragán, who previously worked as a staffer for Rep. Zoe Lofgren and San Jose councilmembers including Margie Mathews, said his work experience will be a benefit to residents.

    “I’m the only candidate who has both community and public and private experience,” he said.

    He also wants to ensure water customers’ top priorities are addressed.

    “Their wants and needs are more about simple issues, the things they see day-to-day,” Barragán said. “Cleaning up the creeks, affordable water rates and making sure they’re getting the same treatment as other parts of the county.”

    Estremera said voters can count on his long-term experience with convoluted water policy. He has pushed for greater environmental protections in district work, diversity and equity improvements in staffing and major flood control projects in lower income areas around the district, he said.

    “My opponents are good people who really care about the community. But they know nothing about this industry, they know nothing about water,” Estremera said. “Why would you hand the car keys over to people who never learned to drive?”

    Incumbent Gary Kremen is running to retain his seat on the Valley Water board. Photo courtesy of candidate.

    District 7

    Kremen, 59 has been dogged by allegations of bullying and mistreating water district workers. He called for an investigation into his actions hoping to clear his name, though a lengthy internal investigation is still examining the facts.

    Kremen ran for Santa Clara County assessor earlier this year, but dropped out of the race after San José Spotlight reported on a former campaign staffer accusing him of sharing unsolicited, partially nude photos of himself and Kremen’s long-term partner with the staffer. Kremen denied any wrongdoing and said the photos were shared accidentally as part of a bulk photo dump.

    Those issues are a big reason Eisenberg, 54, decided to run for Kremen’s seat.

    “The feeling was after he was forced to step down from one race due to serious allegations, it didn’t seem right that he would just go back to business as usual in his current position,” Eisenberg told San José Spotlight.

    Rebecca Eisenberg is challenging Gary Kremen for his seat on the Valley Water board of directors. Photo courtesy of candidate.

    Eisenberg said her experience as an in-house attorney for many companies including PayPal, Reddit and Trulia, makes her a great match for public service. She has helped write profit and loss statements and said she can support district workers while asking tough questions about budgeting and processes. Eisenberg also said she’ll help bridge divides on the board.

    “For a living, I negotiate with people who disagree with me,” Eisenberg said. “My 30-year profession is negotiation, and I think there are so many missed opportunities here.”

    Kremen said his eight years on the water board, as well as experience on a water retailer board and his involvement with a water innovation nonprofit, Imagine H2O, is why voters should choose him.

    When he first got onto the board, he helped lead the effort to oust the former CEO, Beau Goldie, who was giving public contracts to his friends, Kremen said.

    He also helped attract a nearly $500 million grant for the Pacheco Dam project, and he dismissed Eisenberg’s critique of that project, which she characterized as environmentally harmful and unnecessary.

    “I would listen to it more if she had any water policy experience,” Kremen told San José Spotlight. “Water policy is not just something simple that works in a Twitter headline, it’s complicated.”

    Contact Joseph Geha at [email protected] or @josephgeha16 on Twitter.

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