Directors of a Santa Clara County water district want to extend their term limits, even as some members cast doubts about the cost and necessity.
Valley Water’s board of directors voted 4-3 last month to put a measure on the June primary election ballot asking voters to approve an extension of how long directors can serve on the board. If approved, board members would be able to serve a maximum of four, four-year terms instead of the current three.
Directors Tony Estremera, Richard Santos, John Varela and Gary Kremen voted in favor of adding the measure to the ballot. Directors Barbara Keegan, Nai Hsueh and Linda LeZotte voted against it.
Valley Water CEO Rick Callender told San José Spotlight the board could benefit from a continuity of vision and governance on various projects. The district has a budget of $838 million and oversees dams, reservoirs, streams and water treatment plants in Santa Clara County.
“We have highly complex, high-cost projects, which take a while to build,” Callender said, noting new directors want to get caught up to speed on projects before making decisions, which can cause costly delays.
Callender said the region’s water supply faces unprecedented challenges, such as the massive Anderson Dam retrofit project. The district is also coping with a multi-year lawsuit involving hundreds of San Jose residents who blame Valley Water for failing to protect their homes from a 2017 flood.
Callender said retaining experienced leaders on the board will help the district navigate difficult decisions in the future.
The proposal drew concern from several board members during the Feb. 22 meeting. Director LeZotte noted placing the issue on the June ballot will cost approximately $3.3 million. She was skeptical of Callender’s argument that additional terms will save taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in the long run, or that it would be healthy for the board to retain members for longer stretches of time.
LeZotte also took issue with the proposed language for the ballot measure, which uses phrasing she felt could confuse some voters into thinking they were approving a restriction on term limits.
“It has to say what we’re doing—that we’re extending our terms, not that we’re limiting them,” LeZotte said during the meeting. “It may be legally defensible, but it’s intellectually dishonest to have language like that.”
Callender said Valley Water adopted language for its proposal from an old ballot measure used by the county Board of Supervisors to increase their terms from two to three. LeZotte argued it was misleading for the county to use this language, and she voted against the county’s extension of term limits for that reason.
Director Hsueh said she preferred to keep the existing system.
“I think every board member has expressed the hope that there can be many new citizens, particularly young people, interested in running for or sitting on the Valley Water board,” she said. “I think extending term limits is not consistent with our previous message.”
Director Santos told San José Spotlight he supports extending term limits because the current board is experienced at handling some of the region’s complex challenges, such as growing water scarcity.
“We’re in a crisis, and I’m not saying it’s the worst crisis, but it is an emergency situation,” Santos said. “I really believe some of the people we have here can help us get over this hump and address it in a collective matter.”
Director Kremen voted in favor of the motion, but said it was moot because he was running for Santa Clara County assessor and there was a chance he wouldn’t be on the board.
Days after the meeting, Kremen dropped out of the assessor race following a San José Spotlight exclusive about a former staffer on his campaign who claims he shared partially nude photos in a Dropbox. Kremen has denied all wrongdoing. Last week, he announced he would temporarily step down as chairman at Valley Water and called for the district to investigate whether any allegations of sexual harassment have been made by employees.
Editor’s Note: Valley Water CEO Rick Callender is on San José Spotlight’s board of directors.