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Ron Strand Ridgecrest City Manager / Laura Austin Photo

Council questions validity of Water District’s new water study

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–

During the last city council meeting of 2023, three people spoke during public comments. The issues addressed were Kawaiisu tribal maps, the absence of police body cameras, and the current use of Placer.ai.  After these comments, there was more discussion about the water district’s new study showing the IWV has more water than previously reported.  Other items on the agenda were upcoming construction projects and a salary increase for the future police chief.

Three people spoke during the public comments segment.  First, Robert Blackwell made his third appearance on behalf of the Kawaiisu tribe.  This time, he handed out five maps showing the territory that California recognizes as being theirs.  He said, “Ridgecrest is in the middle of the territory.”  He wanted “everyone to be on the same page” during the Kawaiisu tribe’s “protest stage.”  He stated that the tribe will continue to object to the Petroglyph Festival and the use of the Petroglyph images in the art displayed around the city.  He concluded his time by saying that the community reaction has been positive, but “it doesn’t seem the city cares.”

The second speaker was Robert Catlan, who has lived in Ridgecrest for over 30 years and has a law enforcement background.  He shared a recent incident at the skate park between the police and his grandson.  He said the police “gave an unlawful order to leave the skate park” and were unnecessarily rough with his grandson.  He said, “They sent my grandson to Lerdo!  That’s wrong!”  He wanted to know why Ridgecrest’s police officers do not wear body cameras.

During the council comments, Councilman Kyle Blades said that police body cameras’ “cost to the city would be exponential.”  He said that managing the “data that gets saved is enormous.”  He “can’t imagine us incurring that kind of cost.”

Bruen agreed that body cameras are an “extraordinary expense.”

Mike Neel was the third speaker. He reported on the city’s use of Placer.ai.  From a request, he found there were six instances where Chip Holloway used the technology for the Desert Empire Fairgrounds.  There were two uses by the Maturango Museum, one use by the Welcome Center, and two uses at the Petroglyph Festival.  Neel asked, “How many staff hours have been expended on these searches, and has the city charged for its use to non-city groups?”

Neel’s other concern was that the technology would be used during “the six months of campaign season.”  He noted Bruen used it during the recent Christmas tree lighting event. He told the mayor, “You could gather a lot of really good demographic data information from that software…That’s why you bought it!”  Neel asked if the city would make free use of Placer for any of them for political purposes.  He warned them he would personally “make sure anyone running for mayor or city council understands they also should have access to this software.”

After the public comments, the council covered several agenda items. The first was Councilman Scott Hayman’s highlights from the recent Groundwater Authority (GA) meeting. After his report, a discussion arose about the water district’s new study, “New Analyses Show Significantly More Water Available in Indian Wells Valley.”  The study estimates the safe yield to be 13,400 acre-feet per year compared to the GA’s 7,650 acre-feet sustainable yield estimate in the Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP).  During a past council meeting on December 6, Hayman and Mayor Bruen’s comments about this study led to their controversial conclusion that it was “just a rehash of old information” and “not breaking news.”

However, in quick response to the councilmen’s dismissive comments, several city leaders publicly objected.  For instance, George Croll, the new president of the water board, said, “It certainly is not!”

Mallory Boyd, president of the IWV Water Board, agreed. He said the water district’s new perspective is “new data and not old data.”

Former IWV Water District General Manager Don Zdeba sent out a press release to respond to Hayman and Bruen’s comments at that meeting. Zdeba hoped both Hayman and Bruen “would have an open mind and be interested to learn more about the study entailed before quickly dismissing it.”

However, more discussion about this topic continued between Bruen and Hayman during the December 20 meeting.  Hayman said the information would be welcomed, but “at this time, we don’t have any data.”  When the data is released, the GA would then look at it and determine its validity.  Bruen and other members agreed with Hayman.

In later comments, Bruen told Neel, “It’s very contradictory [to tell us] not to go down the road blindly when they have no report.”  He continued sarcastically, “But, yes, I’m going to blindly take a press release from a media company as gospel.”   He encouraged people to watch the GA meeting.

Bruen then questioned the “nature and cause of the people who created the study” and believed it was “for political purposes in lawsuits.” He hopes the data “comes back to show information that’s good for the community.”  But even if the data coming back “shows 13,000, we are still using twice as much water…thanks to the extraordinarily heavy use of agriculture.”  He concluded, “Everyone’s got their own opinion, but the simple fact is we don’t know.”

After Hayman’s report and the ensuing discussion about the water district’s study, the city’s engineer, Travis Reed, gave three updates about future city construction projects. The first was for additional drainage infrastructure needed because of the recent damage caused by Hurricane Hilary.  The request was to amend an agreement with Willdan Engineering for $32,000 to install curbs, gutters, and drains on the Bowman channel between S. Norma and S. China Lake Boulevard.

The second item was a resolution to increase appropriations for reconstruction on the intersection of La Mirage and Palm Drive. This project “piggybacks” on construction PG&E is already doing, so it saves the city money.  Reed said the intersection “is atrocious.”  The “cross cutters are so old and deteriorated that concrete is poking out of them.”   The price is “very fair and competitive,” and it will be included with the restoration of another area of the street already being worked on.  By working with an ongoing project, Reed said he saves the city money on design, bidding, and time, which he estimates a savings of approximately $60,000.

Reed’s third item was a future project to improve the tennis courts at Leroy Jackson Park.  They need resurfacing and the electrical components in the lights need to be installed.  He wants to use some of the money from the “Allocate Clean California, American Rescue Plan Act,” which expires at the end of June.  A total of three funding sources will be used for this timely project.  “We felt that its in the best interest of the city to get this done.” All three of Reed’s requests were unanimously approved by the council.

The last agenda item was presented by City Manager Ron Strand.  He told the council that the interim police chief, Mike Scott, “will be leaving us in February.”  As the city continues to search for a permanent police chief, Strand asked that the council members vote to increase the current salary of $157,000 per year to $171,000 in order to “make it comparable to other police departments within our area.”  He also plans to do another salary survey in 2024 that will “hopefully be competitive enough to recruit someone qualified to fill this position.”  Strand said he realized “we’re below market rate.”

Bruen agreed.  He asked if an increased salary would be enough and stated this position is “a critical resource.”  After noting Strand’s proposed salary is below Cal City’s, he asked, “Are we trying to sell ourselves short?”

Strand said he believes it will have to work for now, but for 2024’s salary survey, he will “take a closer look.”  Right now, however, Strand believes it is competitive enough to “hopefully recruit some qualified people for the position.” The council unanimously approved Strand’s request.