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Mojave Pistachio Farms, established in 2011, comprises approximately 1,600 acres near Inyokern. / Laura Austin Photo

District Court of Appeal sides with Mojave Pistachios and grants amicus briefs

By Patricia Farris News Review Publisher–  An item discussed at the June 26th Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (GA) meeting was a move to allow the GA’s legal council to address legislative concerns at the State level without the need for the GA board to approve the action.

The motion passed with a 4-1 vote. The opposing vote came from board member Chuck Griffin who represents the Indian Wells Valley Water District. Legal counsel for the GA, Phill Hall, stated, “The action is important as the GA only meets once a month, and the California Legislative session moves quickly.”

Hall said, “At our last board meeting, the board adopted two positions on two bills that are moving through the legislature right now. Right now, the legislature season is in full swing. Those bills have already been amended once since the positions you took last meeting, and I understand that at least one, if not both, of those bills will be amended at least once more. The purpose of this is to allow staff to quickly respond to amendments as needed.”

The introduction of the item on the meeting packet reads, “Staff is asking the Board to adopt the following Resolution which provides staff with the ability to quickly respond to Bills and amendments in consultation with Board President and Vice President to ensure that the adopted policies and procedures of the Groundwater Authority are considered in the legislative process.”

Griffin, the only opposing vote, said that he’d like to have input from all the board members on legislative concerns. He said that even if the legislative session is moving fast, the board could discuss the legislation with an emergency meeting or a phone call.

Griffin said, “Essentially what this does is leave the decisions, in my opinion, to the big two because right now it will always be the [City of Ridgecrest] or [Kern County] if we’re looking at past history. I would like to see it stay where we either have to have a phone call or live meeting for an update because our opinions may differ.”

The resolution requires IWVGA staff to confer with the board president or vice president, which is supposed to be a rotating role between the main IWV stakeholders of the City of Ridgecrest, Water District, and Kern County. However, the IWVGA board has voted to repeatedly skip the Water District’s turn as president or vice president due to ongoing lawsuits in which the Water District and IWVGA may be in opposition.

Hall responded to Griffin, saying, “Part of the reason this is drafted is because the Water District adopted an opposition to one of the bills we are supporting. They didn’t provide us with the opposition. I have asked for it, I asked for it yesterday. I still haven’t seen the opposition. We do need to respond, and we are doing so within the purviews of our adopted policies.”

Hall also stated that quick meetings are no longer a guarantee now that the pandemic relaxation of public transparency rules has subsided. Public agency boards are now again required to have a quorum physically present at meetings.

Kern County representative Philip Peters acknowledged Griffin’s concerns and stressed the importance of not allowing any single member to undermine the board’s consensus, but “I don’t see a problem with it as long as we’re acting within the adopted policies of the [IWVGA’s] previous positions.”

GA seeks to improve engagement with the community

At their board meeting on July 12, the Indian Wells Valley Groundwater Authority (GA) discussed their communication and engagement plan. The plan’s goal is to get the IWVGA to better communicate its important mission of ensuring the stability of the IWVWD critically overdrafted water source.

The GA has a policy advisory community (PAC) that drafted the plan. This committee is made up of community members representing various stakeholders in the IWV‘s groundwater sources, such as residence and commercial interests, and so on.

At the meeting, IWVGA general manager Carol Kiefer described the committee’s plan and then also described which part the IWVGA sees as a priority and which it doesn’t.

  The committee’s list includes an updated website, a project plan with a budget, fax sheets, educational videos, infographics, evening meetings, social media presence, newsletters, and more.

Kiefer noted that the GA already does some of those activities, such as workshops and sending out press releases.

She said the plan going forward includes a new website, developing factsheets, creating a regular newsletter, and hosting workshops. She stated that the suggestions from the committee did not make it into the GA’s plan. These are the suggestions for moving GA board meetings to the evening, conducting large surveys, and hiring a communication director.

She also said that the survey and communications director is out of the budget for the moment.  She noted that evening meetings are not a decision the GA staff can make.  The board would have to bring forward and approve that.

She ended by asking the board of directors for approval to go ahead with enacting the plan.  Directors expressed approval with a few suggestions; however, board member. Chuck Griffin said, “The ideas listed sound good but seemed to be missing something. What I’m not seeing here is a lot of public input. I see reaching out to the public, but I’m not seeing anything encouraging public involvement, and that’s very important to me.”

He said that to start, he’d like to see regular GA meetings moved to the evening so that the public can attend. He also said that he’d like to see the time limit for each speaker during public comment either increased from three minutes to  five or removed the time limit altogether.

There was no comment from other board members on his statement during public comment.

Toward the end of the discussion, GA chairman Scott Hayman said there’s no action the board needs to take on the item, but Griffin asked that the board add an item to next month’s agenda so that the board can take action and make updates to the plan, such as possibly moving meetings to the evening and extending the public speaking time limit. Hayman heard Griffin‘s request and was ready to move on. Board member John Vallejo suggested they not leave the GA staff in limbo on how to make next month’s agenda.  Instead, take a moment to see if the majority of the board wants to add an item to next month’s agenda to discuss The Communication and Engagement plan. No other board members spoke up, so no further action will be discussed in next month’s agenda.

During public comment at the close of the meeting, Josh Nugent of Mojave Pistachio stated that there were two issues that Mojave Pistachios disagreed with, but “I will get back to the board later.” he said.