Critic calls term limits on ballot `intellectually dishonest'
County's water district hopes to allow veteran members longer stay
Two months from now, early voting will begin for California's June 7 primary election.
When voters in Santa Clara County look at their ballots, they'll see a measure that asks if they want “to limit” the number of terms that board members of the Santa Clara Valley Water District — Silicon Valley's largest water provider — may serve.
The wording is a classic example of political trickery, critics say.
Far from limiting how long members of the water district's board are allowed to serve, the measure, if approved by a majority of voters, actually would extend the number of years they can stay on the board by loosening existing rules, while hiding that fact in dense legal language.
Based in San Jose, the district provides drinking water and flood protection to 2 million residents of Santa County. One of the largest government agencies in the county, its seven elected board members are paid up to $59,000 a year, depending on how many meetings they attend. They receive medical, dental and vision benefits, along with life insurance, travel insurance while on district business, personal accident insurance and pet insurance from the district.
In 2010, Santa Clara County voters approved Measure C, limiting them to three successive fouryear terms, with more possible if they took at least four years off.
But now several board members are facing the end of those terms. And some are saying it would be too risky for the public if they leave the agency, with the state facing a severe drought and the district struggling to complete major projects like rebuilding Anderson Dam.
“A loss of extensive experience on the board, I think, is a
problem,” said Tony Estremera, a board member who would be termed out this year, in a meeting last week.
Estremera is a leading supporter of a plan that the water district board voted last week to put on the June 7 Santa Clara County ballot to allow water district board members stay longer by serving a fourth successive four-year term.
Putting the measure on the ballot cost the district, which has been steadily raising water rates, $3.2 million.
The issue sparked a sharp debate last week, when the board decided to place it on the ballot following a contentious 4-3 vote.
“Turnover is good. We need new blood,” said board member Linda LeZotte, a former San Jose city councilwoman who voted no, although she is scheduled to be
termed out of office this year. “I've been on the board for 12 years and seen four or five new board members who I think caught on pretty quickly.”
LeZotte raised particular objections to the wording of the ballot measure, which does not contain the word “extend” or indicate that board members would be allowed to stay in office longer.
“It may be legally defensible but it is intellectually dishonest to have language like that,” said LeZotte, an attorney. “It really should say we are extending our terms, not limiting them.”
The ballot language will read: “Shall the measure amending the Santa Clara Valley Water District Ordinance 11-01 to limit Board members to four successive fouryear terms be adopted?”
Estremera and water district CEO Rick Callender, who proposed
it, said the wording simply mirrors similar language from 1998 when Santa Clara County supervisors won voter approval for a measure to extend their terms from two to three.
“Legally we don't even have to go to a vote of the people,” said chairman Gary Kremen, who voted for the measure.
Callender said that keeping the same board members, rather than having new people who might change direction on large projects “could ultimately and potentially save tens of millions of dollars.”
The controversy is generating opposition to the ballot measure already.
Promising a fight, the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association said that with many of the district's major projects — including Anderson Dam and the proposed construction of a new reservoir near Pacheco Pass — behind schedule and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget, new board members may be just what the agency needs.
“If you reward failure, you get more failure,” said Mark Hinkle, the association's president. “The $3 million that this cost to put on the ballot could buy a lot of water.”
Larry Gerston, a professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University, said that voters are generally frustrated with political leaders at the moment, and that if they find out the measure actually extends terms, “it might find itself swimming upstream.”
“What they are trying to do is give the impression that they are clamping down,” Gerston added. “They are not saying shall the terms be extended. These are questions the opposition will raise fairly quickly.”
During the board debate on the measure, LeZotte asked Callender if the water district staff had polled the public on the measure.
“Have we done any polling with regard to whether the community is screaming for us to have another term?” she asked.
Callender said no such polls had been done. Gerston said that is surprising, given that the agency spent $3.2 million to put it on the ballot.
“If they haven't done any polling, I'm just aghast,” he said. “Anything that bodes controversy these days, you check out ahead of time.”
In the end, the four members who voted to place the measure on the ballot, and the year they would otherwise be termed out are: Estremera (2022); Kremen (2026); Dick Santos (2024) and John Varela (2030). The three who voted no are LeZotte (2022); Barbara Keegan (2024) and Nai Hsueh (2024).
The last day for interested parties to submit ballot arguments to the county is Tuesday.
“Maybe they are not trying to fool people,” Gerston said. “But that is the impression they are giving.”