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The five candidates for the Goleta Water District’s Board of Directors participated in a community forum Monday night. (Sonia Fernandez / Noozhawk photo)

The five candidates for the Goleta Water District’s Board of Directors came together Monday evening at a community forum to help voters decide the leadership of the special district at November’s elections.

The panel, including local businesswoman Lauren Hanson, board incumbent Harry DeWitt, attorneys Jim Marino and Bill Rosen and former board member Larry Mills, who is also the husband of current member Lynette Mills, answered questions provided by the Citizens Planning Foundation and the local League of Women Voters. The event was held at the Goleta Valley Community Center.

The race for the GWD Board could be characterized as one largely between people who feel that the special district should continue to function solely as a utility, and those who want the district to have a bigger role in the future development of the Goleta Valley. Folded into that theme are ideas and attitudes toward the district’s SAFE Ordinance, which guarantees a drought buffer and sets rules for new allotments.

“The district isn’t broke, and if it isn’t broke, you don’t fix it,” said incumbent Harry DeWitt. who, along with former board member Larry Mills agree that the GWD should serve as a utility, and only a utility, with the purpose of providing water to those who request it, as long as they have the adequate supply and are in compliance with SAFE.

Toward the other end of the spectrum are Jim Marino, Bill Rosen and Lauren Hanson, who may differ slightly in their attitude towards growth and development, but agree that the district should adopt a more active role in the planning of the Goleta Valley, which includes the city of Goleta, UCSB and surrounding unincorporated areas.

“I don’t believe that we use water to control growth,but I don’t believe we can have growth without water,” said Marino, adding that water has to be taken in consideration given the cyclical Regional Housing Needs Assessment handed down by the state that results in higher-density affordable housing.

“I don’t think the water district should just be a utility,” Hanson said. “I think it should be a water stewardship agency.” The GWD shouldn’t just distribute water, she said, but should be more connected to the public about the finite resource, more informed about the water supply and perhaps more conservative about new allotments.

Along with a different attitude toward water, the newcomers are also pushing for a more public-friendly board, a transparency they say is lacking in the current board’s operations and a more specific way to interpret the SAFE Ordinance so there is no mistake in determining how much of a buffer exists before allowing for new allocations.

The problem is that the Central Basin isn’t flat, Mills said. Because groundwater isn’t as easily measured as water from Bradbury Dam, for instance, and monitoring wells are located at varying levels, the board and its public have for years been wrestling over what the 1972 groundwater levels were, let alone whether the levels are back to 100 percent of the ones in 1972 — the baseline for the SAFE Ordinance.

“(The district) recently passed a resolution declaring that water was at ‘72 level in 2004, but we don’t know what the level is in 2008,” Rosen said.

What the panel did have in common was an interest in increased conservation and an openness to considering a tiered rate structure, which, if fine-tuned enough, theoretically could make it easier on low-income ratepayers, and an update of the district’s Urban Water Management Plan. They also agreed on the importance of finding a new general manager to replace Kevin Walsh, who stepped down Oct. 1.

Outside of the issues of SAFE, 1972 levels and the function of the Goleta Water District, the candidates were also asked by audience members about things such as meeting attendance in the past two years. DeWitt, being a director, has been to every meeting except on Sept. 9, Hanson reported being at nearly every board and committee meeting, while Mills, Marino and Rosen reported 12 to 20 meetings in the past two years.

On the subject of health care as part of the GWD compensation package, Hanson, Marino and Rosen said they had no intentions of taking advantage of that benefit. DeWitt does have one sponsored by the GWD, but said it was part of the retirement package given to him as a longtime employee of the district. Mills said he would not take any additional benefits outside of the ones he gets as the husband of a current board member if it increased the cost to the district.

The forum will be rebroadcast on local television. Click here for more information.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at