A powerful water position changed hands unexpectedly Thursday when longtime Kern County Water Agency Board President Ted Page lost his post to fellow director Royce Fast.
A typically routine annual election of officers took a dramatic turn as Page, visibly upset, opened the meeting, then stood and said he …”never intended to create a situation where people were so pressed and so emotional about making this decision. It’s just life and it goes on. But I never wanted someone to be so pressured they just couldn’t take it.
“As far as this election goes, every single person here is going to vote their conscience.”
What followed was a somewhat awkward election as the agency hasn’t had more than one nomination for board president since Page assumed the position in 2013.
Fast won the presidency on a 4-3 vote, indicating a rift on the board, which typically votes unanimously.
“I don’t know why they changed,” Page said after the meeting. “Up until I walked into the board meeting, I had enough votes to stay president. Obviously something happened.”
He said he was deeply disappointed but intended to continue working toward solutions for Kern County’s water issues. He will remain as a director on the board.
“Hey, I’ll make the best of it,” he said.
The Kern County Water Agency is the second largest contractor on the State Water Project, able to bring close to one million acre feet of water to local farms and drinking water agencies when the state has enough water. Thirteen area agricultural water districts get their supplies through the Agency’s contract with the state and are considered “member units” of the Agency.
During the meeting, Directors Gene Lundquist and Bruce Hafenfeld both praised Page’s past leadership but said it was time for a change.
“I think it’s healthy to have other directors considered so they can develop their leadership skills and show the skills they have,” said Lundquist.
Director Marty Milobar reminded his fellow directors that Page has been integral in working with other water leaders in the state on the California WaterFix, the proposed tunnel that would bring water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The relationships Page built over the last seven years will be vital to Kern’s position on that project, Milobar said.
“Ted has been a real spokesperson for Kern County statewide and he’s made a lot of associations and been able to talk to practically anyone (in key political positions),” Milobar said.
Though the California WaterFix has stutter stepped through the years, most recently going from two proposed tunnels to one under Gov. Newsom, Milobar predicted this is the year it will move “off dead center” and that the Agency would need Page’s expertise to keep Kern involved.
Hafenfeld, who said he was the only director to vote against Page last year, disagreed.
“No one individual can make or break the projects and initiatives this agency undertakes,” he said. “The job as president is to delegate to other people. I don’t believe any one person has to be president at this agency to complete the tasks before us.
He ended by saying the board “owed” a change of leadership to the “purveyors,” or the ag water districts, it represents.
Hafenfeld’s comments hinted at discontent with the Agency’s direction among the powerful ag water districts that are members of the Agency.
Mark Mulkay, General Manager of Kern Delta Water District, said his board members had, indeed, asked the directors who represent Kern Delta to install a new president.
Those directors, Milobar and Philip Cerro, split their votes with Milobar voting to keep Page and Cerro voting for Fast.
“I don’t think we expected the votes to go that way,” Mulkay said of the split.
When asked why Kern Delta wanted new leadership at the Agency, Mulkay said it was just “time for a change. Ted’s a good guy, but he’s been in there way too long.”
Mulkay has said previously he felt the Agency needed to focus more on local issues.
Though Rosedale-Rio Bravo General Manager Eric Averett said he was surprised by Page’s ouster as president, he felt the change would lead to new ideas.
“It is a board effort,” he said, echoing Hafenfeld. “Other areas should have the opportunity to lead.”
In past years, the Agency’s board president changed every year, which created an inconsistent direction, Averett said. But seven years (Page’s tenure) is too long, he added. Averett advocated a four-year term for the Board president.