Water conservancy district continues search for board candidates

The San Juan Water Conservancy District (SJWCD) Board of Directors met briefly Monday afternoon, before directors of the Pagosa Area Water and Sanitation District (PAWSD) board joined them for an unusually long executive session. Both boards eventually emerged to publicly discuss an array of topics.

The evening highlights came during a 30-minute parlay preceding executive session, however, as the SJWCD board heard from two candidates vying for appointment to fill a board vacancy. The vacancy opened with the sudden resignation of Fred Schmidt, effective April 6. Schmidt served on the board in excess of 18 years, but left with nearly three years remaining in his current term.

Mely Whiting was the first to address the board. Ironically, she works as an attorney for Trout Unlimited (TU), an environmental group currently litigating an action against the water districts in respect to water rights related to the proposed Dry Gulch Reservoir. Whiting is not directly involved in the case, but agrees her appointment may be perceived as a conflict of interest.

“I would like to serve and this board is number one on my list,” she began. “I am not trying to infiltrate the group or sabotage the process. I’m here as a concerned citizen and not here on behalf of TU.”

Whiting acknowledged that she has no control over what TU might do in the future, and added that she’s strongly considered potential conflicts too. “I’ve talked with TU (about serving on the board) and they have no problem with it. I believe Dry Gulch can be a huge asset to the area under certain conditions. I’m still working on conflict issues, as you (the board) would too.”

When board director Harold Slavinski asked how water rights issues with TU would affect her, Whiting replied, “I’ve tried to stay away from that issue. It will be a short-term conflict, with a resolution soon. I would recuse myself from any discussion or input in that regard.”

Board Secretary/Treasurer Jack Delange told Whiting, “You’re at the top of my list, but I am concerned with the conflict. That’s not to say you couldn’t do it.”

Whiting replied, saying, “I can commit to not talking to TU or anyone else about Dry Gulch. I will not communicate on it, but if you’re not comfortable, you need to consider that.”

Director Karen Wessels then asked, “As a citizen, how do you feel about TU’s position on Dry Gulch?”

In response, Whiting said, “TU has to do what it has to do, but once the issue is stripped down, there may be a lot of agreement (with the districts) on the matter. I may find myself disagreeing with TU. Though Drew Peternell (a TU attorney directing the case against the districts) is my boss, he could not, and would not, involve me in the Dry Gulch case.”

Director Fred Ebeling suggested Whiting might “tip board secrets” to TU, while Mark Garcia recommended soliciting public interest before filling the vacancy.

“We have time,” Garcia offered, “let’s put it out to bid and see if there’s other interest.”

Board president Ernie Amos agreed, stating he “just wanted to give Mely a chance to pitch the prospect.”

At that point, Archuleta County Director of County Development Rick Bellis entered the room. Bellis has also expressed interest in occupying the Schmidt vacancy and has attended most SJWCD and PAWSD meetings since mid-summer 2008.

In fact, in an April 21 letter to District Court Judge Gregory Lyman, County Commissioner Bob Moomaw pronounced Bellis “an effective intermediary between the bodies (county and districts) on a number of issues.” However, since Bellis has only lived within the water conservancy district for 10 months, he won’t meet residency requirements until sometime in July.

Nevertheless, while addressing the board regarding his candidacy, Bellis talked of his qualifications and background. He added, “My personal views would not be clouded by working for the county. Frankly, I felt insulted that the BoCC (Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners) sent a letter against Dry Gulch without consulting me.”

He went on to say, “I think there’s a need for Dry Gulch. You (the board) have looked at every angle and made a good case. There can’t be economic viability without water for agricultural, residential and recreational needs.”

Director Windsor Chacey confronted Bellis with his involvement in dissolving the previous county planning commission, and questioned the methodology utilized in its dissolution. She also expressed concern with Bellis’ lack of follow-up on certain issues, and the potential for conflict of interest, with a county employee serving on the SJWCD board.

Chacey’s husband, Ron, served on the commission at the time county officials dismissed its members, earlier this year.

Bellis responded to Chacey’s assertions by suggesting he never asked planning commission members to resign and, in fact, had asked Ron Chacey to come back and possibly chair the new commission.

At that point, the board collectively leaned toward publicly advertising for additional candidates before recommending any particular applicant. Following brief discussion, Ebeling moved to solicit additional candidates for at least 60 days and Garcia seconded the motion. The board unanimously agreed.

chuck@pagosasun.com