By Daryl Kelley
Two veteran directors of the Ojai Valley’s largest water district face familiar challenges this fall as they take on the same two opponents they defeated handily in 2004.
And the winners will be faced with a host of important decisions over the next four years, as the Casitas Municipal Water District decides what to do about a costly federal lawsuit, expansion of the Lake Casitas Recreation Area, boating restrictions prompted by an alien mussel and the cost of water farmers use to irrigate Ojai Valley crops.
As they seek another term on the board of directors, Jim Word and Pete Kaiser are opposed again by David Norrdin and Jeff Ketelsen, a pair of perennial candidates for elective office in Ventura County.
There are sharp contrasts between the incumbents and the challengers.
Word, a 71-year-old Ventura resident, is a retired department store manager who has served as president of several Ventura public service agencies. He is now president of the Casitas board.
Kaiser, 52, of Mira Monte, was a police officer and county employee for 34 years and now runs his own consulting firm. He, too, has been active in community service, including as a coach in Ojai youth sports. He is also a three-term director of the Ojai Valley Sanitary District.
Conversely, Norrdin, 49, stocks shelves at the same Ventura department store – JC Penney’s — that Word managed for many years. Norrdin lives in a Ventura motel. He is a self-described “political junkie,” who has run for public office nine times in the last decade, never winning more than 10 percent of the vote.
Ketelsen is a 47-year-old Mira Monte resident who occasionally works as a substitute teacher. He has also worked as an usher at Magic Mountain and was employed last summer as a “wildfire crew member” for the city of Oxnard.
With his run for the Casitas board and the Ojai Valley Sanitary District board this fall, Ketelsen has sought public office 11 times in nine years, winning only an uncontested race for the Ojai Valley Municipal Advisory Committee.
The Oak View-based Casitas district provides water for about 65,000 people and nearly 5,700 acres of farmland in the Ojai Valley and Ventura.
The district draws most of its water from Lake Casitas reservoir storage, but also has deep wells to pull water from Ojai Valley aquifers.
Word and Norrdin are vying for a directorship in a district that encompasses part of central and west Ventura. Kaiser and Ketelsen are seeking a seat that represents a swath running from Mira Monte to the Avenue area of Ventura.
A third director, Russ Baggerly of Meiners Oaks, will be returned to the board in the Nov. 4 election, because he is unopposed.
Long operated without much dissent and by the same veteran general manager, the Casitas board has become a lightning rod for debate in recent years, as newcomers have defeated long-serving board members and hired a new general manager.
Word, with 11 years experience, has straddled the old and the new.
Kaiser, with six years on the board, generally represents the new majority. He has served as the swing vote on two large issues during the last two years.
Kaiser voted with Word and longtime director Bill Hicks to continue a federal lawsuit to gain reimbursement for money spent to save the endangered steelhead trout. Last month, a federal appeals panel reversed a lower court decision and found that Casitas was entitled to payment for water it uses to run the fish ladder the federal government forced it to build and operate.
But Kaiser voted against Word and Hicks on an initial vote to ban outside boats from Lake Casitas to make sure the damaging quagga mussel would not infect the lake. The full board later voted to impose less stringent controls of boating while setting up an inspection system to keep the invasive mussel out.
Now, as the once-divided Casitas board has begun to agree more consistently on big issues, both Word and Kaiser say they’re running for another term because future decisions are so important and complicated they require seasoned directors to make them.
Chief among those decisions is how the half-century-old district can pay millions of dollars to overhaul its aging pipes, pumps, tanks, wells and reservoirs.
“I certainly have the experience to help the district try to rebuild its infrastructure, solve the issue of invasive species and hold down water rates,” Word said. “I certainly know what it takes to make the water district run efficiently.”
Word, in fact, boasts on his election ballot statement that many water district customers are paying lower rates than before. He doesn’t note the sharp increases in rates imposed by the board to irrigate cropland in the Ojai Valley.
“We’ve come together on tough issues,” Word said of the board. One big issue was imposing huge water rate increases on farmers, a move directors said they were forced to make because of state law they said requires districts to charge all customers the full cost of water delivery.
On the other hand, Norrdin said that while he thinks Word has done a good job as director, the Casitas board needs to plan better for drought by storing water in underground aquifers. He said the fact that there is no single large aquifer in the Ojai Valley in which to store water does not deter him. A foundation in India stores water in man-made aquifers, and the Ojai Valley should do the same, he said.
“The main reason I’m running is water banking,” he said. “It would cost a lot of money, of course. But it’s better than running out of water. Where do we put it? I don’t know. Where do we get the money? I don’t know. But we need to think ahead.”
When running against Word in a three-person race in 2004, Norrdin got 181 votes, while Word received 1,770. Norrdin has also run unsuccessfully for state Assembly, Ventura city council and Ventura school board and the county board of education.
In the 2004 Kaiser-Ketelsen race, Kaiser received about two-thirds of the vote in a two-person race.
Kaiser said he ought to be returned for another term because he has shown an ability to think issues through, and even to change his mind after listening to his constituents.
That occurred, he said, last year, when he first favored dropping a federal lawsuit that had already cost Casitas about $400,000 to press, but changed his mind when constituents supported continuing the suit.
Now, with an appeals panel backing his position, Kaiser said he feels vindicated.
“Our primary objective is to our local ratepayer,” he said. He said he did not believe that a Casitas victory in the case would undermine the federal Endangered Species Act, a claim of opponents to the suit, including Baggerly.. “Everyone should pay for this (fish ladder project). Not just our ratepayers. It’s a more balanced approach. This is a burden we’ll be saddled with from now on.”
Kaiser said he felt he has been a force for change. He and other board members applied pressure to change water agency general managers, he said, encouraging veteran John Johnson to retire.
Johnson had a problem cooperating with other water agencies and there were morale problems on his staff, Kaiser said.
New general manager Steve Wickstrum has solved those problems, Kaiser said.
Now, Casitas is a leader on issues such as the quagga mussel and water conservation programs, he said.
But Ketelsen, who is also running against Kaiser for a seat on the Sanitary District board, said it’s time for a change.
He said he disagreed with board decisions on the quagga mussel and on hikes to recreation fees at the lake.
“I’m running because user fees keep going up, and a lot of people didn’t like that ban on boating,” Ketelsen said.”A lot of people are still upset about the costs in that. They have businesses and they lost money on some other things out there too.
“There’s this guy, a friend of mine, and he’s not the only one, and he told me he lost money because they canceled his yearly pass (because of the quagga restrictions),” he added.
Casitas has lost recreational customers to other local lakes – Cachuma, Piru and Castaic – because of quagga restrictions that force owners to lock their boats to a trailer when not at the lake, or face a 10-day quarantine before re-entering.
“Those other lakes have been welcoming people who used to come to Lake Casitas,” Ketelsen said. “They say like, ‘look, you idiots who run Lake Casitas.’ And they put out their welcome mats.”
Word said that setting up a screening system to keep out the quagga mussel, which could do millions of dollars in damage, was a wise decision by the board, and one that is now being modeled around the state.
“We have a very dedicated board that has been able to work out most of our differences,” Word said. “We have dealt with some very tough issues very effectively.”
By Daryl Kelley