After what will be 16
years on the board, Kuhn has decided not to seek re-election. His term ends in
Because Kuhn is the
incumbent, the filing deadline was extended to Dec. 11, according to county election
officials. So far, El Centro residents Ryan Childers, John Brooks Hamby and
Dilda McFadden are the likely contenders.
President and Division 4 Director Erik Ortega will look to defend his seat
against likely candidates Calexico residents Javier Gonzalez and Joong Kim. Because
he is seeking reelection, the filing period for Ortega’s seat closes Dec. 6.
In both cases, if one
candidate does not emerge with more than 50 percent of the primary vote the top
two finishers will face off in the Nov. 3, 2020, election. Winners will be
seated in January 2021.
Kuhn’s Decision Rings With Sadness
Although voting went from
district-wide to division-specific in November 2015, there are hints Division 2
campaigning will be countywide for a seat that could be a key swing vote in a future
marked with important decisions. Hamby has already been advertising and
distributing yard signs.
Division 2 encompasses the
southern part of El Centro, and parts of Heber, northern Calexico and a rural
area west and north of Calexico and El Centro.
conceded recently, he has played a key role in casting the deciding vote in
controversial issues dating back to the 3-2 approval of 2003’s Quantification
Settlement Agreement, which paved the way for the nation’s largest ag-to-urban
water transfer with the San Diego area.
Legacy is important to
Kuhn who, during an interview Nov. 29, often referred to the unpopular
decisions he has made that have ultimately played in the district’s and the Imperial
Valley’s favor. That includes the QSA approval, which he said amassed the
district about $130 million a year in water-transfer payments and pumped about
$40 million into the local economy to mitigate farm-job losses from the
transfer through the IID Local Entity grant program.
He cited the unpopular
move to purchase some 42,000 acres of local farmland in the mid- to late 2000s
from a French company, Vivendi International. The firm had acquired the land
from the controversial Texas billionaire Bass Brothers who initially schemed to
buy up the acreage and sell the water tied to that land for profit.
Kuhn said while the $125
million expenditure was criticized heavily at the time, the district turned
around and sold most of the farmland at a profit, more than covering the 18,000
acres the IID still owns and leases.
Yet Kuhn’s legacy doesn’t
seem to be giving him much comfort today. His decision to not run again appears
to come with some sadness, an air of defeat, maybe even a bit of
world-weariness at the constant criticism he has endured in the last few years.
It includes the loss of friends and business opportunities over his 16 years in
the public eye, he said.
Long History of Service
Kuhn first served on the
IID board from 1996 to 2004 and was elected to a third term in November 2012.
He won outright re-election during the June 2016 primary.
“I want to go out on a
high note,” Kuhn said. “(But) I just didn’t feel like I was being as effective
as I wanted to be.”
Two issues in particular
seem to be at the heart of Kuhn’s recent despondent reflections of his place on
the board. One is his longtime support of water-seepage recovery “pods” along
the All-American Canal. Another are the personal attacks he said he has been
subject to over the district’s recent discussions around union-favored project-labor
Kuhn, along with the late
IID Director Don Cox, had been supporting the “well pods” on the All-American
to conserve water starting in the 1990s. When he was re-elected in 2012, Kuhn
reprised discussions on the concept, and the pods are now in an environmental-study
But recently, Kuhn
lamented, the idea he wanted to see through has come under sharper criticism
because of how the pods could cut into lucrative payments some in the farm
community receive to conserve water through their own irrigation practices.
In the case of the
project-labor agreement talks, which Kuhn insists is just being discussed and
not approved, the personal attacks and misunderstandings have taken their toll.
Non-union contractors the district does business with are already “lawyering
up,” he said, for a costly legal fight with the IID.
The personal attacks have
come by way of longtime friends accusing him on being on “union payrolls,” with
one very public attack against him happening during a crowded lunch hour at a
popular local restaurant in which an individual “screamed” at him with dozens
of people looking on.
The whole process has
left him weary.
“I guess it’s just time
for someone else to come up and take the reins,” he said. “You get the crap
kicked out of you … you survive that, but …
“It’s going to be tough
to walk away from it,” Kuhn said of his time on the board, but he added the air
of “mistrust” weighs on him.
Even after finishing his
interview with this newspaper Nov. 29, Kuhn continued to text a reporter
statements that clearly revealed the longtime director’s headspace.
“Fuel for thought: I took
my seat on the IID Board of Directors Dec. 6, 1996. Every one of my original
board members are dead. I am the only surviving board member of 1996 … I only
mention this to let you know that no matter how important we feel we may be,
time marches on, with or without us,” Kuhn texted, referring to the passing of
fellow directors Cox, Bill Condit, Ralph Menvielle and Ted Lyon.
“It is with a heavy heart
that I sent you this message,” he finished.
Division 2’s New Blood
Among those who look like
they will fight it out over Kuhn’s seat are political newcomer “J.B.” Hamby who,
in his mid-20s, is the youngest candidate and a self-proclaimed “water
advocate,” according to his campaign filings.
Another is Childers, who first
cut his elected teeth on the El Centro Elementary School District board and who
is at the end of his second term on the Central Union High School District
Finally, the likely third
contender is McFadden, a perennial candidate for all sorts of elected bodies
over the years who was soundly defeated by Kuhn in the 2016 primary election.
“I decided to run because
of experience of being on school boards for 12 years. I can offer leadership
the district needs as outsiders with 100-year plans on how to chip away at our
water rights” come at the IID, Childers said during an interview Nov. 29. “On
the power side, the same forward-thinking leadership is needed to keep our
(electricity) rates affordable.”
Also, Childers said he considers
the IID board as the “gatekeepers of economic development” through ensuring
industry access to water and power. As such, he said the district needs to have
the proper infrastructure in place, especially on the power side, where
substations are needed up and down the service area to provide new industry
with their power demands.
Hamby explained he is
concerned with the district’s place in the future as key agreements tied to
water and the use of the Colorado River are set to expire by 2026.
He said it’s vital the
IID board be involved “in the next chapter to be hammered out in the future.”
Hamby was referring to
the nearly 100-year-old Colorado River Compact Treaty, which spells out how
river water is shared between the seven U.S. river-basin states and Mexico.
There are also the 2007 interim guidelines of river usage and the recently
developed (without IID’s input) drought-contingency plan for the Colorado. All three
expire in December 2025.
Hamby said during a Nov.
29 interview the district needs to stand unified in keeping its water
allotments whole against thirsty urban interests, adding, “If we don’t hang
together, we’re going to hang separately.”
Discussing water history
and how he sees it fitting into the context of the future, Hamby was insistent
the next Division 2 director cannot afford “on-the-job training.”
Contact information for
McFadden was not available by deadline.
Division 4 Contested
In Division 4, incumbent
Ortega, of Calexico, who won election to the board in November 2016, said during
a Nov. 27 interview he wants to see through several key issues that have come
about during his first term. They include a pair of items that took over much
of his year as president of the board: the drought-contingency plan and AB-854.
Ortega said 854,
legislation proposed by Assembly Member Chad Mayes, challenges the district’s
autonomy. It would require several new voting members that live in Riverside
County be added to the IID board, a move the bill justifies by mentioning IID’s role as power provider for a limited
area of southern Coachella Valley.
Mayes’ 42nd District
includes parts of Riverside and San Bernardino counties.
The unpopular bill was
removed from active debate earlier this year, placed on hold and continued as a
two-year bill to be brought up again in the next legislative session, which
drought-contingency plan was decided by other Colorado River-basin states and
water agencies without IID’s input several months ago, IID in 2020 will have
another opportunity to be a part of ongoing drought-contingency discussions.
The plan is a set of agreements on how to preserve critical reservoir levels on
the Colorado River in the face of ongoing droughts.
Ortega added he also
wants to be part of the discussions on the future of the Salton Sea and the New
River in light of the county of Imperial’s recent emergency declarations on the
state of the troubled bodies of water.
“There’s a lot of
unfinished business,” Ortega said.
Although one likely
contender for Ortega’s seat, Javier Gonzalez, did not return several calls
seeking comment, Joong Kim, a Calexico businessman and former mayor, spoke to
this newspaper about his prospective candidacy on Nov. 27.
“Overall in the Imperial
Valley, we don’t have good representation from our elected officials, especially
in Calexico,” Kim said. “The county and IID, they are not doing for their own
Kim called the
district a “dying dinosaur” not ready to tackle the future. Kim did not answer
specific questions about some of the same issues the other candidates are
addressing, saying there are people “copying his ideas.” He didn’t elaborate