IMPERIAL VALLEY — What will be among the most hotly contested races of the March 3 primary is that to replace longtime Imperial Irrigation District Division 2 Director Bruce Kuhn.
After what will be 16 years on the board, Kuhn has decided not to seek re-election. His term ends in December 2020.
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.
Meanwhile, board 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.
Historically, Kuhn 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 agreements.
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 phase.
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 board.
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 begins soon.
While the 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 people.” 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 further.
This story is featured in the Dec 05, 2019 e-Edition.