The Virgin Valley Water District cannot be accused of avoiding controversy. At the Dec. 1 regular meeting the board dealt with a wide range of issues including board member ethics, federal designation of Gold Butte, revisiting a vote on a second water line from Bunkerville to Mesquite and the availability of water for future growth.
As has occurred at the last several meetings, the issue of the ethics complaint filed by Director Sandra Ramaker against Vice Chair Barbara Ellestad arose during the public comments and director comments section of the agenda.
Resident Elaine Hurd questioned the journalistic ethics of Ellestad saying “When Miss Ellestad put her name on the ballot she was not employed as a journalist nor operating her personal web site, after being elected she sought the editors position at the Mesquite Local News, thereby creating tension and conflicts on this board.” Hurd went on to say the Society of Professional Journalists has clear rules against politicians “working as a journalist.”
Hurd also stated that the conflicts that arose with Ellestad “were enough to be accepted by the Nevada State Ethics Commission.”
Ellestad responded by saying “What Sandra failed to tell the public at the last meeting…was that the Ethics Commission denied, denied, her original complaint.” Ellestad then read portions of the letter from the Commission Executive Director Yvonne M. Nevarez-Goodson Esq. “The Commission Counsel and I have determined that the evidence provided does not support the allegation that …Ellestad used her position as a member of the Board or otherwise benefitted her private interest through her official duties.”
Ellestad continued “Sandra and her political allies were not satisfied by the answer, which is a far different explanation than that the ethics commission were investigating the original complaint. It was a denial of the original complaint so they filed an appeal once again wasting taxpayer money and time.” Ramaker objected to the use of “they” by Ellestad.
The discussion was interrupted by district counsel Bo Bingham who noted that the item was not on the agenda and the board should decide if they want it discussed. He also noted that the public has a “right to discuss” any issue with the board, but “My preference is that if there is going to be prepared comments those should be agendized,” said Bingham.
Chair Julien stated he wanted to “move on” as both Ramaker and Ellestad appeared to have prepared comments. Director Bubba Smith said it was “hypocritical” for the board to sit and listen to prepared comments when he was “stopped short” of reading prepared comments at an earlier meeting. “I’m here to discuss the business of the district, water issues, that is what I am supposed to be doing,” said Smith.
Chair Julien apologized to Smith and said he agreed “We should not have prepared comments unless it is agendized.” Julien told the parties that they should “take their arguments outside.”
The appeal by Ramaker of the staff denial of the complaint will be heard by the Ethics Commission on December 16.
The board then discussed the request of Chair Julien to revisit the previous decision of the district to not fund a study of a second water line from Bunkerville to Mesquite across the Virgin River. At a previous meeting where Julien was not present the motion to fund the study failed on a tie vote with directors Ramaker and Smith voting no and directors Ellestad and Rich Bowler voting yes.
Julien said that if the single water line failed, the city would lose about 30 percent of the available water. “The money allocated for this was approved in our budget, and I believe this is a critical project we need to get going,” said Julien.
Manager Kevin Brown provided the board with a memo that supported funding the study in order to provide a redundant system in case the single line failed. District hydrologist Aaron Bunker told the board that if the line failed it could take up to a month to restore adequate water to the area of the city between the freeway and the river.
Director Smith asked “Is this more important than the other projects we got going, for example the pressure issues. I just think there are other things more pressing with the limited financial resources that we have.” Smith questioned whether drilling another well on the north side of the river would be a higher priority than a redundant line across the river.
Ellestad said she supported starting the process now as it would takes months to get the permits from all the agencies for the line to cross the river. She also noted “The actual drilling would not start until the next fiscal year under our budget.” Ellestad urged the board to get the work started so it would be ready next year.
Director Bowler told the board “I supported the motion at the earlier meeting because I thought it was important.” But that he would “acquiesce to my colleagues from Mesquite if they don’t think it is important.” Bowler and Chair Julien both live in Bunkerville.
Ramaker told the board “I voted against it and my reasoning at that time is still my reasoning that it is redundant, we do have a lot infrastructure issues that we really need to be working on.” Ramaker added “I’m not saying this shouldn’t be done it’s just there are other issues that are more important.”
Chair Julien asked the public for comments.
Mesquite businessman Dave Ballweg told the board that not having the redundant line in case of failure “Would be a catastrophe for business as you wouldn’t have the water pressure for fire suppression. I don’t see any downside to doing the planning. You know you have a weak point.” Ballweg said he would hate to see the line fail in the summer the highest water use point of the year. He also urged the engineering to start to see what the reaction of state and federal agencies would be.
Connie Faust also supported doing the study. Faust noted that the area of Mesquite that would be affected by the line failure “is the part of Mesquite where our children live more so than the retired area.”
Resident Gary Elgort told the board “Redundant systems are the ones you need to have.” Elgort cited his experience working for utilities, “From an engineering and service side, and we are a service organization, a utility, a single point of service for a utility is a horrible thing to happen.” Elgort noted that the money was available and urged to board to resolve the problem.
Bill Hurd asked the board to consider whether a new well on the north side would relieve the problem. Brown responded that it would take additional time to drill a new well and that the cost would be two to three million dollars and “we don’t need it in the next three to five years.”
Ellestad asked manager Brown “How much does this keep you up at night?” Brown replied “Out of all the projects that we have on the books to move forward over the next five years this is the one that keeps me awake.”
Chair Julien said he supported doing the engineering, but that he concurred with Bowler that the issue should be decided by the directors who live in Mesquite, as there was no benefit for Bunkerville.
Ellestad then moved to fund the study on the second line across the Virgin River. With Bowler and Julien abstaining, there was no second and the motion died.
In later public comment resident Elgort chastised the directors who didn’t vote for the study saying “Here we have the number one thing that keeps the general manager awake. The worst thing that can happen to a utility ever is a single point failure problem, and you just all let it fall through the cracks.” Elgort addressed Bowler and Julien “For you to say you’re a Bunkerville guy and I’m not going to worry about this or second the motion that’s not right, it’s not about Bunkerville or Mesquite; it’s about the water district.”
The board also discussed whether or not there was a need for an official statement on the availability of water supply for future growth. Director Ellestad noted that the mission statement of the board and the adopted rules and policies of the board already speak to the availability of water and said “No statement is needed.” After discussion the board agreed and voted unanimously for no further action.
In other business the board unanimously approved the drilling, equipping and well house rehabilitation of Well 27 for an amount not to exceed $165,284. The contract was awarded to Bowen, Collins and Associates of St. George.