October 22, 2004

Otay Water District race promises change

by J.D. Hawk

Three seats on the Otay Water District board of directors are up for election on Nov. 2, and all candidates are promising better times for the OWD. The incumbents say the days of troubling lawsuits are over and the OWD just needs to stay the course, while the challengers say that its too late for the incumbents.

In Division 2, the most dramatic of all the races, incumbent Jaime Bonilla is running against Jessica “Kika” Estrada.

As a child, Bonilla grew up in Tijuana, selling items to tourist down Revolution Avenue before becoming a US citizen and becoming the owner of 15 radio stations. A staunch Yankees fan, Bonilla has his office decorated with countless memorabilia, with photographs and autographs of just about every big name in baseball — mostly from the Yankees. During his first term on the board, he said he was most proud of saving the rate-payers money by giving them an 8.5 million-dollar rebate, an A+ credit rating from Standard & Poor’s, streamlining the district with new technology such as the automatic water meters and the anti-terrorism measures he’s implemented while on the board. “I am also very proud that for four years the water rates have been frozen... Nobody has gotten any rate increase,” he said.

Bonilla acknowledges that he is a controversial figure but said it’s a result of being a straightforward businessman and not a natural politician who speaks in subtleties.

Bonilla’s goal is to continue to work on the construction of the desalination plant that he said will sup-ply 10% of the needs of the county.

His opponent, Estrada, was a working as a security guard at a department store until she was caught stealing last Oct. 2, 2003. Her web site also states that she is a Water Conservation Advisor for her own private business, but this last description has been hotly contested by her opponent as misleading. Estrada chose not to return repeated phone calls, pages, and e-mails for an opportunity to comment.

Estrada’s strategy, based on her web-site, www.vote 4kika.com, seems to be shifting the focus off her and putting it onto the negatives of her opponent and the OWD. She claims Bonilla has been harassing her. Her web-site gives viewers an opportunity to listen to phone calls made by a private investigator hired by Bonilla. She apologized for her petty-theft incident on the web site.

In Division 4, incumbent Jose Lopez is running against Elizabeth Scott. Lopez is a second-generation firefighter.

Lopez says that the OWD problems, mostly lawsuits, are a thing of the past. “We’ve been able to move on,” he said.

He also echoed some of the same achievements as Bonilla as things he was proud of over his past term: The 8.5 million dollar rebate, the cutting edge technology, the 1 million dollars saved by rate-payers as a result of the “A +” credit rating from S&P, the five-year labor agreement, and the frozen water rates.

And Lopez said he was really proud of keeping focused on his job despite the beating OWD endured about the in-house fighting. “Even though you’re getting attacked from everywhere — outside from all the media — we stayed focused. And you can see the results,” he said while listing the accomplishments once more. “We want to finish what we’ve started.”

Lopez said he has been walking the district, speaking to people about the OWD and that despite all the controversy, the only complaint he’s had was that the sewer rates have gone up. But Lopez said that the sewer rates are a result of the city, not as a result of the OWD. Once he explains that, he said, people don’t have anything bad to say.

Originally a bank teller and salesperson, challenger Scott became an independent paralegal after she was widowed 14 years ago at only 28. She was born in the Philippines but attended school and lived most her life in Chula Vista. “I’m a hometown girl,” she explained.

Scott, who was involved in a previous lawsuit against the OWD, said that she is an advocate for the regular person in the legal realm. “I have first-hand knowledge about the misuse of public funds that this board has squandered in the past four years.”

Her feisty attitude is reminiscent of Erin Brockovich in the 2000 movie. In fact, Scott worked on the real Erin Brockovich case — albeit on the wrong side. She said that experience first helped her become aware of the corruption involved in such entities.

Scott said that OWD was spending millions in legal fees, and the decision for her to run was not only professional but a personal matter to her. Then she went down the list: “Wrongful termination cases, slander, discrimination, whistleblowing cases... I could not believe these people had no regard for labor laws,” she said.

Scott said she had considered more lawsuits, but that in turn would probably increase the rate-payers bills. She also had no confidence in any regulatory committee because “special districts are very hard to regulate.”

Her choice to run, therefore, was the only option left. “So the last choice and the only choice is to unseat these incumbents.”

Millie Gibbons was a third candidate for Division 4 but has since dropped out and endorsed Scott.

Mark Robak is running for Division 5. Robak is a commercial real estate broker who has already served on the Padre Dam Municipal Water District from 1996 to 2000 and said that under his leadership he saved the rate-payers there 1.8 million dollars annually since 1998.

“Public confidence needs to be restored,” he said about the OWD.

If elected, Robak said that he would expand the recycled water system into the east county, promote water conservation and keep water rates steady.

Though obviously Robak considers himself the best man for the job, he stopped short of saying anything bad about his opponent Richard Wright. Robak only commented that he doesn’t bring any baggage to the board and “I’m a straight-shooter. I’m not going to tear down any signs down. I’m not going to bad-mouth anybody and I would never try to draw anyone into that type of thing.”

Wright could not be reached for comment before deadline. His web site www.votewright.net states that he is a former professor of geography for San Diego State University who served on the OWD board from 1993 to 1996.

Wright declares the OWD to be in a sad state that is “...dominated by individuals who were (and still are) motivated by personal vendettas and a thirst for power rather than a genuine concern for meeting the water needs of the District’s customers.”

Wright goes on to explain that the millions of dollars in rebates were actually a bad thing because the money was supposed to be a cushion to soften the blow of rate spikes by erratic changes in water prices. Now, Wright contends, the rate-payers are actually more vulnerable.

Among the complete list of 13 goals he pledged on his web site are to eliminate the fat of administration, saving $250,000 annually, explore water conservation methods and to remove the disruptive elements that have been allowed to infect the organization.

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