SFID board member appointment now falls to county supervisors

Santa Fe Irrigation District Administration Building.
(Staff photo)

A portion of the Santa Fe Irrigation District (SFID) remains without representation as the board was split on the appointment of a new director to fill its board vacancy for the last five months of the term. A motion to appoint Greg Gruzdowich, a Rancho Santa Fe resident and former SFID board director, failed 2-2 at the board’s May 21 meeting.

SFID President Mike Hogan and Director Andrew Menshek could not support Gruzdowich as he is listed as a plaintiff in the Rancho Santa Fe Association’s lawsuit against the SFID over its water rate plan.

“Greg’s current status in the litigation fogs the issue with me with regards to his conflict of interest and I can’t get past that at this point,” Hogan said. “I think that the voters need to decide on this issue.”

The board seat, vacated by director Ken Dunford, is up for election in November and Gruzdowich stated that he intends to run.

The appointment of a director now moves to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. If they do not fill the post, SFID will be required to call a special election that would fall on the regular election date of Nov. 3. In the event of a special election, SFID would have to foot the bill, which could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Three candidates submitted applications for the board vacancy, however, one was found to reside outside of Division 1 and one dropped out, leaving Gruzdowich as the sole candidate who was interviewed that day.

During his interview held via Zoom, Gruzdowich said he would bring experience to the board as a past member (he stepped down in 2016 after a four-year term) and from his professional background: He is a chemical engineer from MIT, received his MBA from Stanford and served as chief financial officer of a public company. He also brings the perspective of a 27-year resident of a two-acre parcel in the Ranch who has had to pay “huge” water rate increases over the past several years. As a board member he said he would like to see the district move toward a more equitable rate structure.

Gruzdowich has also served on the RSF Association’s finance committee and infrastructure and water rates committee, and he is a candidate in July’s RSF Association board election.

“I believe that our SFID community needs to heal and I do feel that I’m uniquely qualified to help that happen,” Gruzdowich said. “Although SFID has gone from one community crisis to another, I’m hopeful that the current new SFID board members and new general manager will allow for a reset in policies and attitudes between our rural and coastal neighbors.

“If appointed I don’t expect other SFID board members to necessarily agree with me but I do hope for a new level of open-mindedness and respect when considering alternative policies.”

During the interview process, Gruzdowich was asked about his understanding of his role as a board member, his involvement in the lawsuit and how he would balance the interests of both Rancho Santa Fe and Solana Beach communities in Division 1 if appointed. SFID Director David Petree wanted to ensure that Gruzdowich would serve the public good and not a personal interest, as he said Gruzdowich clearly has a personal interest in rate-setting and a strong political affiliation through the Association.

Gruzdowich said his decision-making process would be to do what he thinks is right—he also stated that he would recuse himself from any SFID board deliberations on the lawsuit and, if selected, he would remove his name from the lawsuit.

Petree and SFID Director Marlene King voted in support of Gruzdowich.

“Even with the issues that I raised, I think to me the overriding consideration is giving Rancho Santa Fe and the Rancho Santa Fe Association a seat on the board,” Petree said. “I think it will create enormous animosity if we do not allow that…I think we are going to pour gasoline on the fire if we simply say ‘No, we’re not going to allow representation from Rancho Santa Fe on the board for this period of time. I think that would be a mistake.”

With her vote of support, King said the board gave Gruzdowich a “good grilling” and she believed that he could represent the interests of those with properties larger than condos or regular city-sized lots.

From Menshek’s perspective, the population base of District 1 is a majority of Solana Beach residents and he had concerns about fair representation of those customers.

Explaining the next steps, SFID general counsel Paula De Sousa said under the law the district had 60 days to fill the vacancy, to appoint or call a special election, which ends on June 1. Now that the appointment falls to the board of supervisors, they have until June 30 to appoint. If the county fails to appoint the district shall call an election to fill the vacancy for the next established election date Nov. 3., the same date that the seat is up for a full-term election.

“It’s an absurd result and not probably a prudent use of district funds but that is what the law says,” De Sousa said.

The special election was not on the agenda to discuss that day but King said she wanted to state for the record that the board would certainly not want to extend taxpayer funds to call a special election.

“It would be ridiculous, it would make us look foolish,” King said.