Election Tensions Heat Up Water Race

Santa Ynez District Challengers Need Not Own Property

Chris Dahlstrom

Paul Wellman (file)

Chris Dahlstrom

County election officials have ruled that candidates running as challengers for the board of a small and ungainly named Santa Ynez water district need not own property in order to seek the post. District managers for the Santa Ynez River Water Conservation District Improvement District Number One ​— ​known colloquially as ID 1 ​— ​had sought to block two of the three challengers seeking to run against a slate of three incumbents.

Under state law, certain special-service water districts are authorized to impose property ownership requirements on water boardmembers; when ID 1 incorporated in 1959, it wrote such requirements into its charter. That language was cited by the water district’s attorney, Gary Kvistad, to block county election officials from including the names of challengers Brian Schultz and Anita Finifrock in the November ballot. Schultz and Finifrock are part of an insurgent movement trying to take over the board majority. They claim the district’s director, Chris Dahlstrom, is paid too much ​— ​nearly $300,000 with benefits ​— ​that customer service has suffered, that district legal costs are extravagant, and that rates have gone through the roof. The challengers have been dismissed, in turn, as greenhorn newcomers who are regurgitating complaints that were inaccurate when they first surfaced 10 years ago in a scathing grand jury report.

To fight the property requirement, the challengers hired attorney Phil Seymour, who argued that ID 1 had morphed into a general district since its founding. Whatever statutory authority the district once had to justify the property requirement, he argued, had long since passed. Such exclusionary requirements, he argued, violated the state constitution and would effectively disenfranchise large numbers of residents who do not own property.

County elections czar Joe Holland issued a decree this Monday that if the water district wanted to challenge the candidacy of the challengers, it had to do so after the election, not before. Holland said the issue “involved substantial questions of fact and law” that needed to be judicially resolved “after the election.” It remains uncertain whether Dahlstrom and Kvistad will challenge Holland’s decision. Neither returned calls for comment. As a practical matter, Holland needs to get the November ballot to the printers in the next week.