CALEXICO — Imperial Irrigation District 4 candidates, Erik Ortega and Daniel Romero, squared off in front of a small crowd Thursday evening at a debate in Calexico City Hall. This will be the first election since district lines were redrawn wherein each district will only vote for the candidates living within its boundaries. Stephen Benson presently holds this seat, but has chosen not to run again.
David Canez moderated the forum presented by COLAB, the Regional Government Affairs Committee of the Brawley, El Centro, and Imperial Chambers, the Imperial County Farm Bureau, and the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.
Both candidates agreed on maintaining wheeling rights, which is the ability for IID to move electricity over the grid using its own transmission line infrastructure, and both doubted more water should be transferred through the QSA.
Ortega did comment if restoration to the Salton Sea would be agreed to by the State, more water transfer might be good. He added that the Valley has not seen any of the restoration promises to date, and the Valley has endured hardships because of the transfer of water to the urban areas. Ortega said he believed the QSA agreement works, with the exception of the Salton Sea restoration earmarks.
Romero said it depends how the IID would be compensated for the transfer, but he could not in good conscience support any further rural to urban water transfers.
“California has an obligation to restore the Salton Sea. So far the State has only dished out money for studies,” Romero told the room. “If we got an immediate benefit for the Salton Sea, then maybe for the future. Now, I cannot foresee more water transfers.”
When asked about international water rights, Romero reiterated the Valley has a right to the water it receives. “Mexico has water sent to it already. As long as the balance for the Valley is kept in place, there is no reason not to support the rights for Mexico. We need to study how to share in the availability for water for both sides of the region, but always keep in place the Valley’s water.”
Ortega spoke along the same lines. “The Valley has an allocation,” Ortega said. “Over time, that allocation has been diluted from various organizations. Mexico is our neighbor and more would have to be explored before that allocation is committed anywhere else. The IID has assisted where ever it can over the years in helping Mexico”.
Ortega had his Calexico school trustee role brought into the debate during a question submitted by a member of the audience who asked why he would abandon the school board when there was so much turmoil in the schools.
Ortega defended his decision to run for the IID seat, saying the school has improved during his tenure, with kindergarten through third grade reduced class sizes, a new pool, new athletic fields, and personnel raises.
“There has been progress at the school. I am not abandoning. I am continuing to serve my community in another capacity,“ Ortega said.
Both candidates believed in several of the restoration ideas that have been tested through pilot projects or penciled in studies for the Sea. However, Romero said restoration should be done without impacting the IID or the citizens of the Valley. He believed the State and Federal governments should do their part.
“It’s a health hazard area and it needs to be addressed,” Romero added.
Ortega argued his public service has prepared him to be an IID board member, with his experience dealing with a large public school employee base, knowing large budget oversights, and knowing how to hold the commander-in-chief accountable.
Romero cited his public service with the Calexico city council and his non-profit work as preparing him to take the mantle at the IID.
“As a public servant familiar with budgets, managing accounts, and working with the city manager, I know how to sit down and discuss using resources from other accounts to balance budgets,” Romero said. “I worked with non-profit organizations, keeping them afloat, working as a team. I served with several organizations and had nothing but success. I can do that with the IID.”
In closing, Romero spoke of his election to the Calexico city council in 2008, and dealing with a budget running in the red. The next year, when he would cast his first vote on the budget, a negative balance was presented to the board. Romero said he could not vote for an unbalanced budget, and working with the city manager and department heads, Romero said they cut across the departments and balanced the budget.
“I passed several resolutions,” said Romero, “to improve infrastructure of the city and many of those policies are still in place. I left in 2012, and I left the city better than I found it.”
Ortega closed by saying that he had helped reduce class size from kindergarten through third grade, and pointed out that all the schools now have counselors. He also referenced the improved high school gym and athletic fields, and mentioned replacing many of the school vehicles using local dealerships, as some of his accomplishments.
“Our budget went from ‘qualified’ to ‘positive’ and that is another improvement,” said Ortega.
Ortega and Romero both spoke to The Desert Review following the debate for interviews.
Ortega stated he was running to focus on serving the constituents of District 4.
“I want to make sure we don’t have any unnecessary rate increases and to make sure we support renewable energy, and generate good jobs for the citizens through renewable energy. I would like to support the current board,” Ortega said.
Romero said his main goal was to continue to keep water and energy costs to a minimum.
“Restoration of the Sea is forefront. To be successful, the Federal and State governments have to be part of the solution. I do not want to burden the Valley. It will take a complex plan, but we can come up with one — windmills, geothermal. Renewable energy money can go to the restoration of the Salton Sea. Fiscal responsibility has always been my focus,” Romero said.
Romero has been in business for 35 years, including eight years owning his own company. He has also been president of the Calexico Pop Warner Football and the Calexico Chamber of Commerce. Politically, he spent four years on the Calexico Council, one year being the mayor. He also has three years with the JPA and served the Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District as chairman.