Two new faces to join water board after election

The Santa Fe Irrigation District, which provides water to residents and businesses in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch, will see new faces on its five-member board of directors later this year, as two incumbent directors are stepping down from their seats and will be replaced by candidates running in the Nov. 8 election.

Two candidates each are running for the Div. 1 seat, now held by Greg Gruzdowich, and the Div. 2 seat, now occupied by Alan Smerican. Both incumbents opted not to seek new terms. Directors in the district are elected by division, and Gruzdowich’s division covers mostly Rancho Santa Fe, while Smerican’s is in Solana Beach.

The normally low-profile agency has been in the news quite a bit over the past year or two; first, as California grappled with a severe drought, the state published figures showing that Rancho Santa Fe had the highest per capita water use in the state. Then, the district joined its fellow water agencies across the state in trying to achieve steep cuts in water use imposed by Gov. Jerry Brown and state regulators. Santa Fe’s state-mandated target was to reduce its water use by 36 percent in 2015, which it largely achieved.

Last year, the district commissioned a cost-of-service study, to determine its revenue needs in the coming years and apportion those costs fairly to customers. That study led to a board vote earlier this year to raise rates by an a maximum average of 9 percent annually over the next three years; the first increase took effect June 1, while the next is slated for Jan. 1, if approved on a separate vote of the board.

Directors split along geographical lines on a number of key votes, including the rate increase. Gruzdowich and Director Marlene King, who both represent inland divisions with larger lots, voted against the rate plan and other related measures, while Smerican, board president Michael Hogan and Director Augie Daddi, who represent divisions in Solana Beach, a more densely populated area, voted for the measures.

Real estate broker Robert Feher is running against business owner David Petree for the Div. 2 seat now held by Smerican. Following are profiles of the Div. 2 candidates, in the order in which they appear on the ballot. 

Robert Feher

Robert Feher found himself at the county Registrar of Voters office this summer, where he was helping a friend file the paperwork necessary to run for a seat on a community services district board.

The 58-year-old Solana Beach resident runs a real estate brokerage, and had been thinking about ways he could give back to the community. While at the registrar’s office, he did some research and found out that a seat on the Santa Fe Irrigation District board was up for election this year.

“Maybe the stars were lining up and it was my time to do my civic duty,” said Feher. “So I threw my hat in the ring.”

Feher and his wife, Lisa Margolin-Feher, who runs a public relations and marketing agency, have one daughter, who is studying political science at UC Berkeley and wants to run for public office one day.

“Proudly I told my daughter I’m following in her future footsteps,” Feher said.

One of his priorities if elected is helping the district maintain and improve its infrastructure, the treatment plants, pumps and pipelines and other facilities used to bring water to its customers.

“From what I can tell, they’ve done a fantastic job of it. I’d like to continue that legacy,” said Feher, who in addition to being a real estate broker is a licensed contractor.

He’s also interested in developing the district’s capacity to provide reclaimed water to its customers. Currently, Santa Fe provides reclaimed or recycled water for landscape irrigation to some customers in Solana Beach, and the district is working on a proposal to bring recycled water to the Rancho Santa Fe golf course.

Feher said he would like to learn more about reclaimed water and solve related problems, such as the technical issue of removing salt from water to make it suitable for turf irrigation.

“I’m fascinated with trying to make economic sense out of reclaimed water projects as a method of conservation,” he said.

Another area of interest, he said, would be expanding the district’s public outreach and education efforts, which would be bolstered by his work with his wife on public relations projects.

“It’s my passion for solving problems and improving the way things are done that makes me believe I can contribute greatly to the work of the board,” Feher said.

David Petree

David Petree’s two sons, Greg and Matt, recently joined him in working for the company he founded in 1984, which builds, owns and operates retirement communities and medical office buildings, and is based in Solana Beach, where the family has lived for some 40 years. (His daughter, Jennifer, lives in Switzerland with her family.)

Now that his sons are involved in the family business, Petree said, that will free up some of his time for other activities, such as serving as a director with the Santa Fe Irrigation District if he is elected in November.

Petree, 71, is a military veteran, with a background in mechanical engineering as well as public health. His father was the director of a water utility in Illinois. All of that experience and knowledge, Petree said, makes him a good fit for the Santa Fe board.

“I think I have a combination of business acumen and financial acumen and the (knowledge of) technical aspects that go into water distribution systems,” Petree said. 

One area of interest if elected, Petree said, will be looking into new sources of supply for the region, to complement conservation measures. That approach would ease the necessity for Draconian cutbacks in water use, he said.

“I don’t want to become Arizona, I don’t like the cactus and stones,” Petree said. “We can keep California green and looking nice.”

As an example, Petree said, in a project that his company, AmeriCare Health & Retirement, Inc., is building in Rancho Bernardo, “gray” water from sinks and washing machines will be collected, filtered and used for landscape irrigation. That will reduce consumption of potable water and sewer discharge.

Both residents and businesses are looking at alternative sources and uses of water due to the rising cost of water as a commodity, he said.

Petree and his wife, Mary Ann, a retired teacher, want to help improve their community, he said.

“We have an interest in seeing the best things happen for Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe, this whole area,” he said. “My commitment to the community and background lends itself to being a good solid board member and making good decisions.”

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