In Rossmoor, governance again becomes an issue

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Rossmoor governance again resurfaces as an issue.

The Rossmoor Community Services District has signaled a retreat just weeks after asking a local legislator to file a bill seeking to pave the way for more control over the unincorporated area.

The problem began when the Directors held a special meeting Feb. 25 with Assemblywoman Janet Nguyen to discuss a bill that would have created a path for the RCSD to be released from the control of a state agency that governs unincorporated areas across the state.

Fast forward to the Directors monthly meeting in March, as some residents were furious at the board for what they called “a lack of transparency,” regarding the meeting at which they authorized the legislation to move forward.

Some even suggested the board’s special meeting had potentially damaged their credibility.
Others, meanwhile, expressed vocal support for the Director’s action. They say the district’s inability to govern its own future has created a lopsided financial relationship with the county and sometimes results only in an inability to independently act on critical problems facing the community.

As an unincorporated area, Rossmoor must operate under OC LAFCO (Orange County Local Agency Formation Commission), an organization that regulates the activities of all unincorporated areas of Orange County (functional areas that are not villages, cities or towns).

According to the agency’s website, “LAFCO serves the citizens of Orange County by facilitating constructive changes in governmental structure and boundaries through special studies, programs, and actions that resolve intergovernmental issues, by fostering orderly development and governance.”

Orange County LAFCO decided in 2006 to place Rossmoor in the Los Al “sphere of influence,” and the two communities do share a mutual sewer district.

The residents of Rossmoor have long, and fiercely, defended their independence. A move to annex the upscale community of more than 10,000 residents into either Seal Beach or the city of Los Alamitos has been discussed over the years.

Residents actually voted on a “cityhood” proposition in 2008, with more than 72 percent voting to reject the “Measure U” proposal to transform Rossmoor into Orange County’s 35th incorporated city.

Even so, Rossmoor officials continue to find themselves at the mercy of county officials on whom they must depend for routine public services that nearby incorporated communities provide for themselves. According to Rossmoor CSD general counsel, Tarquin Preziosi, there are only two ways for Rossmoor to be granted latent powers, either being granted additional power by LAFCO or by amending the law that granted the Community Services District in 1987.

In that special meeting, district Directors voted 4-1 in favor of authorizing Assemblywoman Nguyen to file a bill on the district’s behalf (Director Nathan Searles voted against). According to the minutes, Rossmoor CSD President Jeffrey Barke said the special meeting was necessary because the bill filing deadline was Feb. 26.
RCSD General Director Joe Mendoza said the meeting had been properly noticed to the community.

Nevertheless, at the district’s regular meeting two weeks ago, Michael Maynard, former RCSD President, appeared to provide context to the latent powers issue.
In his opinion, Maynard said Rossmoor had been shortchanged since creation of the community services district because whoever filed the bill, failed to check the right boxes to grant full powers to the district.

New legislation, therefore, is the only logical remedy to fix the problem, he said.
Many other communities like Rossmoor around the state have already passed similar bills to achieve latent powers, said Maynard.

The former RCSD President said for years, they made a valiant effort to work through OC-LAFCO with strong community support.

Maynard said the agency said they would first have to spend up to $400,000 for a “municipal services review,” after which there was “no guarantee” of being granted latent powers.

Back then, Maynard said the RCSD formed a special committee, with two members from Rossmoor Homeowners Association, two from RCSD and two members at large. “We had complete community support,” he said.

Then, as now, he said Rossmoor was seeking more control over three primary issues, including animal control, trash collection and policing.

Facing such a huge financial risk of $400,000 for a study, Maynard said “I’d be the first one saying don’t do it.” With the board saving for the future, the former board president said the district would have been “crazy to gamble” so much on something that “might not come true.”

Therefore, Maynard said latent powers is the only realistic option. Actually, Maynard said the district was set more or less to file the same bill last year, with former Assemblyman Tyler Diep, but COVID struck, prompting legislators to sidetrack all non-health related bills.
Residents weighing in at the district regular meeting in March, said less about the latent powers debate and much about the lack of transparency with which the legislative push had taken shape.

“I think a lot of people have really serious questions about whether we should or we shouldn’t have additional powers for RCSD,” said Ralph Vartebedian, a longtime RHA President. In fact, Vartebedian said the community was not against the move, just unhappy with the way it was done.

“They’re open minded about that (legislation),” said Vartebedian, “but they are definitely unhappy about how this issue surfaced.”

According to Vartebedian, “it was never ever expressed to the community as a whole. That’s where the beef is. And because of that,” he added, “I think the RCSD is actually damaged.” He asked the board to consider slowing down the process and explaining the issue to the community before seeking the legislative fix.

“The hallmark of good governance is transparency,” said Kevin Boylan, “and I think we have failed in this one. Given the fact that this has been an issue for many years, I’d never suggest this is the best thing to do.” He also suggesting slowing things down.

Kevin Pearce, meanwhile, said he totally agreed with the board’s decision, “This is not a ramming through of some sort of bill, this is a placeholder for a two-year process where we can then get community support,” he said.

“So I would appreciate you continuing on the path of seeking latent powers,” said Pearce.
“I think we overwhelmingly elected Dr. Barke to bring these types of opportunities to the community,” said Rossmoor resident Angie Epstein. “This (meeting) doesn’t mean we have committed or signed anything,” she said, adding that “I support local control over our services.”

Another resident suggested even if the special meeting with Nguyen was properly noticed, there was still insufficient community outreach about it. One resident even chided the board for misinforming residents about the Nguyen bill itself, saying state records indicated that it was filed three days before the “special meeting” even took place.
Nevertheless, the board heard a dozen or so speakers, both in person and over Zoom, and who each made similar arguments. Those angry about meeting protested more about the process than the legislation.

Administrative Assistant Liz Deering told the board the district was now working with its IT partners to develop a variety of new messaging apps and email options to better inform district residents.

Although the board took no action at its regular meeting, General Manager Joe Mendoza said later that President Barke and Assemblywoman Nguyen had spoken and agreed to withdraw the bill for the current session while the RCSD refines the specific language of the bill and shares it with the community.

That news brought quick praise from the Rossmoor Homeowner’s Association.
“The Rossmoor Homeowners Association applauds the decision to delay the process by a year. RHA asked in a board approved resolution that the process be delayed, not because RHA necessarily opposes enhanced powers but because RCSD had not yet gained broad consensus in the community before moving forward,” the organization said in a statement.

“We hope that the delay allows RCSD to develop a well thought out plan that can explain why enhanced powers will make the community a better place and how the district would handle and pay for the additional administrative workload of contracting out the services. Once it gains strong community support, it can move forward on a stronger footing,” the statement concluded.

In other March action, the RCSD board;
• Learned from OC Animal Care Services that because of many complaints about unleashed dogs, regular patrols would begin in the parks.
• Heard from Mendoza that the district could soon have a geographic information system to digitally pinpoint every traffic safety asset in the community.
• Adopted an interim budget resolution that indicates the district could, despite COVID, end up with a $170,000 surplus.