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Poway Water Crisis Turning Into Political Football

Lakeside Water District Board Member Frank Hilliker speaks at a news conferen...

Photo by Mike Damron / KPBS

Above: Lakeside Water District Board Member Frank Hilliker speaks at a news conference on Dec. 10, 2019, accusing Poway Mayor Steve Vaus of being slow to react to the city's water crisis.

The water in Poway is safe to drink — this after stormwater contaminated the city’s water supply forcing people to turn off their taps for a week. But now a political battle is brewing.

"As elected officials, we need to step up and hold our colleagues accountable," said Lakeside Water District Board Member Frank Hilliker. "The mishandling of the Poway contamination incident eroded the confidence of the public of all our water boards."

Board members from the Lakeside and Otay Water Districts laid the blame on Poway Mayor Steve Vaus during a news conference Tuesday.

"The buck stops with the mayor of Poway and he was slow to react," Hilliker said.

A state water official last week found Poway was out of compliance with regulations that say storm drains should not be connected to treated water. However, while the city was under its boil water advisory and residents were told not to drink the water, Vaus seemed to send a different message.

RELATED: Week After Contamination, Poway Boil-Water Advisory Lifted

Reported by Matt Hoffman , Video by Mike Damron

"We continually have great test results," he said last week while testing was underway. "I’m drinking the water, we need to get this lifted."

Hilliker says Vaus spoke too soon.

"Making these irresponsible comments prior to final testing results was reckless," Hilliker said. "Elected officials should always err on the side of caution."

The group criticizing Vaus calls themselves the "East County Clean Water Coalition."

"We’re very loosely formed and we just kind of hangout sometimes and talk about water issues," Hilliker said.

Most of the group's members have endorsed Joel Anderson, a former state legislator from East County and Vaus’s opponent in the race for Dianne Jacob's supervisorial seat in the 2020 election. Hilliker denied that the press conference was a political attack on Vaus.

"We’re talking about public safety and we’re talking about clean water," he said.

Poway City Councilman Barry Leonard is not buying it.

"Let's go to motive — why would water people from east county come to Poway to talk about a problem that we’ve already solved — and why would they mention the mayor time and time again?" Leonard said. "It’s politically motivated and it’s just not right."

Vaus did not respond to multiple calls for comment from KPBS.

RELATED: Poway Businesses Hurting In Midst Of Water Crisis

Anderson himself has attacked Vaus over the Poway water contamination. He claimed the mayor was ignoring the health and safety of Poway residents.

"Vaus has turned Poway into a third-world country where the safety of water is in question," Anderson said in a news release on Dec. 1.

In addition to Hilliker, the "East County Water Coalition" said its members include Steve Robak and Steve Johnson with the Lakeside Water District, Mark Robak with the Otay Water District and DeAna Verbeke with the Helix Water District.

Of those five members, four have endorsed Anderson. When asked if he should have disclosed that information, Hilliker said it was beside the point.

"How is that relevant to public safety?" he said.

Hilliker also said Anderson did not ask them to be there and the group was not calling for Vaus to resign.

RELATED: Poway To Be Cited For Faulty Reservoir System That Contributed To Water Contamination

Councilman Leonard said the group is simply trying to capitalize on a crisis and embarrass the city.

"Today’s dog-and-pony show was not about dirty water — it was about dirty politics."

A spokesman for Anderson said he did not know about the group's news conference Tuesday.

Listen to this story by Matt Hoffman.

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Matt Hoffman
General Assignment Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI am a general assignment reporter for KPBS. In addition to covering the latest news and issues that are relevant to the San Diego community, I like to dig deeper to find the voices and perspectives that other media often miss.

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