El Reno and COWRA – Is being a good neighbor worth $100,000?

By Ray Dyer

A few years ago the El Reno City Council bristled over the fact the Central Oklahoma Water Resources Authority was paying its lobbyist more than 90 percent of its entire operating budget.

At the time, Mayor Matt White was serving as El Reno’s representative on the COWRA board. He called the lobbyist payment ridiculous. The majority on the Council agreed and El Reno, along with Union City and Piedmont, dropped its membership in the authority.

After these communities dropped out, COWRA leadership voted in a new policy that would require “past dues” be paid if any of the defecting, or “original” communities ever wanted to come back into the organization.

Last week it became clear that El Reno is on its way to rejoining COWRA. Apparently, a payment plan has been worked out so El Reno can take care of the “past dues” that COWRA says total $104,360.

“There is no doubt the reason why we are in the position we are in is due to some political influence on the decisions that were made by the city,” City Manager Tony Rivera told the COWRA board. “That has changed,” he added.

Indeed it has.

Rivera was referring to the change that has come about because of a City Council election.

Rivera was accompanied to the COWRA meeting by El Reno Vice Mayor Jim Archer, who said he was there to “support my manager.”

Tony Rivera must feel like stretch-o-man. One Council pulls him this way, another comes along and pulls him the other way. But don’t worry for Rivera, he’s a seasoned professional and has dealt with this job hazard that comes with serving the public, probably in every town in which he has served.

But El Reno taxpayers might want to be concerned with the eagerness our elected leaders seem to have about spending money just so they can basically be considered good neighbors.  This neighborliness certainly wasn’t reciprocated when Yukon and Mustang both declined membership in the Central Oklahoma Regional Development group that El Reno has helped spearhead.

As for COWRA, for years this group has chased every water rainbow its members can think of in an effort to create or find a secure water source, mostly for Yukon and Mustang. Most of this is driven by eastern Canadian County’s desire not to be controlled by Oklahoma City. A bit odd, since Oklahoma City has probably the largest geographic footprint in the county.

Over the years, COWRA has looked at building a billion-dollar pipeline from southern Oklahoma to Canadian County. Turns out the folks around the Ada area weren’t amused and come to find out they have as many representatives at the state Capitol as we do.

Early on the talk was about building a lake on the South Canadian River. Wouldn’t work. And there has been talk of partnering with Oklahoma City to pipe water from Sardis Lake in far southeastern Oklahoma. That idea appears it may be locked up in court for years if not decades.

So that brings us to today. The plan now is to build a brackish water desalination plant somewhere, inside Canadian County or outside. An engineering firm has been hired to find a source of water, one would think this would be limited to water rights already controlled by COWRA members. Otherwise, rights will have to be purchased. One would also think this water source needs to be brackish, otherwise we won’t need to build a plant to de-brackish it.

If a water source is found, that bright light coming out of the east won’t necessarily be the sun coming up, no, that will be the smiles beaming from the faces of Oklahoma City bond attorneys, salivating over the chance to get a piece of the action.

The way I see it, the only person who has been smiling through all of this is lobbyist Shawn Lepard. A respected lobbyist, Lepard climbed on the COWRA train several years ago and has hung on tightly. Who could blame him?

White and the other members of the previous Council thought it was wrong to pay Lepard something in the neighborhood of $90,000 considering COWRA’s entire budget was something in the neighborhood of $96,000.

Their tantrum must have gotten the attention of COWRA, because Lepard’s annual payment was cut to somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000.

Not bad considering the Oklahoma Restaurant Association, with hundreds, maybe thousands of members, pays its lobbyist $50,000 a year, and on a really good year may kick in a $5,000 bonus.

So, good for Mr. Lepard if he can convince COWRA to pay him this kind of money for toting their imaginary divining rod. But pity us poor taxpayers, because if one lobbyist can work this kind of money magic, think what a small army of suited-up, smooth-talking bond attorneys and their consultants will be able to do.

The really strange part is El Reno has water and a treatment plant. It also is connected to Oklahoma City in case of a water emergency, something that hasn’t been needed in years since El Reno started taking better care of its water fields and treatment plant.

So why is El Reno so interested in being a member again of COWRA and paying more than $100,000 in “past dues?”

I guess it’s because nothing beats a good neighbor.

Canadian County commissioners need to get a handle on this COWRA issue. If they don’t, the recent arguments over the wind farms, I’m afraid, will pale in comparison.

How about some public forums throughout the county? The kind that was just held to discuss a possible county planning commission.

Let’s bring some neighbors, as in county taxpayers, together because what’s being discussed here could turn out to be a big, big, big dollar deal.

I can picture those smiles now.


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