Opinion – The Hometown Team Bats the Former Mayor Out of the Ball Park

It seems our former mayor, Alan Galbraith, is still smarting from losing the election in 2018 to Geoff Ellsworth and he’s pulling out all the stops, including supporting both of Ellsworth’s opponents in this year’s race with campaign contributions to both.

After seeing a letter I had written to the St. Helena Star regarding water security and which ultimately endorsed Mayor Geoff Ellsworth as the only candidate in this year’s race who was addressing some of these larger issues, Galbraith emailed me (twice!) and challenged me to defend my comments. When I didn’t respond to the first one, he emailed again. Other than the inappropriateness of these emails (and wondering how he got my email address…..other than from official correspondence I may have sent when he was mayor), what is really annoying is that I had attempted on several occasions to discuss water security issues with him when he was mayor. His response then was to blow me off with a condescending smile and broad, dismissive statements such as, “Oh, we have plenty of water.” (LAFCO has since reported otherwise.)

He might as well have said, “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, little lady.” (Ok, I took liberties with the “pretty” part.)

But this? This really is beyond the pale.

In a letter to the editor published in the St. Helena Star, Galbraith wrote, “My plea: As we move into the forthcoming municipal election, please evaluate candidates based on their qualifications, the inclusivity of their message (we are all in this together), and not on vacuous utterances rooted in purported “home town” superiority.”

First of all, it is worth noting that one of the candidates Galbraith endorsed for city council, seemed to cringe at receiving Galbraith’s endorsement. He asked the editor of the St. Helena Star to include the following with Galbraith’s endorsement letter: “Sadly, the most troubling thing for me about Alan’s endorsement is this: his time as mayor seems emblematic of the division and discord that continue to trouble us.” Indeed.

“Sadly, the most troubling thing for me about Alan’s endorsement is this: his time as mayor seems emblematic of the division and discord that continue to trouble us.”

In my mind it takes a special kind of bitterness to try to turn a message of inclusivity, one that was meant to let the people in this community know that they would be heard (those who often were ignored or dismissed by our former mayor—including other city council members) in to “home town superiority.” (Where have we heard that nasty twist of messaging before?)

There are many reasons Galbraith lost the election in 2018 and I must say a breath of fresh air filled the council chambers once Galbraith handed the gavel to Mayor Geoff Ellsworth. Meaningful conversations between the council members became more productive, instructive, and inclusive rather than dictatorial. Procedures and protocol were followed in an orderly manner without the chaos that sometimes ensued when Galbraith attempted to suppress meaningful debate or simply lost track of what was going on.

Now it appears Galbraith is trying to turn the clock back by endorsing his former Vice Mayor, Peter White, for Mayor, and (in addition to the candidate who rejected his endorsement) a relative newcomer to town for city council……citing it was because he was a “business man.” (I remember people liking George W. Bush and Trump for the same reasons. We all know how that turned out.)

But the more likely reason Galbraith endorsed this other candidate is further petty revenge, as this candidate is married to the owner of the Clover Flat Landfill who was miffed when Mayor Ellsworth questioned the safety of the landfill in its current location and made her objections to the mayor’s concerns quite public. (Indeed, fire swept through the landfill during the Glass Fire.)

I think the most troubling part about the former mayor’s quest for revenge and relevance is that it could end up doing further damage to the care, thoughtfulness, and inclusivity Mayor Ellsworth has sought to build these past two years. It also attempts to discredit Leslie Stanton, the other member of the “Hometown Team” who is a long-standing and respected member of the community. What exactly is wrong with having someone on the city council who, after serving St. Helena for the last 30-some years as the children’s librarian, wants to continue to serve to ensure that the often-forgotten voices of the families who call this their home are heard?

Leslie Stanton would be a wonderful addition to the St. Helena City Council and would serve with compassion, integrity, and a solid institutional memory. (Does anyone else know where the well is that the city dug on Adams Street years ago? Can anyone else claim they had their first kiss at the York Creek Dam? Did any of the other candidates play in the Napa River and work in the family’s vineyards as a child?)

So, let’s not go backward, but keep moving forward with a mayor who listens to all of his constituents and a council member, Leslie Stanton, who is intelligent, harbors a thirst for knowledge, and understands the needs of the families that live here and the long-time family vintners, who have worked the land here for generations, and welcomes newcomers with open arms.

To hold elected office is to serve…….and to serve ALL stakeholders. Mayor Geoff Ellsworth and Leslie Stanton truly understand this.

I have no problems at all with the Hometown Team.

— Elaine de Man

Heads up, St. Helena Water Customers!

There is a consent item on the St. Helena City Council’s Agenda for Tuesday’s meeting (October 13, 6pm) that you should be paying attention to if you are a resident of St. Helena.

As many of you know, Meadowood suffered some staggering losses during the Glass Fire, not only to its main building and restaurant, but to its water tanks, as well.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the City Council will be asked to ratify a number of professional service agreements and/ or construction contracts to include:

  • $50,000 to assess the preliminary damage and water quality assessments for the Meadowood Tanks and Bell Canyon
  • $92,000 to design permanent water infrastructure for the Meadowood Tanks
  • $100,000 for emergency fire clearing and debris removal at two of the Meadowood Tanks, the Bell Canyon Access Roads, and the water treatment plant
  • $29,987 for a rental agreement to procure 3 temporary tanks for the Meadowood area
  • $100,000 for emergency fire clearing and debris removal at the Meadowood Tanks
  • $75,000 for emergency tree removal for road access and debris clearance system- wide

Granted, this is an emergency situation and I’m sure we all mourn this loss to our greater community. But what we need to remember is that Meadowood and Madrone Knoll are not within the city limits. So, among other things, the City of St. Helena gets no benefit from the TOT, sales tax, or property taxes generated there!

So why isn’t Napa County dealing with the items related specifically to the Meadowood Tanks? After all, it is Napa County that derives the economic benefit from the taxes paid by Meadowood and the houses on Madrone Knoll, not the City of St. Helena. But, way back when, the City of St. Helena established a water agreement to deliver water to Meadowood.

In the original water agreement written in the 1960’s, Meadowood had an unlimited allocation of water from the City. That agreement was modified in the 1990’s to limit Meadowood’s allocation to 20.5 million gallons of water per year. At the same time, the City took over the ownership of the Meadowood water system. So, in exchange for a cap on how much water Meadowood could use, the City took on the expense of maintaining the Meadowood water tanks, and more.

In addition to that extraordinary expense, it also costs the City more to deliver the water, which gets there via a one-way spur from St. Helena’s main water system, to those tanks. There are also check valves in the Meadowood water line that prevent the water from recirculating back down to St. Helena’s main water system. So, the only customers who receive the benefit of that water (and this could be an important point) are the water customers at Meadowood and Madrone Knoll.

Also, because that water has to be separately pumped up to the Meadowood tanks at a higher elevation, there are additional energy expenses to get it there. Up until 2016, Meadowood was paying the city an annual $50,000 surcharge to cover that extra energy expense. But, accepting the advice of a consultant hired to work with an Ad Hoc Committee (which included then Mayor Galbraith and Vice-Mayor Peter White), and based on their interpretation of California’s Proposition 218, the Ad Hoc Committee made recommendations to the City Council (again presided over by then Mayor Galbraith and Vice-Mayor White) to abandon the annual $50,000 surcharge. And the City Council, agreed.

At that point, St Helena residents began subsidizing Meadowood and the homes on Madrone Knoll even more–again, without benefit of the TOT, sales, or property taxes collected there.

Among other things, California’s Proposition 218 addresses how municipal governments can collect user fees such as water billing service. There is a clause in the Proposition that reads:

“The amount of a fee or charge imposed upon any parcel or person as an incident of property ownership shall not exceed the proportional cost of the service attributable to the parcel”.

“What this means,” says Tom Belt, a St. Helena resident who has consulted with an attorney specializing in water law, “is that municipalities cannot charge customers for a service if a parcel/person doesn’t benefit from that service. In other words, municipalities cannot require customers who do not receive a service to share in the cost to provide the service to customers who receive the service.”

Consequently, St. Helena should not be proportionally charging those water customers within the city limits, for service that is only received, in this case, by approximately 100 Meadowood customers.

Replacing the three Meadowood water tanks has been on the city’s 5-year Capital Improvement list since 2016. At that time the projected replacement costs for the tanks was $500K. A few months ago, the city revised that cost to $900K. But now that the tanks were destroyed in the Glass Fire, our city council is being asked to approve additional funding to provide temporary water tanks for Meadowood and Madrone Knoll water customers.

According to the city council’s October 13th staff report, the city will be working on recovering those additional costs, related to fire damage, through funds from the State. But what if the City does not recover the costs? Who will get left holding the bag, so to speak?

Given that this item is on the Consent Calendar, it could get passed by the council next Tuesday without discussion. It seems that, at the very least, the resolution should state that if the city does not receive full reimbursement for theses expenses, Meadowood and Madrone Knoll customers should have to reimburse the City’s Water Enterprise Fund. The burden of delivering water to Meadowood has fallen on the other St. Helena water customers for too long.

As it is, the City may already be at risk of litigation under Proposition 218 for imposing the same water fees on those customers who do not benefit from the water delivered to the resort and the homeowners on Madrone Knoll, as they do on Meadowood. And, according to Belt, if the City Council approves the costs to replace the Meadowood water tanks out of the City’s Enterprise Account, the risk of litigation may be even greater.

“Who knows how the council will vote this Tuesday?” says Belt. “I’ve sent email messages to three of the council members asking them for their input on this issue, but so far, I have only heard back from one.”

The meeting is Tuesday. If you want your concerns heard, here are the options:

1. Send a Public Comment in by 4:00 PM on Tuesday to publiccomment@cityofsthelena.org Include in the subject line “COMMENT TO COUNCIL – AGENDA ITEM 8.4.” Any public comment submitted no later than 2 hours before the scheduled meeting will be included as an attachment to the agenda but will not be read out loud. All public comments that are received after 4:00 PM will be attached to the agenda the following day.

2. Provide your comment through the Zoom meeting from a computer, tablet, or smart phone. This option allows the public to virtually attend the meeting as a muted ‘attendee’ with no video or screen sharing capabilities. You will be able to see and hear those participating in the meeting, but they will not be able to hear you until the host unmutes you. (See The Agenda for additional information on this option.)

3. Call in to the ZOOM meeting from a cell phone or landline phone only. This option allows the member of the public with the opportunity to verbally participate in public comment. Again instructions can be found on The Agenda.

–Elaine de Man