Chris Caskey, The Union Democrat

The Tuolumne Utilities District Board of Directors could experience a serious seachange, as district voters Tuesday poured support behind four new people seeking seats on the five-person board.

Jim Grinnell, John Maciel and Kent Johnson garnered the highest number of votes among candidates seeking three four-year seats on the TUD board in Tuesday's election.

They won 6,134, 5,845 and 5,346 votes, respectively, totalling about 17.9, 17.1 and 15.6 percent, late-night results from the county Elections Office showed.

Incumbents Bob Behee and Dennis Dahlin won 4,235 (12.4 percent) and 4,722 (13.8 percent). Fellow challengers David Evans and David Axelrod trailed with 4,849 (14.2 percent) and 2,989 (8.7 percent).

Michael Sarno held a strong lead for the only two-year board seat available, besting Director Ron Ringen by a count of 7,536 to 5,871, or 56.0 to 43.6 percent.

It could be days before the election's final outcome is known. At the close of business Tuesday, the Elections Office still had about 6,800 absentee and provisional ballots needing verification and counting.

If the current results hold, it will leave Director Delbert Rotelli as the only returning board member next year.

"I think the community was tired of the ever-increasing rates and not seeing any cost reductions implemented by TUD," Sarno said.

The race has been one of the more contentious ones in the county. The candidates squared off over issues like employee pay and benefits, district infrastructure, future planning and fiscal management.

Sarno, Johnson, Grinnell - during public forums and statements throughout the campaign - regularly criticized the current TUD board over spending policies and water rates.

The incumbents regularly focused their message on the need to improve the district's aging water and sewer systems and long-term planning.

Johnson, who said he is "pleased" with the outcome, had said he would support dismantling the district and making it a for-profit enterprise if the board continued what he saw as irresponsible fiscal activities.

On Tuesday, he said one of his main goals will be to make the district work more cooperatively with businesses.

"I am very pleased to see finally there is going to be an entire new mindset coming to the board. We've accepted this difficult challenge," he said.

Multiple voters hitting the polls on Tuesday pointed to the TUD race as the most important local election.

One of those was Craig Richey, of Jamestown, who said at a polling place that he has a relative who works for the district.

Richey didn't specify which candidates he supported, though he said he would vote for who he believes "helps (the employees) out and gets them what they need" to do their job properly.

Randy Cofer, of Sonora, said he didn't support any of the incumbents because of what he called "corruption" among district leaders.

"Maybe I'm off kilter here, but the more money you make, the less you represent the people," Cofer said.

The TUD board has faced a number of issues as of late, including a new rate-increase plan approved by the board in June.

The district also faces a possible water supply issue as the state is looking to set a minimum summertime lake-level for Pinecrest Reservoir.

District officials have said the minimum level proposed by the state could lead to unpredictable water supplies during dry years, and district representatives are asking for more flexible regulations. Others, including Pinecrest leaseholders and some environmental voices, want TUD to focus on conservation and the state to enforce a set summertime lake level.

The board also is developing a long-term plan for managing the open, unlined ditch system, which most agree is inefficient but is also seen as a recreational and historical resource to many residents. TUD is the largest special district in the county, providing water, sewer or both services to about 44,000 customers. The district maintains a wastewater treatment plant, the county's raw water conveyance ditch system and runs myriad water treatment plants.

District directors set policies for the district's staff, approve budgets and plan for future projects. They receive vision and dental benefits and some reimbursements for expenses as compensation.

Maciel, who has been a regular face and voice at TUD meetings, said should the results hold, he's excited to work with the board to make it as fiscally prudent and cost-effective as possible.

"I hope to do the best I can to make sure things will be transparent and open," he said.

Grinnell could not be reached by late Tuesday.