By Mike Allen
May 21, 2023 (Santee) -- Laura Koval is retiring from her regular job as director of the Santee Lakes park, but says she’s keeping her part-time job on the Santee City Council. In fact, she’s announced she intends to run again for the seat in 2024.
Working has been part of her life since she was a youngster. Beginning at the tender age of 17 as an usher for the San Diego Padres and continuing to her current job that will end next month, Koval has worn many different hats. But one she still wears proudly today has SD on it.
Koval, 58, worked for the Padres for 26 years, including during the team’s only two World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998.
“It was magical,” says Koval about the 1984 season. “No one in the country expected us to beat the Cubs, and the town was electric….I still get goosebumps when I think about Steve Garvey’s home run (a walk-off win that propelled the Pads to beat the Chicago Cubs in the fifth and final game and win its first National League pennant.)
Fourteen years later, Koval was working in a much better job as a supervisor at the team’s ticket office, and witnessed yet another World Series, providing her and the rest of the franchise’s employees with fond memories of winning a second NL pennant.
Alas, a better club in the New York Yankees (some say among the best in history) swept the Pads in four games in 1998. But Koval says she had lot of fun, and met some truly amazing people at that job, including the team’s incomparable superstar Tony Gwynn, the late Mr. Padre.
What’s also amazing is how Koval found the energy to do her Padres job while working as the director for the Boys and Girls Clubs of East County, first in El Cajon and later in Santee. Some nights at the ballpark, night games didn’t end until close to midnight, and she had to get up to make her other job by 7 a.m.
For the past 11 years, Koval has been employed at Padre Dam Municipal Water District, the agency that owns Santee Lakes, arguably the city’s main tourist attraction.
It’s not the kind of job for those who prefer the 9-5 grind. “We’re open seven days a week, and my phone is always on,” she says. During the interview, as if on cue, a park visitor banged on her office’s door telling her about a hive of bees nearby that could be problematic.
In 2018, Koval took her working life to another level when she ran for Santee City Council in District 3, beating two other candidates for what was only a two-year term. In 2020, her political skills were so evident that nobody challenged her, saving her a lot of time and money.
When you count the hours for her director’s job and on the Santee City Council, Koval says she easily averages about 80 per week. In the latter position, she serves as a member or alternate on a variety of countywide and regional committees so she’s moving around quite a bit. For her full -time job, she’s required to attend two meetings a month when the Padre Dam board meets. Then on the City Council, there are also twice monthly meetings as well as all those committee gatherings.
That heavy workload often kept Koval and her husband, J.P., from going on any extended vacations. “There were a lot of things that we’d love to do, and I had to say no because of work,” she said.
Koval is a trooper, no doubt about it, but her tenacity was sorely tested during the pandemic when everything, including Santee Lakes, was shut down about the same time she was recuperating from several major and minor surgeries.
When she got better, she put together plans that kept Santee Lakes afloat, and offset the heavy losses from not being open for so many weeks.
Besides figuring out how to maintain the park during the pandemic, Koval says she’s most proud about the $9 million project that entailed reconstruction of the administration building, the general store, kitchen and dining deck over Lake 5.
The enhancements completed a few years ago made Santee Lakes, already a beautiful place, even nicer.
“The three things we focus on is safety, cleanliness, and customer service,” she said. “In the park and rec world we’re known as the Disneyland of parks because you do feel safe…A lot of our heavy users are seniors and parents with young kids.”
As for possible changes, Koval says once the Advanced Water Treatment plant is up and running (the $1 billion project converting sewage to potable water for East County) you may see paddle boarding on the lakes, but that’ll be up to the new director and Padre Dam’s board.
Having a hand in creating policies that helped small businesses survive during the pandemic is something Koval says she’s proud about. “There was a lot of reading, and things were very dynamic….and I was able to help guide business on how they could re-open,” she said.
Another big win was helping to achieve independence for the Santee Lakeside Emergency Medical Services from San Diego County. The area needed to expand ambulance services to handle a huge uptick in calls, and while the fire chiefs of the respective departments had major roles, “it also took the work of an elected official,” she said.
So what’s on tap once she’s able to sleep in later, and cut back on at least some of all those meetings? Koval reveals, “We’re going to travel to Ireland and Scotland!”