For longtime local attorney Dennis Mullins, life was a banquet of knowledge and one of his greatest joys was filling himself up so he could help others.
He was well-known for his ability to pare down and communicate complex issues, often in memorable ways.
Most recently, Mullins, who served as chairman of the Kern Groundwater Authority, didn’t mince words when water districts submitted numbers showing an unbelievably small groundwater overdraft.
“These kinds of phony numbers won’t work,” Mullins told the 16 members of the authority.
That could not have been easy to say to a group representing some of the most powerful agricultural interests in Kern County. But Mullins didn’t flinch.
“There were moments when he could be intense,” said his wife, Melanie Mullins. “But it was always with a purpose.”
And it worked. Water districts tucked their tails and submitted far more realistic, if dismal, numbers showing Kern’s groundwater is being overdrafted by about 300,000 acre-feet a year.
“Holding that group of farmers and water districts together on this groundwater issue was huge for him,” Melanie said. “He really cared about this community. And he wanted what was right for everyone.”
Mullins died suddenly on Wednesday. He was 67.
“Oh, he leaves a giant hole,” said longtime friend Dennis Atkinson, who worked with Mullins for many years at Tejon Ranch. “He did a phenomenal job on the Groundwater Authority. He provided a lot of adult supervision. He was a pretty quiet guy but when he said something, you better listen, because he hit the nail on the head.”
Others agreed, remarking on Mullins’ keen intellect and wide knowledge base.
“He could be very intimidating as a director. You really had to know your stuff when you talked to him,” said Sheridan Nicholas, engineer-manager for Wheeler Ridge-Maricopa Water Storage District where Mullins served as a director representing Tejon since 1997.
“He had the innate ability to get to the bottom of issues and talk clearly and to the point.”
“CEO function” was how Harry Starkey described Mullins’ style. Starkey is the former general manager of West Kern Water District and now director of water resources development for Hallmark Group Capital Program Management.
“He was a very important voice for Kern County water. On groundwater, yes, but he was also involved in the California WaterFix and affordability of water for ag.”
And, Starkey said, he was fearless.
“He called out the water districts and went on record about the overdraft. That took courage to speak the truth and, at the same time, move people toward the answer.”
That was always his goal, Melanie Mullins said, to move toward truth.
“He was very thoughtful and respectful. He knew his words and chose them well. He could talk to anybody about anything and pull them together.”
Mullins had retired from Klein DeNatale Goldner just a few months ago and was looking forward to getting a master’s degree in religion so he could begin his next career — teaching.
“He was calling this his sabbatical year so he could travel and wind down and then gear up for his next career,” Melanie said Thursday. “He was a good teacher. In our Bible study, people listened and took heart to what he had to share. And they would always ask for more.”
Mullins grew up in Alameda. He went on to earn his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School at Ann Arbor and was admitted to the California State Bar in 1978.
Melanie said he also passed the District of Columbia Bar and kept both licenses active.
He first went to work for the Reagan administration helping to choose judges for appointments “at just 30 years old,” Melanie said.
He later worked in the George H.W. Bush administration for the General Services Administration.
After Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton in 1992, Mullins came back to California where he took the job with Tejon in the early 1990s.
In March 1996, Mullins and his first wife, Joanne, adopted their daughter, Anna, from Russia.
“He was so excited about that,” recalled friend Dennis Atkinson.
Then, in 2001, Joanne was in a car accident that triggered an aggressive form of Parkinson's disease, Anna Mullins said. She died in 2005.
Mullins moved to Bakersfield to raise Anna and began work as a land transaction attorney for Klein DeNatale Goldner.
Years later, Atkinson introduced him to Melanie. “They went to coffee, hit it off, got married (in 2016) and I’ve never seen two happier people,” he said.
Mullins is survived by his wife, Melanie, daughter Anna, two stepdaughters and two grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 11 a.m. Nov. 16 at Trinity Anglican Church.