Commentary: Why Huntington Beach Shouldn’t Partner with Costa Mesa

By Gus Ayer
Special to the Voice

A press release from the city of Costa Mesa announced that “The neighboring cities of Costa Mesa, Newport Beach and Huntington Beach will formally explore the viability of combining five municipal services to improve efficiency and save taxpayer dollars” on (police) Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) services; lifeguard services; jail services; animal control services; and police and fire dispatch services.

The press release announced that “Management Partners, Inc. has been contracted to prepare a study. Each city will pay a third of the $81,675 fee.”

Like much of the official news from Costa Mesa, it had a few problems.

None of the three city councils had actually approved a contract to spend money on this study, but the item will be on the Huntington Beach City Council agenda for Aug. 1, the Voice has learned.

So the public will have an opportunity to ask questions.

We don’t need to argue about the idea of combining services. We already have numerous successful models for sharing service between cities, and it is long established that some services are more effective when handled by private contractors. All 34 cities in Orange County are exploring better ways to deliver services at multiple levels and the collapse in revenues during the Great Recession has brought new urgency to the discussions.

We can even set aside the fact that Costa Mesa has been declared ground zero in a war between ideological extremists and the public employees unions, despite the fact that nobody in the city wanted to be on a bloody battleground.

Instead, let’s focus on a more significant question. Why would any city want to partner with Costa Mesa on a study right now?  Sure, take their money to provide helicopter services, but trust them to provide accurate information and make a good decision? The question can be answered by focusing on four areas.

Lack of Senior Management
Costa Mesa has a management crisis. Of all the senior managers for the city, only one, the public works director, has been in place for more than six months. Their city manager retired in March and an assistant was promoted. Their long-time city attorney was replaced at the same time.  A new police chief was just hired from a support staff position in Newport Beach. Their finance director, fire chief, assistant city manager, development services director, and human resources manager are all temps. Staff positions like fire marshal are vacant. The city is eliminating the position of emergency medical services coordinator and other key positions are empty.

Who at the Costa Mesa Fire Department will evaluate the needs for dispatch services?

Ineffectiveness of the City Council
In March, Costa Mesa announced that it would send preliminary layoff notices to hundreds of employees while they studied outsourcing 18 different departments.

Four months into the process, the city was smacked down by a judge and ordered into a court trial. More important, the council seriously underestimated the amount of work that would be involved in analyzing services and preparing requests for proposals to outsource services. Although they have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on attorneys and consultants, they haven’t completed a single proposal request.

One study for a proposal to outsource Costa Mesa’s fire department to the Orange County Fire Authority cost $25,000 and took over a year to make. The majority members of the Costa Mesa City Council obviously hadn’t done their homework, had to ask more questions, and postponed any decision until they could get quotes from neighboring cities.

Much of the problem is related to the lack of experienced management and the huge number of requests that inexperienced Council Members Righeimer and Mensinger keep heaping onto city staff.

Does the Costa Mesa listen to its consultants?
Costa Mesa hired Management Partners to evaluate their police staffing. Their team of experts included the former Police Chief in Brea, Mike Messina, a veteran cop with more than 35 years in law enforcement to his credit.  They produced a report that suggested a minimum number of 136 sworn officers.  The council arbitrarily budgeted for 125 permanent positions, choosing to throw money at privately-owned alleys rather than to fund public safety.

In response, their acting police chief, Steve Staveley, resigned in disgust, sending a sharply worded letter.

Some excerpts:

It is safe to say that the council majority – does not know more about the subject of leadership, or leading police departments or serving as an elected than do I – and yet they do not listen, they do not understand and continue to blunder along in complete ignorance and incompetence….

I say that they (council majority) are destroying this police department with their incompetence and that means only one thing. The community building efforts that this department has invested in for many years will stop and the community will begin to deteriorate. No community can stand still and no community can grow and build itself without suitable police services. The cause of justice cannot flourish without those same services and this council has and continues to undermine this agency ability to do its job and for political and in some cases personal reasons – biases and even personal and individual animosity. As I have noted above, they attempt to meddle in routine department affairs for personal benefit and frankly several of them are rude and ill mannered and frequently boorish.

Ability to follow through on commitments
Even if Costa Mesa were able to provide accurate information and reach an agreement, would it be able to follow through? Let’s look at just one of the five areas – combining SWAT services. Will Costa Mesa be able to honor any commitments that it might make?

As its revenues plummeted during the Great Recession, Costa Mesa went from a contingent of 164 sworn officers to 140 sworn officers, and now its city council is shrinking that to 125.  Costa Mesa is losing some of its best trained and most experienced officers, exactly the ones you might want on a SWAT team. Rank and file police officers, tired of the abuse, have been interviewing with other agencies.  The process isn’t quick, but as the interviews and background checks are processed, Costa Mesa is now losing one police officer a week to other cities.

How will Costa Mesa play its part on a combined SWAT team if they can’t hold onto their experienced police officers?

For all these reasons, we need to ask the Huntington Beach City Council why it would ever want to partner with Costa Mesa.

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Meat Lovers Guide to a Friendlier Climate Change Diet

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Voice

A plant based diet beats a traditional meat based diet hands down when it comes to trimming one’s contribution to greenhouse gases, but not everyone is willing to plunge headlong into a life of tofu dogs and bean burgers.

No doubt there are even plenty self proclaimed vegetarians out there who guiltily sneak in some fried chicken, pork chops or a tuna melt from time to time and face self-recriminations afterward for satisfying such cravings at the expense of a warming planet.

The good news for either lapsed vegetarians or meat eaters with an environmental conscience is that meats and dairy products are not all created equal when it comes to the quantity of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced. In fact, a study just released by the non profit organization Environmental Working Group (EWG) and titled “Meat Eater’s Guide to Climate Change + Health” reveals that by avoiding just the three worst GHG offenders – lamb, beef and cheese – even hardcore meat eaters can make a sizable dent in their diet’s climate change footprint.

EWG, in partnership with CleanMetrics, an environmental analysis firm, examined the “cradle to grave” lifecycle, from farm to retail to plate to disposal, of 20 popular foods in four categories – meats, fish, dairy and vegetable protein – and compared the GHG produced by each. Continue reading Meat Lovers Guide to a Friendlier Climate Change Diet

Time to Air Your Clean Laundry in Public

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Voice

Under a loosely-worded Huntington Beach “nuisance” code ordinance, a clothesline could be considered a public nuisance if “unsightly by reason of its condition or location.” A resident’s complaint would trigger assessment by a code enforcement officer who would determine whether a clothesline was in violation. Editor

During the Leave It to Beaver era of the late 1950s, most homes certainly had a clothesline and probably no one thought much about whether it offended their neighbors. It’s a safe assumption that June Cleaver, the perfect homemaker, would have taken issue with anyone even hinting her clothesline was an eyesore.

Then fast forward a half century to the present where the majority of Americans have abandoned the clothesline in favor of electric or gas dryers and homeowners associations (HOAs) routinely prohibit clotheslines or impose such restrictions as to effectively ban them. One can only guess what June would have said to that, even absent her knowing about the threats from global climate change and the pressing need to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Few today will dispute that tossing a load of wet clothes into a clothes dryer is more convenient than pinning up clothes, one by one, and surveys confirm that most people living in communities governed by HOAs have no problem abiding by the restrictions on clotheslines from the standpoint of curb appeal or property values.

However, interest in reducing the oversized energy footprint of Americans – twice that of people living in the European Union – has given rise in a handful of states to so-called “right-to-dry” laws that rein in restrictions HOAs or other entities can impose on residents’ freedom to use clotheslines. California is not among them, however, despite its sunny weather and reputation for environmental progressiveness. Continue reading Time to Air Your Clean Laundry in Public

Commentary: Three Stooges Take Over Huntington Beach City Council

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Have we got a great show for you?

Hell yes!

Welcome to the Huntington Beach City Council/Three Stooges Comedy Hour.

First, there’s the crowd’s favorite, (Curly with hair) Joe Shaw, the council member who loves to be melodramatic and thinks it is his right to speak out of turn at council meetings whenever his feelings get hurt, which is pretty often.

Second, there’s (Moe without hair) Don Hansen, the council bully who thinks that he is 1) the mayor (he’s actually the mayor pro tem); and, 2) that he is smarter than everyone else. He has the social conscience and testosterone level of Napoleon Bonaparte, William F. Buckley and Sen. Joseph McCarthy combined. Watch out for his sarcasm, condescension, and scary glares.

Third, there’s (Larry) Devin Dwyer, the council member who thinks that being a brat, using potty language and insulting the city attorney, who has ten times his intellect, is witty and funny. Just like a little school boy seeking attention, he loves to brag about his childish misdeeds with that trying-so-hard-to-be-cute (gag me with a spoon, please) grin of his. Continue reading Commentary: Three Stooges Take Over Huntington Beach City Council

Dead in the Water? Requested Subsidy for Surf City Desal Project Stirs Debate

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

What is the future of seawater desalination in California?

As of 2006, 22 desalination plants had been proposed for construction along the California coast between San Rafael in the north to Carlsbad in the south. Today, only nine projects are still in the running, and even those are on shaky ground, according to an analysis by the Desal Response Group, a statewide organization generally opposed to ocean desalination.

Critics of ocean desalination (desal) say that the water industry’s dream — shared with evangelical zeal by a growing cabal of public water officials — of sprinkling the coast with desalination plants is dead in the water.

As proof, they point to spiraling costs, lack of financing, stalled technology, and higher than average water supplies after the end of the California “drought.” They say that there are underutilized and much more cost-efficient alternatives such as conservation, increased water collection and waste water recycling – minus seawater desal’s high environmental costs.

That’s why desal critics are upset after a June 6 vote by the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) to send a letter to its umbrella agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Los Angeles County (MET), to request $350 million in funding support for the Huntington Beach Desalination Project that Poseidon Resources Inc. wants to build on Pacific Coast Highway and Newland Avenue.

At an estimated construction cost of $700 (according to a recent Costal Commission analysis), the plant would produce 50 million gallons a day or 56,000 acre feet per year of drinking water, 8 percent of Orange County’s supply. The plant would share the seawater intake pipes currently used for cooling by the AES power generating plant.

Poseidon wants to build a nearly identical desal plant in Carlsbad in San Diego County.

The proposed taxpayer-funded subsidy, says the letter, which was written June 23 and obtained by the Voice, would help MWDOC’s agencies to “defray” the high cost of desalinated water—which is generally two to four times higher than other sources.

The subsidy would go through MWDOC’s agencies which would in turn pay it directly to Poseidon over 25 years at $14 million per year in return for water delivered.

Largely funded by taxpayers outside of Orange County who won’t use the water, the subsidy would artificially lower the cost of Poseidon’s desalinated water, which would still probably not be competitive with the cost of water from other sources, including imported water. Desal advocates say that technological improvements for desalination and rising costs of imported water will cause prices to crisscross in the near future, but those improvements show no signs of arriving soon, if ever.

A pro-industry report published in 2004 by the federal government concluded that the invention of cost effective desal technology would require a huge influx of government subsidies to fund the research and development that the industry is lax in doing itself. Even then, it would take over 20 years to make seawater desal competitive, the report estimated.

Without huge public subsidies, Poseidon cannot attract the private investors and get permission to pass tax free bonds also needed to finance the construction of its Huntington Beach plant. To the point, without subsidies—and based on past experience $350 million would not be nearly enough—Poseidon’s HB plant will be out of business.

That is exactly the scenario that played out last year for Poseidon’s proposed desalination plant at Carlsbad in San Diego County. It would be nearly identical in size and type and has received all of the necessary permits but stalled due to lack of financing and increased cost projections for the price of its water.

As reported last June by the Voice, a memo from the city manager Peter A. Weiss of Oceanside, one of nine water San Diego County agencies that had signed water purchasing agreements with Poseidon at that time, pointed out that Poseidon would need $630 million in government financial assistance.

Scott Maloni of Poseidon Resources Inc.
Poseidon's VP Scott Maloni says the debate is over. Photo: Arturo Tolenttino

“In the past few months it has become apparent that Poseidon’s cost of water is going to be greater than originally proposed,” Weiss wrote. “To make the project viable, Poseidon needs subsidies from the San Diego County Water Authority (CWA) and Metropolitan Water District.”

But $630 million was too much money and a lawsuit filed by the city of Carlsbad against the MET had effectively canceled the larger of the two subsidies anyway. So the CWA decided that the only way to keep the project alive was by spreading the costs to all 26 of its member water agencies rather than the original nine with options to buy the desal plant from Poseidon later on.

That’s exactly the same arrangement that MWDOC will seek for the Huntington Beach plant, according to MWDOC’s General Manager, Kevin Hunt.

With MET’s subsidy to the CWA now off the books, Hunt decided that now is a good time for MWDOC to put a claim on the $350 million on behalf of its 28 agencies. So far, not a single one of them has signed on to buy Poseidon’s water, but Hunt believes that, since the MET will be looking at budget priorities next year, now is a good time to make the request.

The subsidy has always been the 1,000 pound gorilla in the room, although previous Huntington Beach city councils and the mainstream media chose to ignore it. But after years of project delays that were mostly self inflicted, and as the time comes for Poseidon to fish or cut bait, the company’s appetite for public assistance can no longer be hidden and has become a sore spot for the god of the sea.

But before voting to approve and mail the letter that it had not read, the board gave instructions to spin the subsidy from the publicly financed project that it is into the 100 percent privately funded project that Poseidon and supporters have always bragged it is.

Director Brett Barbre, representing parts of northern Orange County, started the impromptu skit, asking Hunt:

Does the $250 [per acre foot] go to Poseidon?

Hunt: No.

Barbre: Or does it go to the water district?

Hunt: The $250 goes to the water authority and its member agencies.

Barbre: Those that are actually purchasing the water?

Hunt: Whenever there is a subsidy, it goes to the public agency, not to the –

Barbre: It’s a big distinction.

Member Susan Hinman from south Orange County wanted and received assurance that Barbre’s spin would be applied to the letter before it was sent. “I feel uncomfortable about this,” she said. “I don’t see a copy of the letter and is there any reason why this can’t be delayed until the next committee meeting with a copy of the letter with the wording that you’re expressing,” she asked Hunt.

But Hunt’s other reason for rushing the letter through is to help Poseidon, which is years behind in answering basic questions put to it by the Coastal Commission, to “get the ball rolling.” Three to six months more for needed staff meetings with the MET would occur before the issue is placed on the agenda for vote, Hunt said.

Jack Foley, MWDOC’s appointed representative to the MET, concurred with the need to create confidence in Poseidon’s project by showing the Coastal Commission and investors that the company’s Surf City desal plant “has a real future” with actual water to sell.

When challenged on the real reason for the subsidy—to attract construction money—Foley stuck to the official story, that it will merely assure investors that there is a buyer for the project over the long term, denying the board’s own admission (in its soon to be sent letter) that the money was needed to defray the [highly uncompetitive] cost of Poseidon’s water.

The subsidy’s true purpose has been an open secret for a decade, but a report last year by the DC Bureau – based on interviews with government and Poseidon officials – spelled out in detail how the previously approved but now revoked subsidy for Poseidon’s identical Carlsbad desal project would have directly benefited the company by reimbursing it, at the company’s request, for construction costs plus interest.

Of course, Poseidon vice president Scott Maloni, who was at the meeting, still boasts that the HB desal plant is a privately funded project and is badly needed by the people of Orange County as part of a larger water portfolio – assertions that Orange County water officials accept as articles of faith.

“I feel like these folks are reopening old debates that have been solved years ago and it’s nothing to do with what’s on the table today,” Maloni told the board, responding to audience members, including this reporter, who challenged his assumptions. “They know that the project is needed…There’s no debate about whether the project is needed. And there’s no debate about how the MET subsidy works.”

In the second and final part of Dead in the Water on Wednesday: Is Poseidon’s proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant needed?