By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Following recent revelations by the Surf City Voice that one of MWDOC’s own failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars of consulting income and voted on projects that could affect his wife’s business, Director Brett Barbre is proposing a novel change in policy designed to prevent conflicts of interest by the agency’s staff and public officials.
Barbre’s proposal would have the MWDOC (Municipal Water District of Orange County) board
“I believe we need to police ourselves,” Barbre said, in an e-mail to the Voice.
California’s Political Reform Act requires public officials to report income and to disclose possible conflicts of interest prior to voting and to recuse themselves when a conflict is determined to exist. And Govt. Code 1090 prohibits public officials from holding a financial interest in any contract made by “any [government] body or board of which they are members.”
But efforts to prevent conflicts of interest by local public officials traditionally have consisted, at best, of legal advice such as city attorneys often give at city council meetings and that relies upon the prior and presumably honest disclosures of public officials.
As first reported by the Surf City Voice, John V. Foley, MWDOC’s appointed representative on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), failed to report an estimated minimum of $248,000 of income his wife, Mary Jane Foley, earned as a consultant from various southern California water districts, including MWDOC and the MWD.
His wife’s consulting work mostly involved permitting, regulatory and promotional issues related to a proposed Dana Point ocean desalination plant and ocean desalination in general.
Foley is currently chairman of MWD’s 37-member board of directors. He can vote only on items before that body but attends MWDOC board meetings and partakes in discussions by that body.
The $248,000 income estimate, which the Voice as since revised to $218,000 after reviewing newly acquired invoice records for 2005, does not include his wife’s other previously unreported income from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and several private water related companies going back to 2004. Nor did the estimate include another $15,000 of income that John Foley earned as a consultant but also did not report—also recently disclosed by the Surf City Voice.
Foley’s wife, Mary Jane Foley, who owns MJF Consulting, was paid as a subcontractor under a contract between Byron Buck Associates and five water agencies, including MWDOC, West Basin (Redondo Beach), City of Long Beach, San Diego Water Authority and MWD, the first four of which are involved directly in ocean desalination projects.
The contract was facilitated by the MWD and ran between 2006 and 2009 with a $125,000 limit, almost $109,000 of which was paid out including about $45,000 that went to MJF Consulting.
The contract stipulated a minimum number of hours and income for Foley’s wife for ocean desalination related permitting and regulatory work as well as for efforts toward forming a state wide desalination lobbying group to be named CalDesal, public documents obtained by the Voice show.
MWD sells water to other water agencies throughout southern California, including MWDOC, serving 19 million people, and is the largest water wholesaler in the world, according to MWDOC General Manager Kevin Hunt.
MWD exerts considerable influence over water programs and policies throughout its jurisdiction.
As MWD chairman, Foley appoints all members of all standing committees as well as chair persons for special committees for that body. Prior to becoming chairman of the board, he was a member of MWD’s Committee on Desalination and Recycling and later became chairman of the Special Committee on Desalination and Recycling.
MWD records show that on at least four occasions since 2005 Foley voted on ocean desalination issues related to his wife’s consulting contracts with MWDOC and other water agencies:
1) June 28, 2005, as a member of the Committee on Desalination and Recycling, Foley voted for MWD to enter into agreements to financially support ocean desalination projects for four water southern California water districts, including MWDOC;
2) July 12, 2005, Foley voted for the same proposal at a regular meeting of the MWD board;
3) Nov. 10, 2009, Foley voted for the MWD to provide a subsidy of $350 million that would benefit an ocean desalination project in the San Diego Water District, one of five districts contracting with Byron Buck Associates (the last payment of which was made Oct. 15, 2009).
4) June 8, 2010, Foley voted to have MWD become a member of CalDesal, an ocean desalination lobbying group that his wife helped to form, for a cost of $5,000 per year.
Foley also regularly opines on the topic of ocean desalination at MWD and MWDOC meetings. For example, as reported previously in the Voice, at June 6 MWDOC meeting Foley advocated for a MWD letter of support and $350 million subsidy that would assist Poseidon Resources Inc. to acquire financing for its proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant.
“I am proposing that in April, following the filing everyone’s Form 700, the MWDOC Board will review the form 700s for all MWDOC directors, MWD directors, and all staff, to determine and certify that, to the best of our knowledge, there are no conflicts of interest,” Barbre informed the Voice by e-mail last Thursday. “We will compare 700s against a list of all active contracts at MWDOC,” he added.
Former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, who has conducted her own investigations of local water districts and advocates for greater transparency, concurred with Barbre’s call for MWDOC to police itself.
Cook stressed that disclosure laws and regulations are not meant to embarrass public officials.
“Every public agency should be policing its own officials for potential conflicts of interest,” she told the Voice. “It contributes toward improving public trust and it protects individuals who may not otherwise be aware of a conflict.”
Barbre, who was first elected to the board in 2000, is the only MWDOC board member in the past year to proactively call for greater board transparency—sometimes to the chagrin of fellow board members and staff, who have generally been reluctant to support placing expense reports online and video streaming board meetings from the MWDOC web site.
“I have been fighting staff on this one,” Barbre said, adding that he has asked that his proposal be placed on the agenda of the Committee on Administration and Finance meeting March 14. The committee would then pass on its recommendation, if any, to the full board for final consideration. If a quorum of the board attends the committee meeting the item could be decided then.
The meeting starts at 5 p.m. and is open to the public.
“If it is not placed on the agenda, look for some fireworks,” Barbre warned.