Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab

Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

(Editor’s note: This story has been republished below to correct a typo that could not be removed from the http link)

Over the past several months I have been trying to get to the truth behind Mesa Water District’s obsession with Poseidon Inc.’s proposal to build an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

Since 2009, the water agency has gone from a typical local water provider to become the State’s biggest booster of ocean desalination, spending tens of thousands of dollars in cash, resources, and staff time for a project that makes zero business sense.

So I spent the last week perusing Mesa’s board agendas.  I now have a better understanding of the cause of the agency’s new found love affair.

First and foremost, you need look no further than Mesa’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger.

Prior to his employment at Mesa, Shoenberger worked for Los Angeles County’s biggest desalination cheerleader, West Basin Water District. In 2009, he concurrently served on Mesa’s board of directors before applying and “winning” his influential position as Mesa’s general manager.

But Shoenberger has some explaining to do about that victory.

The position was advertised in March of 2009 with a filing deadline of May 8, 2009. But Shoenberger didn’t resign his seat until July 13, 2009.

He may have thought he was escaping the perils of Government Code Section 1090 by leaving Mesa’s board meetings prior to any closed session discussions about the position, but 1090 precludes the entire board from negotiating a contract in which one of its members has a financial interest.  Fortunately for Shoenberger, he needn’t worry too much—conflicts of interest are rarely prosecuted in Orange County.

During Mesa’s change of guard, the agency forgot his fiduciary duty to the public and signed a letter of intent with Poseidon to buy water its ratepayers would never need (Mesa proudly proclaims its self-sustaining independence from imported water sources), heralding a bond of cooperation to pursue approval of a huge but unneeded desalination plant that will add $5 billion in local water bills, an average of $8,500 per Orange County ratepayer, over the next 30 years.

Under the agenda item vaguely listed as “other,” and without a vote, the Mesa board gave Shoenberger the go ahead to start a secretive organization that would lobby on behalf of the desalination industry and developers. The board turned a blind eye and Shoenberger spent staff time and money as he saw fit to create CalDesal. Mesa board member Shawn Dewane became its first President.

CalDesal began with lofty goals, but its membership has remained static at about 70 in number — each paying $5,000 in annual dues — for two of its three years. That membership is divided about evenly between officials from public agencies, such as Mesa Water, and a mixture of corporate CEOs and consultants looking to make a killing in the client-rich environment that CalDesal was designed to provide for them.

CalDesal’s modus operandi is to lobby for desalination projects and regulatory “streamlining” — code word for rolling back fundamental environmental protection and permitting rules that stand in the way of desalination and unbridled development in general.

As CalDesal President and Mesa director, Dewane is reimbursed for travel expenses to the Sacramento based “non-profit” and receives a stipend for attending its meetings–courtesy of Mesa’s ratepayers.

Shoenberger argues that the agency’s support of CalDesal is no different than its support of many other non-profits…like the Orange County Business Council, another non-profit the agency joined shortly after Shoenberger became GM. Membership dues, staff time, stipend pay…it all adds up to an agency that has money and time to waste.

From my examination of public records, Shoenberger spends too much of the ratepayers’ time and dime promoting desalination and not enough time looking out for the interests of the agency that pays him over $230,000 per year.

Much of Shoenberger’s time is spent serving on the boards of outside organizations, as chair of the ACWA (Association of California Water Agencies) desalination sub-committee, as a member of the New Water Supply Coalition (another desalination lobby group), and as a board member of the Affordable Desalination Collaboration (a laughable oxymoron as desalinated water is many times more expensive than any other water source).  District resources support all of his outside desalination activities including his many speaking engagements and conferences within and outside the state.

Shoenberger and his board have also seen fit to reward consultants and contractors of Poseidon with Mesa contracts.  At a recent committee meeting, board president Jim Fisler and director Dewane recommended that Mesa hire Richard Brady and Associates, the same outfit that completed modeling work for Poseidon.

Mesa also uses Poseidon pollster Adam Probolsky who conducted a “push” poll to demonstrate public support of ocean desalination (of course, the ratepayers who were polled were not told the cost of the proposed water or project).  Probolsky works closely with Roger Faubel, a PR consultant who has worked for Poseidon for the past decade and who himself is on the Board of Directors of Santa Margarita Water District.  Faubel also does work for Mesa.  And last summer Mesa hired Phil Lauri who was the manager of West Basin’s Ocean Desalination program.

In earlier times, the media or enforcement agencies might have taken note of the many flagrant violations of public trust at Mesa, but not today.

Today, Mesa operates with impunity, even when it meets in anonymity–which it often does.

Since Paul Shoenberger became Mesa Water’s general manager, its board members have conducted at least 16 illegal closed-door sessions to discuss Poseidon.

Shawn Dewane refuses to comply with lawful public records act requests regarding CalDesal.

Adding insult to injury, the inquiring public is treated to rude remarks from the board, both in their presence and when they are unable to hear or respond.

The truth about Mesa’s obsession with the Poseidon project is obfuscated by its lack of transparency.

But what can we do about it?

Since the public can no longer look to the mainstream media, or to the District Attorney, or to the State Attorney General, it is up to each of us to participate in the democratic process, to attend Mesa Water meetings, to question, to expose wrong doing, and to propose constructive solutions.

As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”

Let the truth about Mesa Water be told.

Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach and an advocate for greater transparency in public water management.

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