By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Analysis and commentary
Lately, the people who act like they own the Mesa Water District, namely its five-member board of directors, general manager, and communications manager, have been learning a hard lesson in democracy; that, no matter how much of the ratepayers’ money they spend to make themselves look good or how cleverly they spin their “unified message” to shield themselves from transparency by the water agency’s real owners (the ratepayers), their days of reckoning will come.
Since late 2008, Mesa Water has spent over $290,000 on a consulting firm that charged $265-$350 per hour, according to invoices, to help the agency create a new name and logo for itself (a process called re-branding) in order to “enhance Mesa Water’s visibility and positive recognition” and to create a “unified look and voice” among directors and staff.
Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa has budgeted $3,831,232 through FY 2014 ($1.4 million for FY 2014 is tentative) and has already spent an estimated $1,053,465 on its Strategic Communication Plan.
Besides that, there is Mesa Water’s stash of rainy day cash, $22 million currently—funded by a 25 percent rate increase over five years that started in 2009—with plans to almost double that by 2016.
Against that backdrop, Mesa’s days of reckoning started to arrive about a month after its communications manager, Stacy Taylor, threw a private bash for VIPs (regular ratepayers not welcomed), meaning other water district officials, consultants, selected politicians, industry CEOs, and personal friends or family of Mesa’s directors and carefully selected members of the corporate press.
This reporter was specifically banned from the event for reasons that I will report on later. But I previously reported about the event as a likely illegal misuse of public funds (here) and I stood outside of the entrance taking photos and doing video interviews.
The private VIP party was to celebrate the recently completed $20 million upgrade of the Colored Water Treatment Facility now re-branded as the Mesa Water Reliability Facility. As Mesa’s PR team expected, the Daily Pilot and OC Register dutifully wrote glowing reports about the facility (here and here) without a peep about the arguably illegal misuse of $50,000 plus in public funds that were used for the private event.
To Mesa’s re-branding crew, the event was the successful result of years or work and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Strategic Plan put to the test. Everything had been planned perfectly, right down to the invitations, valet parking, refreshments, musical entertainment and, most important, the press coverage.
What could go wrong now?
After all, the Daily Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water never amounted to more than slightly rewritten Mesa press releases, exactly what you would expect from a local “throw away” paper.
And the Register, exposed by the Surf City Voice on several occasions (here and here) for its conflicted coverage of the proposed Poseidon desalination plant (a pet project of General Manager Paul Shoenberger and the Mesa board of directors), would publish the occasional perfunctory article on rate increases, grand jury reports, pension and salary issues, but had paid scant attention to Mesa Water’s numerous transparency problems.
But a local activists (read here), growing in number, are upset by the lack of transparency among Orange County water districts in general and in particular the dogmatic support by some of those districts, including Mesa Water, for the Poseidon ocean desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach. They have been reaching out to voters, local elected officials and the media with their concerns.
They were inspired by the persistent watchdog activism of former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook and the late Fountain Valley mayor Gus Ayer. And many of them resent the slanted and sparse news coverage by the Register and Pilot given to water management issues.
The Surf City Voice regularly covers “water boarding” in Orange County, including Mesa Water, and has been monitoring the branding issue since last summer when it was briefly brought up within a story (here) about attempts to discipline former Mesa director Trudy Ohlig-Hall.
Investigative reporters Nick Gerda of the Voice of OC online and David Nazar on Real Orange on PBS SoCal have also paid extra attention to water boarding shenanigans overlooked by the Register and Pilot. Earlier this month Gerda (here, here, and here) and Nazar (here) were first to report in-depth about Mesa’s huge cash build-up and its excessive PR spending.
Then the Register, trying hard to come out of a post 2008 recession/depression slump and to reverse its reputation as a do-nothing paper, published reporter Mike Reicher’s story on April 12 ridiculing the MWRF party and exposing Mesa Water’s branding program.
Noting the event’s over all costs, including $1,500 worth of cookies shaped like water drops, Reicher wrote that, “Last month’s unveiling of a revamped water filtration facility is just a small example of Mesa Water District’s lavish spending on marketing and communications.”
Reicher’s story pointed out that Mesa’s PR/marketing budget is ridiculously high compared to other similar sized or even much larger Orange County water districts. Mesa’s extra cash reserve and the relatively high salary paid Mesa’s Communications Manager, Stacy Taylor, were also reported and the usefulness of the branding program was questioned.
What really got the latest round of extended news coverage of Mesa Water out of the starting gate, however, was a guest commentary published (here) March 27 by Jay Litvak, husband of Glynis Litvak who had recently resigned from her position in Mesa’s finance department amidst a grievance process she had officially started against her boss, Paul Shoenberger.
Considering Mesa Water’s strenuous efforts to raise its PR profile in the water community and to make itself look good, as well as the massive build up of unrestricted and non designated cash, Litvak wondered if the agency was trying to make itself look good to a potential buyer—which could lead to its privatization and immunity from California’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act.
The question stirred up a hornet’s nest and got a quick response from readers, including a defensive response (here) from Howard Hull, a political crony of Mesa Water’s current president, James Fisler, but it has yet to be answered by Mesa Water or the press.
Litvak’s commentary in the Pilot was an open invitation for the paper to be the first to expose Mesa Water’s budgetary peccadilloes in-depth. The Voice of OC and the Register took Litvak’s bait but the Pilot remained grounded, however.
Instead, the Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water’s latest scandal (here) was reduced to a roundup of the superior news reporting provided by its competitors, a roundup that nonetheless revealed the paranoid and tortured rationalizations of Fisler in reaction to Mesa’s critics.
Mesa’s critics, he told the Pilot, come from a “small circle,” half of whom are outsiders. As for the district’s aversion to coming into the digital age of transparency with video and audio streaming of its meetings, Fisler must have had an incredulous facial expression when he said: “We don’t get any feedback from that. I don’t think we grow as fast from that.”
When a government body resorts to blaming outside agitators, it’s a sure sign of desperation and disconnect from its constituents. .
And Civics 101 tells us that the more hidden a government body is from public view (video and audio streaming could only broaden that view) the more likely it is to abuse its power.
Allow a government to stockpile large piles of unneeded and unrestricted cash behind a veil of secrecy – fortified with a perpetual propaganda machine – and it’s only a matter of time before the Bell starts ringing, and I don’t mean the Liberty Bell.
The main architect of Mesa Water’s risky quest for public greatness and influence is its General Manager, Paul Shoenberger. But Shoenberger almost always had five eager accomplices, without whom he could not have proceeded.
So, if Mesa Water’s multi-million dollar PR makeover continues to backfire, expect its elected herd of water buffaloes to do what any other semi-respectable elected political body would do to save itself– find a scapegoat and send him packing.
The way things are going now, Paul Shoenberger should probably consider himself re-branded.