By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Mesa Water District isn’t just building colored water treatment facilities and rebranding itself or building up huge cash surpluses by raising water rates, as reported in recent press accounts, including in the Surf City Voice.
It’s also doing its part in the war against terrorism, and controlling the media and deciding which journalists are “credible” and “factual”, not the usual job of government in a democracy, is apparently part of Mesa Water’s strategy.
That’s what a small audience of public citizens learned last March 14 at a meeting of the water district’s five-member all-male board of directors.
The meeting occurred the day after a nearly $50,000 ratepayer funded private party held early in the day at Mesa Water’s so-called Water Reliability Facility (formerly the Colored Water Treatment Facility) for about 150 VIP guests, including other water buffaloes, consultants, water industry CEOs, local politicians and family or friends of directors and staff.
The new anti-terrorism program falls under Mesa Water’s new press credentialing policy, which was approved unanimously by the board but had already gone through a dry run at the VIP event.
That event was previewed as a possible illegal use of public funds in a Surf City Voice story (here) two days before it occured.
The new policy requires that journalists who cover Mesa Water’s various outreach activities, like the VIP event, be accredited by the agency first. The standards are strict, carefully designed to maximize media control by Mesa Water and the amount of favorable media coverage for the district’s policies and projects.
Some examples of the convoluted, Stalinist, and probably unconstitutional policy, which was passed by the board March 14:
- Journalists will be given credentials “on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration such factors as: the nature of the Mesa Water activity; the outlet’s editorial focus, influence, news credibility, and reach…”
- Credentialed journalists must present their credentials to any Mesa Water representative upon request;
- Reporters who want to record the event must get prior approval and “must be accompanied by Mesa Water staff or have prior approval from Mesa Water Communications Department.”
- Writers for online media must represent websites that provide “credible, factual, and original editorial news coverage…”
- Writers for personal blogs and websites cannot get credentials.
There’s more to the two-part application, which, it says, must be filled out seven days before, but representatives for already favored (corporate) media, the Register, Daily Pilot, and Orange County radio station KOCI (which is sponsored by Mesa Water with a $13,000 contract that guarantees favorable mentions, according to a Register story), weren’t held to the new standard, since it hadn’t been passed by the board and was used as a guideline, according to Denise Garcia, executive assistant to General Manager Paul Shoenberger.
This reporter did not apply for a credential due to the principle that news content should not be determined by government officials. Also, Taylor already was familiar with my water journalism, no small part of it critical of Mesa Water, which spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of ratepayer dollars to study and to contain it.
My request to enter the grounds of the Mesa Water Reliability Treatment VIP event was denied on the spot, of course, by Taylor, who claimed that I was being excluded because:
“It’s a private event. Invite only. And this is for the supporters of the project, the people that have partnered with us to get this project built. So this is a celebratory day for industry partners and supporters of Mesa Water. We did have a couple of public events prior to this and you’re certainly welcome to come any time by appointment.”
Taylor repeatedly pointed out that I was welcome for a private tour by appointment. But the whole point of my being there, obviously, was to cover that event, which was not only paid for by ratepayers ($49,650) but was also sponsored for at least $5,550 by various water industry corporations, including Poseidon Resources, that have a potential financial interest with Mesa Water.
Knowing ahead of time that I would not be allowed to enter the event—in fact, sources at Mesa Water claimed that staff had a code word they were supposed to communicate to each other if I showed up—I called board president James Fisler to ask for one of the five guest passes he had been given by Mesa.
Then Fisler attacked my preview story of the VIP event as “so inaccurate” and said, “I just don’t know about you, John.”
Fisler was partly right.
As I noted the same day in a correction/retraction (here), the story had inaccurately stated that General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority to spend ratepayers’ money on the private VIP party. But the rest of the story, that the event appeared to be a misuse of public funds, stands correct, I pointed out.
But Fisler was angry at me for other reasons, not related to inaccuracy, because I didn’t write about what he perceived to be Mesa Water’s great accomplishments, like its triple-A bond rating—the result of increased water rates and a $22 million rainy-day stash of cash with plans to double that amount.
The VIP event wasn’t a personal use of funds, he said, and, no, he won’t give me one of his five invitations because “I don’t like what you write.” Then he retracted that reason and said I wouldn’t get an invitation because the invitations are for his friends. Besides, “the flag [thing] bothered me,” a reference to my decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance at water board meetings.
At the March 14 board meeting, Fisler explained why he supported the media credential program.
“I think that we have a very dynamic communications department outreach,” he said. “And we will be having events in the future and it’s very important that we have a process in place to control who is on property.”
The press credential rules do not prevent reporters from filming, like I was doing at that very meeting, he said. “This is about events where we are controlling the size of the crowd, perhaps, or a list of invitees. And I think it’s a good policy to have.”
Then, Director Shawn Dewane took Fisler’s reasoning a huge step further, citing national security as another reason for Mesa Water’s new press credential policy. “Critical water infrastructure is controlled under federal law called Presidential Homeland Security Directive Number 5,” he said.
“Water infrastructure projects fall under the directive,” he continued, “and it is in the best interests on the public at large that people are generally not allowed to walk around public infrastructure projects like this [MWRF] and photograph critical public infrastructure facilities and be able to display them however they might and broadcast that around the world. I believe that the District discussed this several years ago and that this policy is in compliance with that.”
Actually, Directive Number 5 says nothing about protecting national security by excluding journalists from lavish parties thrown for water district officials and their friends, but says that the federal government will help state and local authorities “manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system.”
Dewane’s grandiose concern for preventing a terrorist attack at the Mesa Water Reliability Facility contrasts with all the photos and video images of the MWRF that clutter the agency’s website (see photos on this page)—for all the world’s would-be terrorists to see—and the Facebook photo of the testosterone saturated Dewane himself aiming what looks like an AK 47 at, one presumes, imaginary journalists or other likely terrorists.