Archive | Water Boarding

Why Do Some OCWD Board Members Loathe Being Watched?

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice
Commentary

About a dozen members of the public attended the July 16 meeting of the Orange County Water District to support Director Jan Flory’s request that staff gather information on the cost of streaming board meetings on the Internet, something many other Orange County government bodies have done for years.

Flory sees streaming as an important way to improve transparency and increase the public’s participation in managing its water resources.

But the stars above must have been aligned against Flory that night because, even though her proposal won five out of eight possible votes, it lost.

In earthly terms, what happened?

The answer is in the shrewd, some might say cynical, use of the OCWD’s administrative code, which specifically requires an affirmative vote of the majority of the entire ten-member board (six votes) to pass a motion, regardless of whether those members abstain or show up at the meeting or not.

Board president Shawn Dewane, who had voted to recommend tabling Flory’s proposal at a previous (July 3) meeting of the Communications Committee (he wanted it tabled for a year), and Director Denis Bilodeau, who has remained silent on the topic, were both absent.

Directors Kathryn Barr, Cathy Green, and Roger Yoh, all openly hostile to streaming meetings for public viewing, abstained–not because they had a conflict of interest, the only ethically valid reason for abstaining (apparently, they don’t want to take responsibility, on record, for killing the proposal), but out of spite. Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Water Boarding6 Comments

‘Absolutely Infuriating’ OCWD Director Says About Secret Meetings

‘Absolutely Infuriating’ OCWD Director Says About Secret Meetings

By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Note: The characterization of the Executive Committee meetings as “secret” is the writer’s term and his term only. The wording of the opening paragraph was not meant to imply otherwise

An Orange County Water District director, infuriated over being misled by OCWD staff and other directors about secretly held and possibly illegal executive committee meetings, plans to speak out at the District’s next board meeting, July 16, the Surf City Voice has learned.

“Since I have been copied with agendas for recent executive committee meetings,” Director Jan Flory told the Voice in a phone interview, “I am very disturbed that they are not copied to the rest of the board before its meeting. The scope of issues it talks about far exceeds what I have been told the Executive Committee deals with.”

The previously secret agendas and other documents were shown to Flory by the Voice, which obtained them through multiple requests under the California Public Records Act.

Flory is one of three appointed OCWD directors on the ten-member governing board. She represents the city of Fullerton and started her term last January. The other seven board members were elected by districts.

Flory said she will ask Fullerton’s city attorney to look into the legality of the Executive Committee’s meetings. Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Poseidon, Water Boarding5 Comments

OCWD: ‘Would you like a sandwich?’ Water directors keep their early meetings and bloated stipends

OCWD: ‘Would you like a sandwich?’ Water directors keep their early meetings and bloated stipends

John Earl
Surf City Voice

At the June 18 regular board meeting of the Orange County Water District, Director Jan Flory of Fullerton asked her nine colleagues if they would support consolidating the dates of four public committee meetings in order to save $106,000 a year and to make those meetings more convenient for the public to attend–early morning and high-noon start times are great for water buffaloes but inconvenient for the general public.

Flory suggested holding two committee meetings in succession at 3 and 4 p.m. with a 30 minute break before each of two regular monthly board meetings held on the first and third Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m.

The current system is “cumbersome and inefficient,” she told her colleagues that night, “and it occurred to me that there was a much more cost-effective way of dealing with this.” Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Water Boarding5 Comments

Who Runs the Orange County Water District? You or Poseidon Inc.?

Who Runs the Orange County Water District? You or Poseidon Inc.?

Commentary
By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Dear Friends:

“A journalist is a good citizen of his or her community.”

That’s what I learned from the editor of the Eugene Register Guard, while taking a college journalism class at the University of Oregon, more years ago than I would care to remember.

But what he said is still true today. And that’s why I am asking you, in this editorial, to please show up and speak out at the Orange County Water District board meeting, Wednesday, June 4, about a proposal on the agenda to spend $50,000 or more on a study that will financially benefit Poseidon Resources Inc., a shady corporation that wants to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach and make us pay for it, whether we need the water it would produce or not.

Here’s why I think it’s important:

As explained in the recent Surf City Voice story, at the May 21 board meeting of the OCWD, Director Stephen Sheldon voted on a contract proposal that will benefit Poseidon, even though documentation he has filed with the District and the County shows that he works for a consulting company that has Poseidon for a client.

The fundamental question regarding the contract vote that is continued on Wednesday night’s OCWD agenda is, who does the board represent and work for, Poseidon or WE the people? Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Poseidon, Water Boarding2 Comments

OC Water Official Says ‘No Comment’ on Poseidon Vote

OC Water Official Says ‘No Comment’ on Poseidon Vote

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

“No comment!”

That’s all that Director Stephen Sheldon will say about his participation in a recent Orange County Water District discussion that was largely about the financial future of his former employer, Poseidon Resources, Inc.

Specifically, at OCWD’s May 21 board of directors meeting, Sheldon discussed and voted on a proposal to hire consultants to study various cost scenarios, including direct involvement by OCWD, related to an estimated $1 billion ocean desalination plant that Poseidon proposes to build in Huntington Beach.

The OCWD manages the county’s groundwater and provides 75 percent of the water used by ratepayers in its central and northern parts. With its Ground Water Replenishment (sewage recycling) program, the OCWD (with the Orange County Sanitation District) produces enough fresh, clean, drought-proof drinking water for 600,000 people, and there are plans to expand that program in the near future.

Under California’s Political Reform Act, elected officials are prohibited from voting on any project before them in which they have a financial interest or that would affect their economic interests or that financially impacts a company they worked for in the past year.

Working for Faubel

Working for Faubel

The ACT also requires elected officials to disclose financial sources and interests that by its definition cause a conflict of interest.

Those disclosures are contained in a yearly Statement of Economic Interests (700 form) that is on file for each board member at the office of the clerk for the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

OCWD meetings are also subject to California Government Code 1090, which is stricter than the ACT.

Recognizing indirect and direct influences that public officials have on decision making, Govt. Code 1090 prohibits any financial conflict of interest by those officials over contracts, even if the official isn’t voting; those officials, it says, “shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members.”

Under 1090, the board is prohibited from voting on any contract which financially enriches any of its members, even if such a member recuses himself from the matter.

Sheldon’s 2013 Statement of Economic Interests reports working for Poseidon, earning between $10,000 and $100,000 yearly. In 2014 he no longer lists Poseidon as a source of income, but does list Faubel Public Affairs, owned by political consultant Roger Faubel (a former director for the Santa Margarita Water District), as a source of $10,000 – $100,000 of income yearly.

On the FPA website, Poseidon Resources is shown on a list of former and current clients. But on April 1, 2013, according to an article in the OC Register, long-time Faubel business associate Brian Lochire and his wife, Arianna Barrios, took over most of Faubel’s marketing clients and hired most of his staff under a new business name, Communications LAB, which now lists Poseidon as a client on its webpage.

Faubel and partner

Faubel and partner

But the break-off from Faubel was little more than a rearrangement of chairs, as both Faubel and Lochrie made clear to OC Register reporter Sarah de Crescenzo:

Faubel…said the two firms will have a strategic partnership.
Added Lochrie: ‘We’ll continue to work together closely. (Roger’s) been a wonderful mentor for the last 12 years, and I look forward to continuing to work with him.’

Consistent with that goal, Faubel’s website lists Communications LAB as its “partner agency”, and the “two” companies are located in the same building in suites 200 and 250 respectively.

Sheldon, carefully waiting for his post-Poseidon one-year voting restriction to end, recused himself at the April 2 (2014) OCWD meeting when the board approved the RFP for the Poseidon financial analysis.

But at the May 21 board meeting, Poseidon CEO Scott Maloni whispered that Sheldon could vote on the matter because his legal restrictions had expired a month ago. What Maloni didn’t say is that by working for Faubel, who Maloni spoke with closely throughout the meeting, Sheldon was again on the hook for potential conflict of interest charges.

The Discussion

Director Philip Anthony started the discussion on the proposed Poseidon study by calling it premature to spend the $150,000 that staff recommended to hire two of the five consulting firms that submitted proposals.

“The Poseidon project is hung up by a couple of big things happening at the state level,” he said. “The sad truth is that the Poseidon project…is not clearly defined at this point. It’s subject to huge change based on what these state agencies do. So I suggest we save our money, your money, for the time being.”

Director Kathryn Barr agreed with Anthony, who, after hearing (pro-study) supporting comments made by directors Green, Denis Bilodeau, Vincent Sarmiento, and Roger Yoh, made a motion to defer consideration of hiring the consultants until the Poseidon project was better defined.

Pensive Sheldon

Pensive Sheldon

Then Director Jan Flory boldly suggested that the board wait up to two years to see how Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad desalination plant works and in the hope that new and better technology would emerge that will allow Poseidon to bring forth a more environmentally sound project.

At least three of the eight directors present wanted to table the financial analysis until Poseidon finished its obligation–due ten years ago–to properly study sub-surface ocean intakes. Poseidon claimed before the Coastal Commission last November that sub-surface intake is infeasible for is chosen Huntington Beach location due to the local ocean topography, but the Commission called Poseidon’s submitted studies inadequate.

The only feasible option, according to Poseidon, is to co-locate its desalination plant with the AES power plant, located in southeast Huntington Beach, and use its “once-through-cooling” (OTC) intake pipes to gather the needed 127 million gallons of water that it would convert into 50 million gallons of drinking water daily.

Flory, Anthony, and Barr also wanted to wait for an expected decision by the State Water Board on the future use of OTC, if any, for ocean desalination plants. The board banned once-through-cooling for power-plant use because of its deadly mass effect on marine life.

Also to be resolved before the Commission is an appeal by Poseidon’s opponents of an enabling Coastal Development Plan approved by the city of Huntington Beach in 2006.

Doing all of that would take at least another six months.

Frustrated by the concerns of three of his colleagues, Sheldon said it was unfortunate that they had been “listening to misinformation by some of the opponents of this [Poseidon desalination] project,” potentially causing a delay over environmental issues that had already been asked and answered long ago.

“I think we have an obligation to our ratepayers,” Sheldon said, “[and] to our representatives, that we continue to study, that we spend an amount of money that is necessary to move forward.”

Poseidon’s desalination project is “important”, he added, and “is going to be a great benefit in the years to come.”

Sheldon then called Maloni to the speaker’s podium.

Maloni explained the “urgency”, from Poseidon’s point of view, for the OCWD to act now.

“One of the questions raised at the Coastal Commission meeting [in November] was, who’s the customer? Where’s the water going to go? How do we know the water [production] needs to be a 50 million gallons per day plan?”

Scott Maloni

Scott Maloni, Poseidon Resources, Inc.

Maloni’s list of questions are important because at this time only one water agency in Orange County (Faubel’s former water district, ironically) is indicating a real interest in obligating (per Poseidon’s terms) its ratepayers to buy Poseidon’s desalinated water–which will cost three to four times the normal rate –even if that water isn’t needed.

“That question needs to be answered when we go back to the Coastal Commission,” Maloni told the board, “and it can’t be answered if you don’t take your first step in due diligence to evaluate the financial impacts of the project.”

But Maloni must also be concerned about the public relations momentum that Poseidon has lost in recent years as public skepticism about the need for its Huntington Beach project, if not ocean desalination itself, grows stronger.

That makes Sheldon’s role as the OCWD plant for the partnership of Faubel Public Affairs and Communications LAB vital to the future financial well being of their client, Poseidon Resources, Inc.

But Sheldon is loath to acknowledge his mole-role in public, as shown when he glared, silently, at Director Anthony when he pointedly asked Sheldon, “So, I guess you’re okay to talk about Poseidon now? … You’re free?”

Green answered for Sheldon, injecting his silence with a simple, “Yeah,” as if, “Well, yeah, of course he is!”

After some more discussion (including a hilarious soliloquy by Green about needing to complete the Poseidon desalination project so she wouldn’t have to use Porta-Potties), the board, under pressure from Director Denis Bilodeau, voted 7-1 (Green voted no, Dewayne and Sidhu were absent) to continue the item until June 4.

After the meeting, I approached Sheldon, Samsung tablet in one hand and pen in the other, and asked him what the difference was between past meetings, when he had recused himself from Poseidon related agenda items, and that night (May 21).

Alarmed by the question, he pushed himself back in his chair, and said, firmly, “No comment.” Again, I asked, and again the answer was, “No comment.”

As I started to walk away, Sheldon panicked and demanded to know if I had recorded our “conversation.”

“It’s a public meeting,” I answered, as I continued to walk out of the board room, ignoring him as he called after me. Green, who overheard our exchange, gasped, presumably in Sheldon’s favor.

After following me outside the board room, Sheldon approached and asked, again, “Did you record our private conversation?”

I tried to explain to him that it wasn’t a private conversation, but I did not tell him if I had recorded it or not. But he persisted.

“I don’t have to answer your question,” I told him, adding my own “No comment” when he pressed yet again.

“Alright,” Sheldon warned, “You’re going to hear from our lawyer.”

On Monday, May 26, I sent the following email to Roger Faubel, ccd to Director Sheldon:

Given Faubel Public Relations’ (sic) past contractual relationship with Poseidon and your firm’s (self professed) partnership relationship with Communications LAB, as well as your continued interest in the Poseidon project, as demonstrated by your presence and frequent close conversation with Poseidon’s VIP (sic), Scott Maloni, at the meeting, as well as Director Sheldon’s response of “No Comment” when I asked about his vote, is there any reason why the public should not assume that the director did not illegally participate in the discussion and subsequent vote on the Poseidon related RFP?

So far, I have not received an answer.

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Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Poseidon, Water Boarding4 Comments

Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Amidst much recent criticism in the press, the Mesa Water District‘s elaborate public relations program, along with its “branding” effort in particular, seems to have backfired (read here and here).

Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa’s public relations or “communications” annual budget has expanded from about $400,000 to a projected $1.4 million for FY 2014—with about $3.8 million spent since FY 2011.

One consulting firm in particular, Laer Pearce & Associates, had a strong influence on Mesa Water’s public relations approach in the past several years, especially its branding program, and rests at the center of the recent controversy.

Today the Surf City Voice begins a daily presentation of invoices from that contract which had an end cost of $209,141.40. Consulting contracts are not on Mesa Water’s website.

Looking at Mesa Water District’s contract with LP&A invoice by invoice, was it worth the price?

The answer depends on Mesa Water’s (vs. the public’s?) priorities and needs as well as the quality of the assigned work. In the following weeks, as the reader goes through the LPA invoices that Mesa Water paid, he or she can decide if the money was wisely spent or not.

LP&A started working for Mesa Water in April, 2008. In September, 2009, Paul Shoenberger, formerly a member of Mesa’s board of directors, was appointed general manager.

The contract between LPA and Mesa Water came out to roughly 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week if you only calculate for the lower range of the $265 – $350 per hour that LPA charged.

That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per years for the same work that Mesa Water Communications Manager Stacy Taylor–who has over 20 years of professional experience, including running her own public relations firm, theoretically could have done under a salary of $194,000 per year, including benefits.

Of the $290,141.40 paid by Mesa Water to LPA, $152,709.73 was spent on its recently terminated (re) branding program, which included nearly $29,000 spent on preparation for the District’s 50th anniversary celebration, another special VIP private party paid for with additional ratepayers’ money — in the same vein as the controversial $50,000 private party the District threw in March to celebrate completion of its so-called Reliability Facility (previously Colored Water Treatment Facility).

Laer Pearce Invoice

Work report from the first invoice to Mesa Water from Laer Pearce & Associates

The first invoice, #7598, is from April 11, 2008, to September Sept. 10, 2008. The bill is $3,450, mostly for “Meetings, Consultation and Project Support.” The Monthly Activity Report shows that the total budgeted for the “project” was $51,100 with $47,650 remaining. Also, the report notes, “$54,735 in additional funds were also proposed. The final budget yet to be determined.”

Here’s what Mesa Water, then named Mesa Consolidated Water District, got for its $3,450:

  • Attended 2/23 and 8/25 meetings at Mesa with Lee Pearl [Mesa Water's general manager at that time], Coleen Monteleone, Amanda Gavin and Adam Probolsky to discuss outreach and survey strategy.
  • Reviewed proposed survey questions from Adam Probolsky and comments from Board and staff; provided comments; prepared list of additional questions for the team’s consideration.
  • Researched and drafted memo on potential award opportunities available to Mesa
  • Sent chart of local water district rates to team with comments.
  • Discussion with Coleen Monteleone about moving forward with initial elements of outreach plan.

Click the photo thumbnail above to read the work report in detail.

For balance, the reader/ratepayer can read Laer Pearce’s justification of Mesa Water’s contract with his firm (here).

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Posted in Headlines, Mesa, Water Boarding0 Comments

Mesa Water Vs. the Media: 13 Possible Reasons Why

Mesa Water Vs. the Media: 13 Possible Reasons Why

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

On March 14, 2013, Mesa Water District’s board of directors passed 5 – 0 a press credentialing policy. That policy is designed to tightly control media access to public functions, like the recent VIP private $50,000 party that the agency threw for itself at ratepayers’ expense. In my public speech to the board on that evening, I speculated as to the reasons for Mesa Water’s new obsession with creating a draconian press control policy. To supplement my views expressed that night, I offer the following 13 additional, specific, possible reasons for that obsession.

  1. New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists
  2. Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense
  3. Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even
  4. Huntington Beach Mayor Proposes Coastal Commission Reject of Poseidon Desalination Permit
  5. A REBUTTAL TO POSEIDON RESOURCES’ ‘FACT vs. FICTION’ FLYER
  6. Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires
  7. ‘Nowaterdeal’: Desal Plant Opponents Will Reach Out to Thousands of Orange County Voters
  8. Can the Municipal Water District of Orange County Find A Reason to Exist?
  9. Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab
  10. Get Desal Permits Quickly by Coordinating Early & Designing a Good Project, State Panelists Say
  11. Election Sob Story: Mesa Water Directors Plot to Remove Trudy Ohlig-Hall from Office
  12. Does Mesa Water Take Your Comments Seriously? Yes, to Your Face – No, Behind Your Back
  13. Interview with Mesa Water’s Paul Shoenberger on CalDesal

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New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists

New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists

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.

Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.

Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.

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.

Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters

Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters

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.

Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.

This Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.

“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.

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Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense

Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

The Mesa Water District spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars preparing its general manager and communications manager for a thirty minute interview with this reporter and researching my background, according to invoices obtained by the Surf City Voice under the Public Records Act.

The invoices are only four from a total of 30 received by Mesa Water from the consulting firm of Laer Pearce Associates between October, 2008 and December, 2012 for “branding” and general public relations and marketing assistance. But they help show the District’s obsession with its public image ever since Paul Shoenberger became its general manager in 2009 and hired Stacy Taylor as its communications manager in 2010.

That obsession became a costly exercise in vanity paid for by Mesa Water’s ratepayers.

Laer Pearce Associates invoice report

Laer Pearce Associates invoice report. Click once or twice to enlarge.

In chronological order, the first invoice (7976), for billing period Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, under “Media Relations”, states, “Attended 12/9 meeting with Paul and Stacy to discuss Surf City Voice interview request; drafted responses to questions submitted by reporter; worked with Taylor to help coordinate interview.”

Also under Media Relations:

  • Briefed Stacy on potential upcoming KOCE interview request; discussed strategy.
  • Prepared District messaging regarding ocean desalination.
  • Drafted quote and identified photos for Water Operator magazine inquiry.
  • Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.

Other categories were Collateral, Event Support, Branding, Community Outreach (no billings), and Website.

True to form for most of the LPA invoices, Invoice #7976 bills $4,500.00 on Media Relations of the $5,630.20 bill total, but does not show a detailed hourly breakdown for each subcategory of work, so there is no way of knowing how much time was spent researching the Surf City Voice or other news services or how much it cost per hour (when asked to explain the incomplete billing procedures, Taylor did not respond).

Likewise, Invoice #7982 (Jan. 1 – Jan. 31, 2012) lists $3,610.00 billed for Media Relations of a total bill of $8,162.00:

  • Attended 1/4 meeting with Paul and Stacy to prepare for Surf City Voice Interview; drafted bullet-point messages for Paul’s use during the interview; prepared press release following the interview recapping the discussion.
  • Drafted memo on potential social media opportunities
  • Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.

Invoice #8009 April 1 – April 30, 2012), however, is more detailed. It bills $318.00 for Media Relations out of a total bill of $8,842.90 and breaks it down in detail:

  • Meeting with Stacy at WACO to discuss Surf City Voice: 0.50hrs/$265/hr for $132.00
  • Researched reporters and contact info for Stacy: 0.70 hrs $265/hr for $185.50
  • For professional services rendered: 1.20 hrs/total $318.00

Invoice #8027 (June 1 – June 30, 2012) lists $220.00 spent on Media Relations, $132.50 for reviewing a Surf City Voice interview with Paul Shoenberger (here) and $87.00 (at $350/hr) for only reading a commentary by Director Fred Bockmiller published in the OC Register.

The Surf City Voice interview (here) that LPA helped Shoenberger and Taylor prepare for was conducted in January of 2012 and subsequently published in May, 2012, and apparently raised a lot of concern before and after it was published, as a series of emails reveal (see sidebar).

The invoices represent but a fraction of the total $290,141.40 that the district paid LPA for an ongoing contract that ended in December, but they illustrate the type of services provided that, arguably, were unnecessary or could have been provided at far less cost by Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, whose $194,000 salary is already relatively high, according to a recent story in the OC Register.

Laer Pearce Associates invoice reportHourly pay rates charged to Mesa Water by LPA ranged from $265 per hour for work by LPA associate Ben Boyce to $350 for LPA president Laer Pearce.  Assuming – only to simplify calculations – that LPA charged the lower rate, LPA did a total of 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week.

That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per year for the same work that Taylor, who has over 20 years experience as a senior-level communications professional, could do or that her new assistant, Ann Moreno, could do in a salary range between $70,000 to $96,000.

Pearce objects to that comparison. By email, he wrote, “I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion that there is any validity at all in the way you manipulated our billing rate,” he wrote. “To test it, ask yourself that if we billed someone $500 for a small task, would you say we could have billed them $400,000, based on our billing rate, if it had been a really big task? It illuminates nothing because it’s not based in reality.”

Recent news stories in the Voice of OC, the Register, Daily Pilot and the Surf City Voice, have questioned Mesa Water’s increased cash reserves and public relations spending budget in particular.

Starting Friday, the Surf City Voice will periodically publish LPA’s paid invoices to the Mesa Water District in full as well as other documents related to the Mesa Water District’s Strategic Communications Plan, so that ratepayers and the general public might better determine how their public water agency is being managed.

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Posted in Headlines, Mesa, Water, Water Boarding1 Comment

Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even

Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even

 

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Editor’s note: See related story, here.

Getting thirty-minutes of interview time in January 2012 with the Mesa Water District’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger, wasn’t easy.

Spontaneous interviews with Mesa Water staff or members of the board of directors are discouraged whenever possible by Communications Manager, Stacy Taylor. Potentially tough or touchy media questions must be submitted to her in advance so that she can provide public answers that fit Mesa Water’s “unified voice” template.

At Taylor’s insistence, general interview questions were submitted in advance, but with my stipulation that there was no guarantee that I would limit myself to the exact wording of those questions during the interview or would not ask follow up questions.

The interview took place in Mesa Water’s executive committee room and was strictly limited to 30 minutes in the presence of both Shoenberger and Taylor and was recorded by both parties.

The main topic of the interview was CalDesal, the secretive non-profit organization that Mesa Water started—with ratepayers’ money—several years ago—and still helps finance with free labor and services even though CalDesal supposedly went its own private way—to promote ocean desalination projects and the desalination industry.

Contrary to California’s open meetings law, the general public is not allowed at CalDesal meetings nor is it generally given meeting agendas and minutes. Financial documents, the “990″ forms that non-profits are required to disclose, are also denied repeatedly to this reporter by CalDesal’s president, Shawn Dewane, who is also a Mesa Water board member.

James Fisler

A cheap shot of Mesa Water’s Director James Fisler at a CalDesal mixer. Photo: provided by Mesa Water District

At the time, I didn’t know that the entire process was being directed by a public relations consulting firm, Laer Pearce Associates, that charged Mesa’s ratepayers between $265 – $350 per hour and that hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars would be paid to LPA to prepare Shoenberger for the interview, on top of what was paid to Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, who gets close to $200,000 a year including benefits.

Emails acquired under the Public Records Act later would reveal how cynically manipulative Shoenberger, Taylor and LPA had been and that Mesa Water officials are motivated more by vanity than a desire to objectively inform the ratepayers.

Before the interview, their goal was to limit and control the questions as much as possible. After publication, the main goal was to contain the interview and to marginalize this reporter, while violating copyright law (republishing the story without permission), even though LPA president Laer Pearce and Taylor both agreed that the edited interview was fair and accurate.

An email from Taylor to Mesa Water directors and staff, and to LPA, for example, stated, in full:

  • Greetings: The attached story ran on the Surf City Voice blog on May 28, 2012. I purposely did not share the link to the post & removed all Surf City Voice links from the story. If you wish to share this, please do so using the attached instead of going to the website. I have also pasted the story below. So far, I found that Aquafornia (blog) has posted this story & it will probably be posted by OC Voice soon (I will let you know). Also, there is only one reply to this story as follows below the story. All in all, I think this turned out as good as can be expected from this type of media opportunity.

In another, earlier, email, Taylor wrote, “Plz (sic) don’t circulate the story link I sent you since doing so will add to its ‘popularity’ on the web (each click on the link will increase the story’s web ranking). Instead, I will capture the content for sharing. Please feel free to contact me any time re. this.”

Curiously, Ron Wildermuth, Director of Public Information and Conservation at West Basin Water District where Shoenberger had served for years as assistant general manager, was also included in the emails. “Good job,” he wrote to Shoenberger, “This is about as hostile and biased an interviewer I have seen in a while. You stuck to your points well.”

But Pearce praised the interview story.

“John Earl admits he is not objective, but insists he writes objectively,” he said. “On is (sic) story, I have to agree. He let his biases show, but told the CalDesal and Mesa Water stories fairly. Of course it helped that Paul tied everything to Mission and was not swayed off the core messages of the district.”

Although Pearce misunderstood my theory on journalistic objectivity (namely, that any reporter who claims to be without bias is either deluded or a liar, and that acknowledgement of that bias first and foremost to self helps facilitate honest, in-depth reporting), the objectivity he shows in his review of my story is also praiseworthy, despite the excessive cost to Mesa Water’s ratepayers.

Mesa Water Director (and current board president) James Fisler, was both complimentary and critical:

  • Very good job Paul! No dodging, just telling it like it is and sticking to Mesa’s message and priority of providing water. Good questions by Earl and good answers by you. Shows Mesa Water is on top of it’s (sic) mission. Earl’s only attempted “gotcha” of people at mixers is a poor attempt. Business and chambers have mixers all the time. They are very important parts of getting business done and learning new things by networking. Again, great job.

Fisler was referring to my photos of him and other directors at a CalDesal mixer-meeting attended by about 100 water officials, consultants and representatives of the desalination industry, but nobody from the general public.

In another email later that day, Fisler added:

  • “…If it was supposed to be a hit piece or something it failed miserably. I need to get a picture of Earl eating a donut at WACO.”

Fisler was expressing a grudge against this reporter that he still holds to this day. Writing under the pen name “nogrowther” on the Orange Juice blog, he lashed out at me over a year ago for publishing the detailed objections of Irvine Ranch Water district director, Peer Swan, to the Poseidon ocean desalination project proposed for Huntington Beach.

Fisler bitterly complained that I didn’t say the pledge of allegiance at water Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) meetings, that I was unkempt in appearance and that I liked to eat the donuts that are left out at MWDOC meetings for water buffaloes like him.

Eventually, Fisler’s “gotcha” wish came true, about a year later at the recent (May) joint-meeting of MWDOC and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) held at the MWDOC board room in Fountain Valley.

I was sitting in one of the plebeian seats at the back of the room, directly opposite of the speaker’s podium, next to Debbie Cook, watching a presentation on MWDOC’s $120,000 video screen by MET’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger about the Sacramento Delta. We need to spend billions of dollars fixing the Delta levies and to build a big double-barreled tunnel to import more water to southern California, he said.

Kightlinger was predicting the disastrous consequences to California’s economy of a Delta broken to pieces by a 100-year earthquake – coming any day now. Suffering from acute sleep deprivation, I desperately walked over to the refreshment table to help myself to a glazed twister.

“Anything to stay awake,” I thought. “Must…help…save…the…Delta.”

Out of the 100 or so water buffaloes present, only Fisler seemed unable to pay attention to the important message and had become obsessed, as I lifted the doughnut, with watching me like a hawk from one of the big black MWDOC directors’ seats behind the dais.

Smelling blood, the upcoming Delta catastrophe apparently gone from his mind, Fisler approached me.

Standing over me just a few feet away, dour faced, he shyly snapped a couple of photos of me holding my doughnut on a plate and kindly offering it up to him. He still didn’t laugh or even smile.Then he walked back to his seat where, perhaps, his attention returned to more important matters.

One other interesting tidbit found in the exchange of emails is a missive from Poseidon’s VP, Scott Maloni, an important member of Mesa Water’s inner circle of close friends. Always angry over my critical reporting of the dreamed of but still elusive Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant over the years, he refuses to answer my media questions and long ago banned other Poseidon CEOs from doing so. In his email to Shoenberger, he wrote:

“Paul – As I’ve told Kevin Hunt [former general manager at MWDOC], John Earl is not a journalist; you don’t owe him ‘transparency.’ Nothing good will ever come out of engaging him and he’ll never be someone you can trust or befriend. Best to ignore him or have your staff handle him.”

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Posted in Headlines, Mesa, MWD, MWDOC, Poseidon, Water Boarding1 Comment

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