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Poseidon Desalination Poll Threatens Candidates and Misleads Voters

Poseidon Desalination Poll Threatens Candidates and Misleads Voters

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

It’s election time, so in September Poseidon Resources, Inc., released another push poll claiming widespread public support for its hoped for $1 billion ocean desalination plant that would be built next to the AES power plant in southeast Huntington Beach.

The poll, commissioned by Poseidon and conducted by Probolsky Research, is based on telephone interviews with 325 “likely voters, whatever that means, residing within the boundaries of the Orange County Water District (OCWD), which is leaning heavily toward buying all of Poseidon’s water or financing the project, which would transfer all of the risks to OCWD’s ratepayers.

The OCWD, which manages the Santa Ana River groundwater basin, provides about 65 percent of the drinking water for 19 municipal water agencies in central and northern Orange County.

Until recently, the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), which retails imported water to 28 water agencies throughout the county, was the front agency for pushing the Poseidon project.

But only one of MWDOC’s members has signed an intent to buy any of Poseidon’s water. In theory, MWDOC could force its other members to participate under its “core” program, but that kind of bullying resulted in a revolt by its south county members once before, so force is an unlikely option.

The OCWD, on the other hand, can simply pass the costs of Poseidon’s desalinated water onto the producers, who pump its groundwater for a fee.

The poll concludes that, driven by a heightened concern about drought, voters support elected leaders who seek long-term water supply solutions that are “drought proof, such as desalination from the proposed Huntington Beach facility.” Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, MWDOC, OCWD, Poseidon, Water Boarding1 Comment

Expense Reports for OCWD Directors

Expense Reports for OCWD Directors

These are expense reports obtained previously by the Surf City Voice for all current Orange County Water District directors. Listings for 2014 are incomplete. Audit pages for 2013 show the number of meetings claimed by directors versus the number of meetings actually attended. Readers will also be interested in my previous story detailing total benefits received by current directors, “‘Would you like a sandwich?’ Water directors keep their early meetings and bloated stipends.”

Stephen Sheldon
Director Sheldon 2014; Director Sheldon 2013

Shawn Dewane
Director Dewane Jan-Feb. 2014; Director Dewane 2013

Denis Bilodeau
Director Bilodeau Jan-Feb 2014; Director Bilodeau 2013

Roger Yoh
Director Yoh Jan-Feb 2014; Director Yoh 2013

Jan Flory
Director Flory Jan-Feb 2014;

Philip Anthony
Director Anthony Jan-Feb. 2014; Director Anthony 2013

Kathryn Barr
Director Barr Jan-March 2014; Director Barr 2013

Cathy Green
Director Green Jan-Feb 2014; Director Green 2013

Vincent Sarmiento
Director Sarmiento Jan-Feb 2014; Director Sarmiento 2013

Harry Sidhu
Director Sidhu Jan-Feb 2014; Director Sidhu 2013

 
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Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Water Boarding2 Comments

Steve Sheldon Watch: OCWD director shills for Poseidon, again

Steve Sheldon Watch: OCWD director shills for Poseidon, again

Stephen Sheldon, the Orange County Water District’s elected representative from Irvine, continues to use his government position to benefit Poseidon Resources, Inc., the corporation that wants to build an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

By doing this, he may be risking the consequences of violating conflict of interest laws.

The OCWD manages the county’s groundwater basin and provides drinking water for 2.4 million residents by selling it to 19 municipalities and special water districts in the county.

The OCWD staff and board of directors are currently leaning heavily toward making ocean desalination part of its “water portfolio” through a business relationship with Poseidon.

Sheldon, a candidate for reelection in November, spoke in favor of Poseidon’s proposed project at a joint planning committee meeting of OCWD and the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), held on July 23.

The Poseidon plant would cost about $1 billion and produce 50,000 acre feet of desalinated water a year.

In a plan conceived by OCWD and Poseidon, that desalinated water would replace the same amount of untreated imported water that the district currently buys from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (through its retailer MWDOC) for $593 per acre foot. That water is pumped into the groundwater basin.

Poseidon’s desalinated water would cost over three times as much, about $2,000 per acre foot, according to OCWD’s chief engineer, John Kennedy.

Until at least last December, according to Sheldon’s most recent Statement of Economic Interests (SEI), he worked as a consultant for Faubel Public Affairs, a partner of Communications Lab which lists Poseidon as a current client on its website.

Public officials who use their position to influence a government decision that affects them financially have an illegal conflict of interest under California’s Political Reform Act (CPRA) and California Govt. Code 1090.

But during the joint meeting, Sheldon tried to argue that Poseidon’s project would add to the county’s groundwater supply. In fact, as other water officials from OCWD and MWDOC pointed out repeatedly at the meeting, Poseidon’s water would not increase the county’s water supply—above or below ground—by a single drop.

“We’re just really replacing the amount of imported water we need to bring into the region,” OCWD’s Executive Engineer, John Kennedy, explained to Sheldon.

The Surf City Voice previously reported that during a May 21 OCWD board meeting Sheldon advocated for Poseidon and voted to send out Requests for Proposals to several consulting firms to analyze financing options for its desalination project, including direct OCWD funding and ownership.

Sheldon said “No comment” after that meeting when I asked him why he participated in the Poseidon vote. Then he chased after me as I left, only to demand that I tell him if I had electronically recorded his answer.

During a subsequent board meeting, however, Sheldon accused me of misrepresenting the facts about his relationship to Poseidon.

There was no conflict of interest, he said, because public officials are relieved of any potential charges related to a source of income that was discontinued a year or more in the past.

That’s true, but Sheldon’s SEI indicates that relief from potential conflict of interest charges won’t come until December, 2014, at the earliest. That’s because his SEI doesn’t indicate a termination date for his business relationship with Faubel; nor has Sheldon submitted an amendment to it since it was filed last April.

Theoretically, Sheldon could argue that Faubel Public Affairs and Communications Lab are separate businesses, despite public comments by CEO Roger Faubel and Lab founder Brian Lochrie confirming their close business partnership.

Lochrie, a former Faubel employee, started Communications Lab a year ago last April after leaving Faubel’s office with most of his staff and marketing clients, including Poseidon, according to a story at the time in the OC Register.

Lochire took his new entourage to another office in the same building, just down the hall.

Since Sheldon has not clarified his relationship to Poseidon (he did not accept an offer to meet or speak with this reporter at greater length), and any clarifying legal action against him is unlikely before election day, the voters must decide if the wall separating Faubel and Communications Lab is invisible and if Sheldon is being honest about being free of conflict.

But Sheldon’s election opponent, Newport Beach City Councilperson Leslie Daigle, may not be so shy about Sheldon’s Poseidon connection as well as his numerous other ethical and legal dilemmas.

Apparently, her campaign has been using a Facebook account called Steve Sheldon Watch to post links to documents detailing Sheldon’s numerous personal trials and tribulations, including hundreds of thousands of dollars of state and federal tax liens, contract violation lawsuits, and a divorce claim by his wife that he is stealing from his child’s $1 million “off-shore” trust account.

Two of the Facebook posts relate directly to Sheldon’s job as an OCWD director.

One of those posts questions Sheldon’s relationship to Poseidon based on in his 2012 SEI filing—in which he states he directly consulted for Poseidon, asking, “Is that legal since OCWD is studying if they want to buy Poseidon’s desalinated water?”

The other OCWD related post, “nothing but the best for Sheldon,” links to his OCWD expense reports and questions his $1,048 stay at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Los Angeles.

Daigle told the Daily Pilot that she was running against Sheldon because of the OCWD board’s involvement in frivolous lawsuits and its attempt to build a power plant.

Sheldon was one of three OCWD directors, including Denis Bilodeau and Roger Yoh, who as members of the district’s Water Issues Committee (WIC), met secretly with several members of the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce in October, 2013, to smooth the way for building the power plant on 20 acres of OCWD property in the so-called Ball Road Basin in the city of Anaheim.

Many Anaheim residents are opposed to the proposed power plant and want to use the lands for parks and recreation purposes.

The WIC meeting arguably violated California’s open meetings law, known as the Brown Act, so the Anaheim Chamber of Commerce protested. To prevent a lawsuit, the OCWD Board of Directors voted to promise to “cease and desist from prior challenged conduct.”

But the agenda for one of many secretly held OCWD Executive Committee meetings exposed by the Voice through a public records inquiry, reveals that the directors may have broken their legally binding promise.

The Executive Committee agenda for June 10, 2014, contains a discussion item about how to gain leverage for rezoning the Ball Road Basin—if a proposed deal with Competitive Powers Ventures to develop the power plant fell through—by supporting grant requests by Anaheim for developing pocket-parks.

“I believe we could leverage cooperation on these types of soft issues in return for the City helping us kill SB 26 and helping us rezone Ball Road Basin to commercial usage if the CPV deal falls through”, OCWD General Manager Mike Marcus wrote.

The OCWD seems to have backed off its efforts to build a power plant in Anaheim for now, but this month its board of directors voted to study building one in Fountain Valley instead as part of its Long Term Facilities Plan.

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Posted in Headlines, MWDOC, OCWD, Poseidon, Water Boarding6 Comments

OCWD: Directors’ Misuse of Committees Shows Disdain for Ratepayers’ Rights

OCWD: Directors’ Misuse of Committees Shows Disdain for Ratepayers’ Rights

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice
Commentary

At a recent (July 3) sub committee meeting, OCWD’s Director Cathy Green dismissed an idea by Director Jan Flory to have staff prepare a report on the cost alternatives for video streaming public meetings.

Flory wants to make it easier for the district’s ratepayers to attend those meetings or at least be able to see them by watching live or archived versions online.

Few public citizens participate in OCWD meetings, a blow to democracy that is exacerbated by a calendar set for the convenience of directors but not them.

Trying to break that mold a bit, on the day of the committee meeting, myself and a few other public citizens actually did attend in order to support Flory’s proposal.

But Green and the two other voting members of the five-member communications and legislation committee, Stephen Sheldon and Shawn Dewane, tried to table discussion of the item—even though there is no tabling motion under OCWD meetings rules—for up to a year.

Green melodramatically argued that she wasn’t going to vote to have OCWD staff get a lot more information about video streaming until she had a lot more information about video streaming.

That’s right. That’s really what she argued. But don’t take my word for it, watch the video accompanying this commentary to see and hear for yourself.

Green also said that, in Huntington Beach, where she served two terms with me as a member of the city council, video streaming never worked.

“I’m not going to say ‘Oh let’s do it’ and then we end up with all the trouble that so many other entities have ended up with—they don’t work,” she opined. Continue Reading

Posted in Headlines, OCWD, Water Boarding2 Comments

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 Boarding6 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 Boarding6 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 Lochrie 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 Boarding5 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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