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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‘Nowaterdeal’: Desal Plant Opponents Will Reach Out to Thousands of Orange County Voters

‘Nowaterdeal’: Desal Plant Opponents Will Reach Out to Thousands of Orange County Voters

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

A growing number of county ratepayers, inspired by the late Gus Ayer, and opposed to a plan by Poseidon Resources Inc. to build an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach, have a message for the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) and its 28 member agencies:

No more secret negotiations or deals with Poseidon and don’t make us pay an additional $5 billion in local water bills—$8,500 per ratepayer—over the next 30 years for water that we don’t need.

Thirty-years is the time period in which the water agencies that contract with Poseidon would be required to pay for Poseidon’s desalinated water, whether it is needed or not, according to the water purchase agreement (WPA) made public by MWDOC in January.

The buyers “will agree to take (on a ‘take if delivered’ basis) [56,000] acre-feet per year of Product Water (the ‘Committed Amount’),” the WPA states. And if the buyers don’t take that amount of water, they will, “nonetheless pay Seller a per-acre foot charge to be set forth in the Contract…”

The WPA is not final, but it is the culmination of a decade-long relationship between MWDOC, its water agencies, and Poseidon.

The opposition group, heralding online as www.nowaterdeal.com, plans to spend tens-of- thousands of dollars to inform other ratepayers in high propensity voting areas of the county about Poseidon’s proposed “take or pay” contract, asking them to urge their local elected officials not to sign it.

Nowaterdeal is a coalition of members of Residents for Responsible Desal and other local ratepayers, including members of the Surfrider Foundation, League of Conservation Voters, and Orange County Coastkeepers, who at least until now had been fighting an uphill battle against Poseidon’s well financed lobbying efforts and a marketing campaign (largely unquestioned in the county’s major daily newspaper) that depicts its desalination plant as a future fallback point in case of prolonged drought or a natural disaster that would disrupt the flow of water to the public.

Poseidon would risk private investor flight without the guaranteed income, but take or pay would be risky for ratepayers if, as happened in drought drenched Australia, if the desalination plant were to sit idle due to lack of need. Currently, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which sells water to MWDOC, has more surplus water stored up now (enough for 2.5 years) than ever before—testament to the ability to create backup reliability water without Poseidon.

Ocean desalination’s high maintenance and construction costs—and much higher energy costs—make it too risky, nowaterdeal says. Stuck with higher water rates and an idle desalination plant, ratepayers would fall into a rate trap. “As rates go up, people use less water” and “lower demand results in even higher rates, with fixed costs of the entire system spread over fewer units of water.”

Pimping2

Gus Ayer: MWDOC is pimping for Poseidon and should be eliminated. Photo: John Earl

The high cost-prediction is from information provided by Poseidon in the WPA and factors in conveyance and maintenance costs. With an inflation rate of 3.5 percent factored in, that means an estimated cost of $1,795 per acre foot for the desalinated water, compared to $285 per acre foot for local groundwater and $835 per acre foot for imported water, nowaterdeal says.

Acknowledging the higher cost of desalination, Poseidon VP Scott Maloni recently told the OC Register that Orange County residents have to ask, “What is the value of that reliability to them?”

But the underlying push for desalination plants along the California coast by the desalination industry and other development related business interests is not about drought relief alone, as MWDOC/MWD director Brett Barbre pointed out at a recent MWDOC committee meeting.

Barbre supports the Poseidon project and a smaller, less controversial, desalination project envisioned (but far from certain) for Dana Point in south Orange County. He also thinks that ratepayers throughout the county should have to pay for both projects on the basis that they would benefit everyone, even in water districts that say they don’t want or need the water.

“I believe that desal is not only for reliability. It’s also for growth,” he said. “And there are folks on the environmental side who don’t want any growth and they think if you don’t build water projects you can conserve your way to provide enough water for everybody. And that’s not ever going to happen.”

Although most of Poseidon’s opponents have always been concerned about the environmental effects of ocean desalination, the main focus of their current campaign is economic, while advocating for the development of proven and much cheaper water sources, including the Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) groundwater replenishment system, capturing rainwater, and conservation.

To start, the group will focus on about 50,000 voters in 14 north county cities, including Anaheim, Brea, Buena Park, La Palma, Orange, Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Seal Beach, Tustin and Westminster.

Twenty Orange County water agencies had signed non-binding letters of intent or memorandums of understanding with Poseidon to purchase, cumulatively, over 80,000 acre feet of water each year. Since those non-binding agreements expired in June, 2011, not a single agency has yet to renew.

Correction 02/05/2013: Eighteen agencies have signed Letters of Intent that have no expiration date, according to Karl Seckel, MWDOC’s acting General Manager. Those agencies, with the exception of Fullerton, are slated to participate in “working group discussions” regarding Poseidon during the 2012 fiscal year. Four other agencies are participating in working group discussions but have not signed LOIs. Participation in working group discussions is contingent upon signing a confidentiality agreement with Poseidon, but not all agencies that signed an LOI signed that agreement. The MOUs, which one presumes carried more weight, have all expired.

As Poseidon works to form an agreement with MWDOC and its member agencies, it requires all parties involved in project discussions to pledge absolute secrecy at Poseidon’s whim.

That lack of transparency and the overall elitist/exclusionary attitude at MWDOC and other OC water agencies, including their secret and arguably illegal meetings with Poseidon–all observed by a growing number of citizen spectators at water board meetings, as well as the company’s financial support of an ethically challenged hit piece in the recent Huntington Beach City Council campaign, have inspired Poseidon’s opponents, not only to challenge its political hegemony with a renewed vigor but to question the nature of Orange County water management as whole.

A temporary setback occurred for nowaterdeal when its chief strategist, former Fountain Valley mayor Gus Ayer, a master at crafting successful political campaigns in Orange County, died last week.

Earlier in the month, at a recent joint meeting of MWDOC and OCWD, Ayer praised the latter for its groundwater replenishment program and overall good management, but accused MWDOC of “mission creep” and “pimping for Poseidon.”

He also questioned whether MWDOC should exist.

“It’s time for OCWD to take a very close look at taking over these [MWDOC’s redundant] functions and eliminating MWDOC,” he said. Ayer expanded on that theme in a column written just before his death and published in the Surf City Voice.

Ayer’s untimely death saddened his colleagues but his upbeat attitude continues to motivate them.

“Gus’s last words to me were ‘Give them hell’”, recalled former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, who, during the past two years, has actively campaigned for greater transparency in water management.

“That was his way of saying that, if we don’t participate in democracy, we deserve the inevitable results. Nobody can replace our friend’s skill set, but he sparked a fire that emboldens us to carry on.”

 

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Can the Municipal Water District of Orange County Find A Reason to Exist?

Can the Municipal Water District of Orange County Find A Reason to Exist?

Editor’s note: Gus Ayer, the former mayor of Fountain Valley, was probably Orange County’s top progressive political strategist and activist. He passed away on Feb. 13, 2013. At that time he was about to unveil a major grassroots campaign to inform the county’s water ratepayers and their elected public officials that the nearly $1 billion ocean desalination plant proposed for construction in Huntington Beach was unnecessary and would cost about $5 billion extra over the next 30 years. That campaign, which he played a major role in organizing, is still underway. He submitted this column to the Surf City Voice a few days ago.

Analysis and Commentary
By Gus Ayer
Special to the Surf City Voice

Sometimes it’s fascinating to watch a public agency as it flounders around trying to find a reason to exist.

Lately, the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) is flailing like a beached whale.

After a Brooke Edwards Stagg OC Register article exposed the secretive nature of negotiations with Poseidon Resources for “Take or Pay” contracts on January 22, MWDOC scrambled into damage control mode.

  • Their General Manager was terminated after a hastily-called special Executive Session on February 1st, and is now relegated to a back room until his contract expires a few months from now.  Meanwhile an interim General Manager takes over his duties.
  • A press release linked to the term sheet of the Poseidon’s proposed “Take-or-Pay” contracts and a report on the costs of new pipeline projects was released and posted on Poseidon’s website. Sadly, it lacks the details that would allow any accurate analysis of the long term costs of the proposed plant.
  • MWDOC  is coming under increased scrutiny as a grassroots coalition begins a major public outreach program  to advise ratepayers how much they will pay for expensive desalinated water they don’t need.
  • IRWD Director Peer Swan publicly chastised them at a recent meeting for ignoring all of the efforts that had been made on a regional level to provide for water reliability, warning that they were recklessly advocating a project that would become a “stranded asset”
  • Simmering disputes between different regions of the county threaten to erupt again, which would lead for another round of talks about cities seceding from MWDOC or just eliminating this agency and their bureaucracy.

Just What is MWDOC?

The hierarchy of Water districts can be confusing.

We pay our water bills to local water agencies, including many individual cities, independent agencies like the Irvine Ranch Water District, and even one privately owned water company, Golden State Water.

One regional agency manages our groundwater supplies (Orange County Water District).

Another super regional agency manages imported water for most of Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District, commonly known as “MET”.

Then we have MWDOC, which was established in 1951 to administer purchases of imported water from Met on behalf of smaller Orange County cities and unincorporated areas.  MWDOC’s original role role was just as a middleman between MET and 16 small cities with a population of around 80,000.  Three cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Fullerton) were big enough to buy water directly from MWD.

In the boom days after World War II, MET was seeking customers to buy the water from the Colorado River Aqueduct. Orange County developers were looking for more water to meet the demands for swathes of development that would replace agriculture and ranching.

What Does MWDOC Do?

MWDOC has seven elected directors. They appoint four directors to the MET board. They share a headquarters building with the Orange County Water District in Fountain Valley.

MWDOC holds seven redundant meetings a month, each of which guarantees a $221.62 daily payment to each of its seven directors, who typically  attend all committee meetings and also receive benefits and health insurance.   Directors also travel, with a budget over $30,000 a year to attend local, state and national conferences (not including their meeting payments).  If you are one of the directors appointed to MET, you also get paid to attend MET meetings.

In a recent year one director, Director and MET rep Brett Barbre was paid $51,859 for attending 242 meetings and also cost rate-payers $17,435 for benefits, including pension and health insurance.  This wasn’t his day job. He also is a lobbyist for clients like trash-hauler Athens Services.

In an OC  Register Watchdog  http://taxdollars.ocregister.com/2010/03/05/when-brainstorming-costs-nearly-500000/52647/  article, he is described as a “political operative,”  and campaign finance records show that Barbre was paid $20,000 plus expenses for consulting on Troy Edgar’s 2012 campaign for State Assembly.

MWDOC’s Mission

In addition to doing the accounting for MET purchases and sending four people to attend meetings of MET’s 51 person board, MWDOC has struggled to expand its mission to include:

  1. Administering Water Efficiency grants for Orange County cities trying to do the bare minimum of effort under statewide mandates.
  2. A few education programs
  3. Sponsoring breakfasts, dinners and seminars where vendors, consultants and lobbyists can hobnob with elected officials, all subsidized with ratepayer funds and agency staff time.

MWDOC and Desalination

MWDOC directors seem determined to play in the world desalination: turning sea water into drinking water, although MWDOC has no construction management experience and no experience in operating water systems. We might attribute this ambition to their sense of impotence with the bigger players, boredom, or the need to justify their existence. Beware of arrogance combined with incompetence—it often leads to disastrous outcomes.

It’s unclear that MWDOC has any legal authority to undertake any efforts in this area.

Historically, the cities and water agencies that belong to MWDOC have chafed at their budgets and MWDOC’s financial management.  The underlying tensions became so high several years ago that South County agencies looked at seceding from MWDOC to form their own agency. In a settlement agreement, MWDOC committed to a new compact that made several changes,

1.)    MWDOC agreed to change the way it billed for its services to lower costs for South County agencies.

2.)    MWDOC agreed to a specific list of services that they would undertake and differentiated between Core and Choice services

3.)    MWDOC agreed to listen to South County agencies regarding appointments to the MET Board.

4.)    MWDOC agreed to reduce their bloated reserve funds.

Under this agreement it’s very clear that spending on desalination projects is listed under the Choice category, where cities have a right to participate. Although Director Brett Barbre speaks about changing what’s in each category, the actual agreement signed by the cities has no mechanism to do this. Barbre favors placing ocean desalination in the Core category, but any attempt by MWDOC to redefine Desalination projects as core projects would likely lead to renewed secession attempts or lawsuits.

Calls for Abolishing MWDOC

How many water agencies do we need, each with their own expenses for directors and their benefits, lobbyists, consultants and public relations staffs? MWDOC directors recently discussed a project to renovate the exhibits in the hallway that they share with OCWD, with a budget of $1.3 million dollars plus staff time.

The Orange County Grand Jury recommended consolidating water agencies to reduce costs and provide services more efficiently. Others have recommended that MWDOC reduce its role back to the simple accounting functions it was originally designed to achieve, with its other functions transferred to other agencies with a strong record of success, like the Orange County Water District and the Irvine Ranch Water District.

We think that’s a great idea. MWDOC has outlived its usefulness and their continued mission creep wastes the ratepayers’ dollars and creates mischief. MWDOC’s functions can easily be absorbed into other agencies and it’s time to start a process to sunset this relic of a bygone era.

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Revisions in Progress: Surf City Voice resumes regular publication July 23, announces Cal Water News debut

Revisions in Progress: Surf City Voice resumes regular publication July 23, announces Cal Water News debut

By John Earl
Editor/Publisher

The Surf City Voice is taking a working vacation in order to make revisions that are necessary to improve our coverage of water management issues in Orange County and southern California. On July 23 we will resume regular publication with updated coverage of previous stories and brand new stories. Rest assured, this is not down time: we will continue gathering news in the no-nonsense investigative fashion that thousands of readers have grown accustomed to since our start two years ago. In fact, when we resume publication we will be expanding our coverage of water news statewide with the opening of our companion news portal, Cal Water News (www.calwaternews.org). Cal Water News will address, in part, the problem of news blackouts by mainstream media, non-profit, and corporate news services of stories related to transparency and misconduct by water management officials. It will also actively encourage and assist public citizens to become more involved in the management of the water that they own.

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Prenuptial Agreement Stops Investigation of MET Chairman John V. Foley

Prenuptial Agreement Stops Investigation of MET Chairman John V. Foley

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

The Fair Political Practices Commission has cleared the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET), John V. Foley, of allegations that he violated the Political Reform Act.

The allegations were made in a complaint filed by Merle Moshiri, a Huntington Beach resident, last March, alleging multiple income reporting and conflict of interest violations by Foley. The FPPC ruing is dated April 17.

Moshiri alleged that Foley failed to disclose at least $640,000 of income from his wife’s consulting business from 2004 to 2011 and another $15,000 that he earned as a private consultant to the Moulton Niguel Water District since he retired as that agency’s general manager in 2008. Moshiri claimed he also violated the Act by voting on issues that affected his wife’s financial interests.

Public officials are required by the Act to disclose all reportable income on financial disclosure (700) forms that are filed as public records with their local public agencies or the state. They are also required to disclose conflicts of interest and to recuse themselves from any votes that could result in financial benefit for them or their spouses.

The foundation for the complaint’s dismissal is a prenuptial agreement between Foley and his wife, Mary Jane Foley, which provides a loophole that arguably tests the effectiveness of the Act in protecting the public from conflicts of interest held by public officials. Continue Reading

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Proposed MWDOC Transparency Reform Meets Inside Resistance

Proposed MWDOC Transparency Reform Meets Inside Resistance

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Municipal Water District of Orange County Director Brett Barbre’s proposal to increase transparency at the agency through self-policing of financial and conflict of interest disclosures is moving at a snail’s pace, if at all.

Last February, Barbre told the Voice that he wanted to have the MWDOC board of directors certify that to the best of its knowledge no conflicts of interest exist for its elected directors, representatives that it appoints to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), and all MWDOC employees who are required to report under state disclosure regulations.

Barbre would have the board review so-called 700 financial disclosure forms and compare income sources to a list of MWDOC vendors to help weed out potential conflicts of interest.

“I believe we need to police ourselves,” Barbre said, in an e-mail to the Voice at that time. “If it’s not placed on the agenda, look for some fireworks,” he advised.

It wasn’t put on the agenda, but Barbre brought the issue up anyway March 14 under another, broader, agenda item during the last moments of a meeting of the Administration and Finance Committee, which he chairs. A brief but telling discussion ensued with board president Jeffrey Thomas cautiously agreeing to place the item on April’s meeting agenda.

But the item has yet to be discussed in detail or for purposes of a vote because General Manager Kevin Hunt, acting on instructions from Thomas, who Hunt says acted on advice of legal counsel, kept it off the agenda. Continue Reading

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Commentary: Public Officials Have an Obligation to Leave No Doubt

Commentary: Public Officials Have an Obligation to Leave No Doubt

By Merle Moshiri
Special to the Surf City Voice

Last week I sent a complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission asking it to investigate what I believe are serious violations of the California Fair Political Practices Act, including failure to report income and conflict of interest voting, by John V. Foley, Chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).

Foley is not an elected representative of the people. He was appointed to the MWD by our own Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC). He was then elected by MWD members to be chairperson of that body.

The details of Foley’s apparent misconduct have been provided in reports by the Surf City Voice and the Voice of OC. According to those reports, Foley failed to disclose over $600,000 in past income, most of it to his wife, from government and private sources. Also, according to those reports, he arguably cast illegal votes (as an MWD director) on matters related to that income.

Those details have been ignored by the OC Register and the Los Angeles Times even though they have been contacted repeatedly by myself and other concerned citizens. That is why I feel compelled to take action as a public citizen: our public officials and our largest self-proclaimed watchdog institutions have failed us, so concerned citizens must act to take back control of their government.

I filed my complaint last week, but doing so was partly the result of a frustrating process that started 10 years ago.

At that time, many of us in living in southeast Huntington Beach became concerned with plans to build a private ocean desalination plant in our area.  Initially, it appeared to be yet another piece of ugly industry being added to our community that already played host to the AES power generator, with its huge smoke stacks, the OC Sanitation District’s sewage treatment plant, the City Trucking depot, and the ASCON toxic waste dump—38 acres of hazardous waste material dumped close to our homes and schools—that still needs remediation.

Did yet another industry need to be built on our share of the coast?

Upon closer scrutiny, we discovered that the company planning and pitching the desalination plant, Poseidon Resources, Inc., had never built a fully functioning ocean desalination plant before.

But Poseidon pitched its project as a purely private one. The public would pay nothing; it would reap the benefits, but without taking the risks.  Four miles of our streets would be trenched for pipelines, but apparently we were supposed to accept that as one of the hazards of living that came with having a home in our area.

As our research progressed, we learned that there wasn’t any real need in Huntington Beach for desalinated water. We also learned that the “no cost to the public” promise was a pipe dream because ocean desalination was the most expensive alternative source of water. By contrast, water recycling (the Ground Water Replenishment System in Fountain Valley), conservation and retention were all much less expensive water sources.

The more we learned about the Poseidon project, the more skeptical we became.

Why would our public officials be so quick to jump on such a super expensive, energy exhausting, environmentally damaging and out-dated form of technology when there were other readily available and more viable means of meeting our water needs?

When we delved into Poseidon’s dealings with our local city and water officials we were struck by the lack of accountability and transparency that we found while those officials were proposing to spend hundreds of millions of rate payer dollars with apparently little regard for how they would be spent.

Positions on water boards may be seen by some as plumb pickings with nice stipends, health insurance, expense accounts and other benefits along the way. But with election or appointment to these offices comes the responsibility to be ethical and follow the law.

I regularly attend many MWDOC meetings.  About a year ago it was announced that John Foley was going to share some office space at the agency’s headquarters in Fountain Valley.  I knew that he was the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District.  I noticed in a MWDOC expense report that Foley’s wife had been paid by MWDOC for consulting services. I asked about the legality of her contract and what the protocol was for selecting her out of all the other possible consultants.  The answers were not readily available.

Now it appears that Mr. Foley violated the law by not reporting his wife’s income (and some of his own) on his 700 forms and that he created an illegal conflicts of interest by voting on desalination issues that his wife was paid to work on and for contracts for companies that she worked for.

When asked by a local reporter about not reporting his wife’s consulting income, Foley said he didn’t know he was supposed to do that.  But Foley, who has been on the MWD since 1989 and undergoes ethics training by MWD every two years, should have known what his reporting obligations were.

So I ask, is his failure to comply with the law from ignorance or arrogance?  Either one does not go far in protecting the public.

Public trust goes hand in hand with transparency and truth.  Those endowed with the public trust have an obligation to give their constituents no cause for doubt.

 

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Complaint Filed Over Water Board Chairman’s Alleged Conflicts and Failure to Report Income

Complaint Filed Over Water Board Chairman’s Alleged Conflicts and Failure to Report Income

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

A Huntington Beach activist has filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission against the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), John V. Foley, for alleged violations of the Political Reform Act.

Since 1989 the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) has paid Foley as one of two appointed (non-elected) public officials who represent it on the MWD board. In turn, in Jan. 2011 MWD elected him as its chairperson for the second time.

As chairman, Foley runs MWD board meetings and appoints all members of all committees. He also attends some MWDOC meetings for discussion but not for voting.

The complaint, submitted by Merle Moshiri, president of Residents for Responsible Desal, alleges a spate of violations by Foley, including multiple failures to report income—totaling at least $640,000—that he received through his wife’s consulting business and another $15,000 earned from his own consulting business.

His wife, Mary Jane Foley, consults for government water agencies and companies to help them navigate through environmental regulations and obtain permits for water management projects, like ocean desalination.

Under California law, spousal income is considered a 50/50 split unless property is legally separated by a prenuptial agreement.

The complaint also alleges Foley cast four votes since 2005 that were illegal because they indirectly related to his wife’s consulting contracts with MWD, MWDOC and other water agencies.

State law requires public officials to disclose all reportable income on financial disclosure (700) forms that are open for public viewing. Those officials must recuse themselves from votes that could result in financial benefit for them or their spouses.

Fines of up to a $5,000 can be levied for each violation.

In an op-ed column published by the Surf City Voice, Moshiri says that her complaint follows a “frustrating process that started 10 years ago” with a city proposal to allow a large ocean desalination plant to be built in southeast Huntington Beach. That process has been marked by a “lack of accountability and transparency,” she wrote.

Merle Moshiri

Merle Moshiri: Photo by John Earl

But Moshiri’s complaint also follows recent disclosures in the Surf City Voice and the Voice of OC (not a related publication) about Foley’s apparent failures to comply with various state conflict of interest laws.

The Surf City Voice first reported that Foley failed to report well over $200,000 of income from his wife’s consulting work (for public agencies only) and subsequently reported that Foley also failed to report $15,000 from his own consulting work.

Last September, Foley told the Surf City Voice that he didn’t know he had to report his wife’s income, stating that that “I never felt it was required. You know, I don’t have no problem with it.”

A month later, however, Foley updated his 700 forms back to 2004 by including his wife’s income. But he did not include his own consulting income in the updates.

On two subsequent occasions in January the Surf City Voice asked Foley by email what specifically had led him to believe that he didn’t have to report his wife’s income. Foley did not respond. During a phone interview on Feb. 7 he said that he still didn’t think he had to report his wife’s income because he had no access to it. He had updated his disclosure forms only for appearance’s sake, he said.

If Foley and his wife had signed a valid prenuptial agreement stipulating the separation of their property, there would have been no conflict of interest or requirement to report the income. He had never mentioned such an agreement before, and when asked the next day if such an agreement existed, he said no.

Then on Feb. 27 the Voice of OC reported that from 2007 to 2010 Foley had voted to approve three contracts—over $9 million worth—with engineering firms that had paid his wife over $20,000 for consulting.

The Voice of OC report also estimated that – including income from his wife’s consulting work for private firms – Foley had failed to report at least $640,000 of income prior to revising his 700 forms.

In that report, Foley reversed course and asserted that he and his wife did have a prenuptial agreement to keep their income separate.

But the Voice of OC noted that Foley had revised his 700 forms as if he had a share his wife’s income, indicated by filling in the part of the form that asks to “Identify … your pro rata share of the gross income to the entity (trust).”

In the same Voice of OC report Foley claimed that his prenuptial agreement also freed him to vote on the contracts.

The next day Foley made a public statement while chairing the MWD’s Executive Committee in Los Angeles, far from the view of the MWDOC ratepayers he represents. He and his wife have an agreement, he said again, which led them to believe that her income wasn’t reportable.

“It was further our understanding,” he added, “that Mary Jane would never work for any agency that had any connection with Metropolitan (MWD). I now realize that it would have been better for me to have abstained from votes pertaining to contracts between Metropolitan and firms that Mary Jane may have consulted with and I plan to do so in the future.”

Foley did not make a statement to the MWDOC board despite an invitation by Chairman Jeffrey Thomas to do so.

And, so far, Foley hasn’t responded to requests by the Voice of OC and the Surf City Voice to see the prenuptial agreement; but, if the FPPC investigates, he will be asked to show proof of it.

But even though a public official’s suspected actions turn out to be legal they aren’t necessarily ethical—a consideration that is big in the MWD’s ethics manual, which Foley and all the other MWD directors presumably have read.

MWDOC doesn’t have an ethics manual, but Chairman Thomas has invited the FPPC and legal experts to put on a workshop titled Ethics & Conflict of Interest Disclosure today (Monday, March 19) from 1:30 – 4:00 p.m. Invited public officials, not just from MWDOC, will learn how to fill out 700 forms.

Thomas explained his reasons for the workshop at a joint meeting of MWD and MWDOC directors that included Foley.

“Given a lot of us having questions on ethics and filing 700 forms and all the nonsense that goes into having to try to remember what you did and what you should report, what is reportable and non reportable, I thought what we would do is have a little mini seminar here.”

Thomas, who has since revoked his “nonsense” remark, invited members of the public to attend as well. The workshop will be held in MWDOC’s meeting room from 1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.

At another meeting held last week, MWDOC Director Brett Barbre proposed that 700 forms for all MWDOC’s directors, its appointed MWD directors, and its employees, be vetted by the board to weed out any potential conflicts of interest. “I just think it’s smart for us to be proactive and as transparent as possible,” he said.

The idea will be discussed at April’s general board meeting and voted on at a subsequent meeting, the committee agreed.

Public citizens like Moshiri wish that MWDOC and the MWD would have been more proactive long ago, but they will probably appreciate even small steps in the right direction.

As Moshiri notes in her commentary, “Those endowed with the public trust have an obligation to give their constituents no cause for doubt.”

 

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MWDOC Director Proposes Self-Policing after MWD Chairman’s Failures to Disclose

MWDOC Director Proposes Self-Policing after MWD Chairman’s Failures to Disclose

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Following recent revelations by the Surf City Voice that one of MWDOC’s own failed to report hundreds of thousands of dollars of consulting income and voted on projects that could affect his wife’s business, Director Brett Barbre is proposing a novel change in policy designed to prevent conflicts of interest by the agency’s staff and public officials.

Barbre’s proposal would have the MWDOC (Municipal Water District of Orange County) board certify that to the best of its knowledge no conflicts of interest exist for its elected directors or for representatives that it appoints to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). The certification would also apply to all MWDOC employees who are required to report under state disclosure regulations.

“I believe we need to police ourselves,” Barbre said, in an e-mail to the Voice.

California’s Political Reform Act requires public officials to report income and to disclose possible conflicts of interest prior to voting and to recuse themselves when a conflict is determined to exist. And Govt. Code 1090 prohibits public officials from holding a financial interest in any contract made by “any [government] body or board of which they are members.”

But efforts to prevent conflicts of interest by local public officials traditionally have consisted, at best, of legal advice such as city attorneys often give at city council meetings and that relies upon the prior and presumably honest disclosures of public officials.

As first reported by the Surf City Voice, John V. Foley, MWDOC’s appointed representative on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), failed to report an estimated minimum of $248,000 of income his wife, Mary Jane Foley, earned as a consultant from various southern California water districts, including MWDOC and the MWD.

His wife’s consulting work mostly involved permitting, regulatory and promotional issues related to a proposed Dana Point ocean desalination plant and ocean desalination in general.

Foley is currently chairman of MWD’s 37-member board of directors. He can vote only on items before that body but attends MWDOC board meetings and partakes in discussions by that body.

The $248,000 income estimate, which the Voice as since revised to $218,000 after reviewing newly acquired invoice records for 2005, does not include his wife’s other previously unreported income from the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power and several private water related companies going back to 2004. Nor did the estimate include another $15,000 of income that John Foley earned as a consultant but also did not report—also recently disclosed by the Surf City Voice.

Reducing Conflicts
Foley’s wife, Mary Jane Foley, who owns MJF Consulting, was paid as a subcontractor under a contract between Byron Buck Associates and five water agencies, including MWDOC, West Basin (Redondo Beach), City of Long Beach, San Diego Water Authority and MWD, the first four of which are involved directly in ocean desalination projects.

The contract was facilitated by the MWD and ran between 2006 and 2009 with a $125,000 limit, almost $109,000 of which was paid out including about $45,000 that went to MJF Consulting.

John Foley at CALDESAL meeting

MWD Chairman John Foley attends a CalDesal mixer in May of 2010. Photo: Mesa Water

The contract stipulated a minimum number of hours and income for Foley’s wife for ocean desalination related permitting and regulatory work as well as for efforts toward forming a state wide desalination lobbying group to be named CalDesal, public documents obtained by the Voice show.

MWD sells water to other water agencies throughout southern California, including MWDOC, serving 19 million people, and is the largest water wholesaler in the world, according to MWDOC General Manager Kevin Hunt.

MWD exerts considerable influence over water programs and policies throughout its jurisdiction.

As MWD chairman, Foley appoints all members of all standing committees as well as chair persons for special committees for that body. Prior to becoming chairman of the board, he was a member of MWD’s Committee on Desalination and Recycling and later became chairman of the Special Committee on Desalination and Recycling.

MWD records show that on at least four occasions since 2005 Foley voted on ocean desalination issues related to his wife’s consulting contracts with MWDOC and other water agencies:

1)      June 28, 2005, as a member of the Committee on Desalination and Recycling, Foley voted for MWD to enter into agreements to financially support ocean desalination projects for four water southern California water districts, including MWDOC;

2)      July 12, 2005, Foley voted for the same proposal at a regular meeting of the MWD board;

3)      Nov. 10, 2009, Foley voted for the MWD to provide a subsidy of $350 million that would benefit an ocean desalination project in the San Diego Water District, one of five districts contracting with Byron Buck Associates (the last payment of which was made Oct. 15, 2009).

4)      June 8, 2010, Foley voted to have MWD become a member of CalDesal, an ocean desalination lobbying group that his wife helped to form, for a cost of $5,000 per year.

Foley also regularly opines on the topic of ocean desalination at MWD and MWDOC meetings. For example, as reported previously in the Voice, at June 6 MWDOC meeting Foley advocated for a MWD letter of support and $350 million subsidy that would assist Poseidon Resources Inc. to acquire financing for its proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant.

“I am proposing that in April, following the filing everyone’s Form 700, the MWDOC Board will review the form 700s for all MWDOC directors, MWD directors, and all staff, to determine and certify that, to the best of our knowledge, there are no conflicts of interest,” Barbre informed the Voice by e-mail last Thursday. “We will compare 700s against a list of all active contracts at MWDOC,” he added.

Former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook, who has conducted her own investigations of local water districts and advocates for greater transparency, concurred with Barbre’s call for MWDOC to police itself.

Cook stressed that disclosure laws and regulations are not meant to embarrass public officials.

“Every public agency should be policing its own officials for potential conflicts of interest,” she told the Voice. “It contributes toward improving public trust and it protects individuals who may not otherwise be aware of a conflict.”

Barbre, who was first elected to the board in 2000, is the only MWDOC board member in the past year to proactively call for greater board transparency—sometimes to the chagrin of fellow board members and staff, who have generally been reluctant to support placing expense reports online and video streaming board meetings from the MWDOC web site.

“I have been fighting staff on this one,” Barbre said, adding that he has asked that his proposal be placed on the agenda of the Committee on Administration and Finance meeting March 14. The committee would then pass on its recommendation, if any, to the full board for final consideration. If a quorum of the board attends the committee meeting the item could be decided then.

The meeting starts at 5 p.m. and is open to the public.

“If it is not placed on the agenda, look for some fireworks,” Barbre warned.

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Posted in Headlines, MWD, MWDOC, Poseidon, Water, Water Boarding0 Comments

Water Boarding: MET Chairman John V. Foley’s $15,000 ‘Oversight’ Disclosed

Water Boarding: MET Chairman John V. Foley’s $15,000 ‘Oversight’ Disclosed

John Earl
Surf City Voice

Lately, southern California’s top water official, John V. Foley, has been explaining his apparent violations of a state law that requires public officials to disclose their economic interests.

Foley is chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).

The Surf City Voice recently reported that Foley, who was appointed to the MWD by the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC), failed to report an estimated $248,000 of income that his wife, Mary Jane Foley, earned as a consultant for various water agencies in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties, going back to 2004. That disclosure came from public records obtained by the Voice.

Now, more public records obtained since then reveal that Foley also failed to report over $15,000 of his own income as a private consultant for the Moulton Niguel Water District (Moulton) in south Orange County going back to late 2008.

His failure to report that income was “an oversight,” Foley told the Voice.

The newly obtained documents include the invoices that Foley filed at Moulton when he worked as a private consultant for that agency under a contract (also obtained by the Voice) that is still open.  But he did not report that income on the original financial disclosure (700) forms he filed with the MWD nor in amended versions that followed, records show. Continue Reading

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