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.
“Our attorneys recommended against our Board publicly reviewing and commenting on each other’s, staff’s, and consultants’ form 700s because the board would incur potential liabilities on what is essentially a legal matter,” Hunt told the Voice by e-mail. “Director Thomas, as Board President, made the decisions to follow the Attorney’s advice.”
But Thomas later told the Voice that he had instructed Hunt to take it off the agenda for April, but only because he wanted to make sure that a full board would be present to discuss it.
“We had a number of directors who weren’t going to be there and I didn’t want it decided at a meeting where everybody wasn’t going to be present,” he said. Then he and Barbre, also present, both agreed that the issue would be discussed in July during Barbre’s committee meeting.
California’s public officials are required to file a form 700 every April to disclose their sources of income. Their signature pledges that the information they give is complete and current, but there is no official oversight unless an official complaint is filed.
“This is something that’s going to happen at some point,” Barbre explained at the March 14 meeting. “I would rather be out in front of it and be proactive and have all this certified that there are no conflicts of interest.”
Besides reporting their income, public officials must disclose conflicts of interest—any instance in which they could benefit financially by participation in the decision making process—and to recuse themselves from that process.
The 700 form is a public document, meaning that anybody can examine it. But, “Part of the problem,” Barbre told his colleagues, “is the 700 forms get filed and no one looks at them.” MWDOC’s secretary gets the forms, sends copies of them to the County and, then, “They’re gone there.”
Some government agencies, like the City of Huntington Beach, place the forms online but not MWDOC.
Conflict of interest laws including common law—legal rules based on past litigation—rest upon the presumption that public officials owe their first loyalty to the public when presumably acting in its behalf and that both impropriety and the appearance of impropriety must be avoided.
A citizen might hope that public officials would not only act within the letter of the law but be true to its spirit as well. Hope springs eternal, and to help turn that hope into reality the state requires that public officials who receive a stipend for their services undergo ethics training every two years.
In that spirit, the ethics manual for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the umbrella agency for MWDOC, proudly tells its public officials that “It is a mark of integrity, one of Metropolitan’s core values, when people are able to recognize that they ought not be involved in a decision if there is even the appearance of a conflict of interest.”
MWDOC lacks its own ethics manual, but in early March Thomas announced that the agency would give its own – in addition to what is required by the state – ethics workshop for MWDOC directors and employees, or anyone else who wanted to attend. Its purpose, he said, was to answer any “questions on ethics and filing 700 forms and all the nonsense (emphasis added) that goes into trying to remember what you did, what you should report, if it’s reportable or non reportable.”
That booster training came on March 19, but whether it will increase MWDOC officials’ grasp of the “nonsense” (a term Thomas quietly revoked a week later) of ethics remains to be seen.
For at least the past year, however, it’s been transparent that some MWDOC officials need an attitude change if the agency is to ever become a model of open government.
In that time, Barbre has been the only director to push the envelope, advocating for online disclosure of detailed reimbursement reports, to hold meetings during evenings instead of mornings when only retired people, like the majority of MWDOC’s board, can attend, online video streaming and archiving of all MWDOC meetings, like the MET does, so that the public can view them anytime.
Those ideas left the senior voting block of Wayne Clark, Joan Finnegan, and Susan Hinman, and their champion, Hunt, mumbling with skepticism and disapproval, if not outright inanity.
Reacting to Barbre’s proposal during the March 14 meeting discussion, Finnegan, who represents Huntington Beach and parts of Costa Mesa in District 4, was bewildered over why it was necessary to certify each others’ 700 forms “even though you sign at the bottom.”
Barbre’s certification proposal would not prevent all conflicts of interest, nor is it meant to. But it would result in greater public scrutiny of local water officials and, therefore, increased pressure upon them to be transparent. It could also decrease the likelihood of honest reporting errors.
But Hunt warned that “certifying” the 700 reports could lead to legal issues beyond the expertise of the directors.
MWDOC’s legal advisor could figure out the right term to use, but transparency is important, Barbre answered.
Prompted by Hunt, Thomas confided that he had discussed Hunt’s concern with MWDOC’s legal counsel. “So, I’m just thinking,” he said, “Is there a mechanism there that could give us that [expertise]?”
But Thomas noted the relevance of Barbre’s proposal to the upcoming ethics workshop and its underlying theme of avoiding even the appearance of a conflict of interest. That which “looks really bad” needs to be avoided, he said.
“I think there’s enough in this to at least discuss it,” he concluded.
Photo: MWDOC Executive Committee considers agenda items for future meetings (Surf City Voice)