By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Several months ago this reporter submitted a Public Records Act request to John Schatz, a public official of the Santa Margarita Water District in south Orange County.
Schatz responded in a timely fashion with the requested information, complete with explanatory comments and some strong advice on the ethics of journalism.
Mr. Schatz, who is the seventh highest paid public agency official in California, recently announced that he is retiring soon, but he has been a prolific worker by all accounts.
Not only does he have two seemingly conflicting jobs at SMWD, where he is the legal counselor and general manager, but he also hires out to other water districts as their legal counselor, including a sub agency to a water district that has the president of Cadiz Inc. working as its chief legal counselor.
Schatz’s ability to multitask and collect multiple salaries totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars, while his employer denies any conflict of interest, inspired David Nazar of SoCal PBS (KOCE) to nickname him “Superman” in an investigative report last January.
Schatz has also been pushing a controversial plan by SMWD to pay Cadiz Inc. to deliver water from an aquifer in the Cadiz Valley – in the Mohave Desert – to Orange County.
That plan is a revised version of a similar proposal by Cadiz Inc. made to and ultimately rejected by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California a decade ago.
(At that time, this reporter was an organizer for a public interest organization, Public Citizen, which opposed the project. My stint with Public Citizen lasted all but 6-8 months. Since then, I haven’t worked with Public Citizen or any other organization on the Cadiz issue. Nor do I work for any other organization, whatsoever.)
Critics of the revived project, including Sen. Diane Feinstein, claim that the Cadiz aquifer, located under land owned by Cadiz Inc., will be sucked dry by SMWD’s plan and that the desert environment above it will be ruined.
Aside from juggling the huge work load and ethical concerns of multiple water agencies simultaneously, including working under the president of Cadiz Inc., Schatz is also concerned about the ethics of journalism.
At the end of his letter to me, he wrote:
“We also saw a press release indicating that you opposed the Cadiz Project while working with Public Citizen (Please see the press release at: http://www.citizen.org/documents/cmeep84.pdf). If that was indeed the case and you have had an opposed position to the project, we trust that you will disclose your opposition to your readers so that they will understand your articles are based on a predetermined position and not unbiased reporting as dictated by mainstream journalist ethics. As you know SMWD is the lead agency on the Cadiz project.”
I thought that General Manager/Legal Counselor Schatz raised some interesting points about bias and journalism ethics. So I wrote back to thank him for his advice and to offer some additional comments of my own.
Dear General Manager/Legal Counsel Mr. Schatz:
Thank you for complying with my recent PRA request. Your commitment to transparency in government is greatly appreciated.
Also, thank you for reminding me of my ethical obligations as a journalist. Indeed, about 10 years ago I did organize opposition to the Cadiz project as it was then presented. That task lasted for about 6-8 months. Since then, I have not been involved one way or the other with the Cadiz issue, either in its previous form or its most recent reincarnation under your agency. Nor do I consider myself sufficiently informed about it currently to make an opinion on it either way. Even if I had an opinion, I have no financial axe to sharpen and no obligations to any party involved.
On how to handle bias: Note that all journalists (and water officials) are biased. That is because we have brains and naturally use them to form conclusions. Some of us in journalism and in public office lie to the public and say that we are unbiased. I don’t do that. I am an avowed environmentalist and atheist (you won’t see me giving you a prayer at SMWD meetings, for example) and my overall political philosophy can be summed up as one of “prudent eclecticism” with an emphasis on making the world a better place to live for all.
What would you describe your political philosophy as?
Being biased, however, doesn’t preclude one from being objective with the facts. I take great pride in applying my habit of skeptical inquiry across the political spectrum. And I try to be scrupulously honest in my reporting, regardless of whether my own personal biases may end up on the debunking table. If you read the Surf City Voice website, you will note that I have a policy of no advertising and have strict limitations on donations. Indeed, this DOES put me far outside of the mainstream media—who are compromised by corporate advertising and even personal ties between reporters and public (water?) officials (like you and the “Watchdog”?).
But I like your idea of informing the readers of my past affiliation with Public Citizen. Accordingly, I will update the website to disclose any previous activism that might give the readers a better understanding of my journalism psyche.
Likewise, I am sure that you will post on the SMWD website your own biases and conflicts, so that the constituents you serve, in Orange County or elsewhere, will understand that your actions as a public official, whether on Cadiz or Poseidon or whatever, are based on a predetermined position and not unbiased public service as dictated by mainstream government ethics. Let me list a few examples, to start:
1) Your financial relationship with Mr. Slater (you are legal counsel to one of the “pools” of the Chino Water Basin for which Mr. Slater, who is president of Cadiz, is general counsel);
2) You did a pro Cadiz video before the project EIR was even released;
3) You held three arguably illegal closed sessions about Cadiz;
4) Your wife was hired under questionable circumstances (the position was never advertised) for a position that YOU supervise as both General Manager and Legal Counselor (another conflict) for SMWD;
5) And it is claimed that you also regularly allow your board members to vote when there are conflicts of interest (I remain open-minded about this assertion. However, I urge you to confess any such instances ASAP for the public’s benefit and to sooth your political soul.
Again, thank you for complying with the California Public Records Act in a prompt and complete fashion.
Surf City Voice
Photo top right: John Schatz, pictured on SoCal PBS Insider (KOCE)