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.
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.”