By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice
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.
Although a quorum was present and Flory’s proposal received a “yes” from the majority of eligible voters on the board that night (Flory, Philip Anthony, Vincent Sarmiento, Harry Sidhu and Stephen Sheldon), which might have been enough to pass it at your local city council meeting, it still failed under OCWD rules.
At least six votes will be needed to bring video streaming to OCWD meetings in the future, but even the coalition of five directors who voted to study the matter is shaky.
Director Stephen Sheldon, the weakest link in that coalition, said at a June 18 board meeting that he opposes streaming because “I don’t believe the public is asking for that.”
And he also made the original motion to table at the Communications Committee meeting. He only voted for Flory’s motion on July 16 to allow it to be studied by staff. That might indicate that he is still open-minded to public persuasion, but it still leaves a potential of only five affirmative votes.
I’m not sure which is harder to find, a director like Flory who is willing to go to bat for the public, or a public willing or able to attend a meeting of an obscure water agency.
One can only speculate why the abstainers and at least one of the absentee voters are so adverse to the efforts of public citizens, or ratepayers, if you prefer, to become more involved in board meetings. But the abstainers, especially Barr, may have provided some clues in their remarks at the Wednesday board meeting.
“We’re being criticized so strongly for many things,” Barr grumbled.
She was upset that board members don’t get credit for their hard work, like reading lengthy staff reports contained in their meeting agenda packets, including a 19-pound agenda packet on one occasion.
“I can’t tell you how many days it took to prepare for that meeting,” she explained.
And nobody in Garden Grove (the area she represents) wanted streaming anyway, she said.
In fact, the Garden Grove City Council televises its meetings and gives the public easy access to video archives of council meetings online, so I don’t know who she was talking to.
But Barr probably exposed the abstainers’ biggest sore spot when she targeted Flory and the public speakers in the audience who supported streaming.
“Some of these people who are coming up here and talking to us now–I don’t recall seeing them before Director Flory came back on the board (Jan. 2014),” she explained.
“And I know you’re helping them with some of the information they’re doing,” she told Flory, accusingly. “And that’s fine, but I’ve been on the board 35 years and I mean some of these people I’ve never seen before until the last six or eight months [ago], whatever it is.”
Hmmm, I’m not familiar with the “these people” exception to the Brown Act, the state law meant to protect the public’s right to participate in its government, which states:
The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.
Without further explanation, Barr announced that she would abstain from voting.
Green and Yoh reinforced Barr’s elitist attitude with their own rationalizations for abstaining.
“I’m going to abstain. I don’t think this should have even been on the agenda,” Green pouted.
“If you table [an item], it should have died in committee,” she said, referring to the action taken by the Communications Committee that she is a member of.
In fact, the committee recommended that the board table Flory’s item, even though there is no “motion to table”, not for a year or for any length of time, under OCWD rules, as the district’s legal counsel pointed out.
Yoh said he would abstain for the same reason Green gave.
Could it be that some board members believe they are huge trees ruling over an enchanted forest, far from the normal world of accountability that the rest of us live in?
If so, that’s a shame, because without public participation at government meetings, human nature kicks in, corners get cut, conflicts of interest pop up, and money gets thrown around.
Like spending up to $1.2 million for a water education exhibit at the Discovery Science Museum or forming a biased citizens advisory committee behind closed doors in order to favor a $1 billion ocean desalination project that directors are considering building with public money.
For the citizen-watch-dog, there’s no ground more fertile for sniffing out offensive misconduct than where the water buffaloes roam, whether it’s at their “open” board meetings or at their secret executive committee meetings.
The clubby nature of water culture, hence the term water buffaloes, often leads to a fast and loose application of rules, like the Brown Act.
It is rare that I attend a meeting or read the minutes of one that doesn’t raise ethical or legal questions.
For example, at the July 2 board meeting, directors argued with the public and themselves about whether a member of the public could pull an item off the “consent calendar” for further discussion or not. Most were adamant that the public could not.
Unfortunately, the directors’ attorney, who attends all regular board meetings, didn’t tell the confused directors that their policy was printed at the top of that night’s agenda, under the heading of Visitor Participation:
Members of the audience wishing to address the Board on items of interest to the public are requested to identify themselves. If the matter on which they wish to comment is an Agenda item, the visitor will be called on when that matter comes up for consideration on the Agenda. If the item is on the Consent Calendar, it will be removed from the Consent Calendar for separate consideration. Visitors are requested to limit comments to three minutes.
Based on what I’ve seen while attending OCWD meetings, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this paragraph disappear soon without notice. It provides the public with too many opportunities to speak and possibly criticize thin-skinned directors.
Another source of soreness for the abstainers seemed to be a critical investigative report posted online that morning by Surf City Voice editor John Earl.
In his well documented article, Earl revealed the contents of illegal meetings of the board’s executive committee, held without notice to other board members or the public and without their participation, going back to 2010.
The 2013 executive committee was composed of Directors Green, Dewane, Yoh, and Anthony.
Topics of discussion included personnel matters, contracts, compensation, and, most important to the public attending Wednesday’s meeting, Poseidon Resources and their ocean desalination plans.
(OCWD’s General Counsel, Joel Kuperberg, defends the secretly held executive meetings as “ad hoc” meetings. However, his advice is at odds with the law and the California Attorney General’s opinion.)
Yoh, the third director to abstain on Flory’s motion, made a comment at the meeting that I think the public will agree with.
“I just want to make a common sense observation here,” he said, “that if there is anything we are trying to hide we could easily just make phone calls or emails or meet off site.”
In fact, the executive committee does meet secretly and did so 14 times in 2008 and 2009 at Director Sheldon’s office in Newport Beach, not in full public view in the OCWD board room where its meetings belonged, as reported last September in the OC Weekly.
I’m not sure which is more shocking, the fact that private meetings (for which members are paid a handsome stipend) continue into 2014 or that the board and its legal counsel condone them.
At the last communications sub-committee meeting, reporter Earl brought up 12 illegal meetings that occurred in 2013 alone. The reaction by the general manager and participating directors was both denial and an inquiry to know how the public found out.
I don’t know how the public could have known: maybe, just follow the money?
Yoh acted hurt by the sudden and unfavorable attention his agency was receiving.
“This is an open forum,” he scolded. “You are welcome to come and give your opinion…If you are going to come and make cheap shots at some of us, it is unappreciated.”
He doesn’t get it.
The “cheap shots” are legitimate concerns by public citizens who appreciate their elected officials when they honor the right of public citizens to participate in running their government.
That approach to governing has worked for over 200 years and is better than its alternatives.