Orange County taxpayers may have to pay a lot more for a $1 billion Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant if the Mesa Water District gets its way.
For the past decade the developer, Poseidon Resources, has promised taxpayers they won’t have to pay a cent for construction of the desal plant, which would create about 56,000 acre-feet of pricey drinking water every year, if approved.
The tax truth came out unexpectedly at a special Mesa Water board meeting held June 27 to promote the Poseidon project’s supposed benefits.
About 100 Mesa area residents were in the audience.
Invited speaker Robert Sulnick made Poseidon’s case during a 20-minute presentation.
Opponents of the desal plant were not invited to speak.
The Mesa Water District spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars preparing its general manager and communications manager for a thirty minute interview with this reporter and researching my background, according to invoices obtained by the Surf City Voice under the Public Records Act.
The invoices are only four from a total of 30 received by Mesa Water from the consulting firm of Laer Pearce Associates between October, 2008 and December, 2012 for “branding” and general public relations and marketing assistance. But they help show the District’s obsession with its public image ever since Paul Shoenberger became its general manager in 2009 and hired Stacy Taylor as its communications manager in 2010.
In chronological order, the first invoice (7976), for billing period Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, under “Media Relations”, states, “Attended 12/9 meeting with Paul and Stacy to discuss Surf City Voice interview request; drafted responses to questions submitted by reporter; worked with Taylor to help coordinate interview.”
Also under Media Relations:
Briefed Stacy on potential upcoming KOCE interview request; discussed strategy.
Prepared District messaging regarding ocean desalination.
Drafted quote and identified photos for Water Operator magazine inquiry.
Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.
Other categories were Collateral, Event Support, Branding, Community Outreach (no billings), and Website.
True to form for most of the LPA invoices, Invoice #7976 bills $4,500.00 on Media Relations of the $5,630.20 bill total, but does not show a detailed hourly breakdown for each subcategory of work, so there is no way of knowing how much time was spent researching the Surf City Voice or other news services or how much it cost per hour (when asked to explain the incomplete billing procedures, Taylor did not respond).
Likewise, Invoice #7982 (Jan. 1 – Jan. 31, 2012) lists $3,610.00 billed for Media Relations of a total bill of $8,162.00:
Attended 1/4 meeting with Paul and Stacy to prepare for Surf City Voice Interview; drafted bullet-point messages for Paul’s use during the interview; prepared press release following the interview recapping the discussion.
Drafted memo on potential social media opportunities
Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.
Invoice #8009 April 1 – April 30, 2012), however, is more detailed. It bills $318.00 for Media Relations out of a total bill of $8,842.90 and breaks it down in detail:
Meeting with Stacy at WACO to discuss Surf City Voice: 0.50hrs/$265/hr for $132.00
Researched reporters and contact info for Stacy: 0.70 hrs $265/hr for $185.50
For professional services rendered: 1.20 hrs/total $318.00
Invoice #8027 (June 1 – June 30, 2012) lists $220.00 spent on Media Relations, $132.50 for reviewing a Surf City Voice interview with Paul Shoenberger (here) and $87.00 (at $350/hr) for only reading a commentary by Director Fred Bockmiller published in the OC Register.
The Surf City Voice interview (here) that LPA helped Shoenberger and Taylor prepare for was conducted in January of 2012 and subsequently published in May, 2012, and apparently raised a lot of concern before and after it was published, as a series of emails reveal (see sidebar).
The invoices represent but a fraction of the total $290,141.40 that the district paid LPA for an ongoing contract that ended in December, but they illustrate the type of services provided that, arguably, were unnecessary or could have been provided at far less cost by Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, whose $194,000 salary is already relatively high, according to a recent story in the OC Register.
Hourly pay rates charged to Mesa Water by LPA ranged from $265 per hour for work by LPA associate Ben Boyce to $350 for LPA president Laer Pearce. Assuming – only to simplify calculations – that LPA charged the lower rate, LPA did a total of 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week.
That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per year for the same work that Taylor, who has over 20 years experience as a senior-level communications professional, could do or that her new assistant, Ann Moreno, could do in a salary range between $70,000 to $96,000.
Pearce objects to that comparison. By email, he wrote, “I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion that there is any validity at all in the way you manipulated our billing rate,” he wrote. “To test it, ask yourself that if we billed someone $500 for a small task, would you say we could have billed them $400,000, based on our billing rate, if it had been a really big task? It illuminates nothing because it’s not based in reality.”
Recent news stories in the Voice of OC, the Register, Daily Pilot and the Surf City Voice, have questioned Mesa Water’s increased cash reserves and public relations spending budget in particular.
Starting Friday, the Surf City Voice will periodically publish LPA’s paid invoices to the Mesa Water District in full as well as other documents related to the Mesa Water District’s Strategic Communications Plan, so that ratepayers and the general public might better determine how their public water agency is being managed.
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.”
(Editor’s note: This story has been republished below to correct a typo that could not be removed from the http link)
Over the past several months I have been trying to get to the truth behind Mesa Water District’s obsession with Poseidon Inc.’s proposal to build an ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
Since 2009, the water agency has gone from a typical local water provider to become the State’s biggest booster of ocean desalination, spending tens of thousands of dollars in cash, resources, and staff time for a project that makes zero business sense.
So I spent the last week perusing Mesa’s board agendas. I now have a better understanding of the cause of the agency’s new found love affair.
First and foremost, you need look no further than Mesa’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger.
Prior to his employment at Mesa, Shoenberger worked for Los Angeles County’s biggest desalination cheerleader, West Basin Water District. In 2009, he concurrently served on Mesa’s board of directors before applying and “winning” his influential position as Mesa’s general manager.
But Shoenberger has some explaining to do about that victory.
The position was advertised in March of 2009 with a filing deadline of May 8, 2009. But Shoenberger didn’t resign his seat until July 13, 2009.
He may have thought he was escaping the perils of Government Code Section 1090 by leaving Mesa’s board meetings prior to any closed session discussions about the position, but 1090 precludes the entire board from negotiating a contract in which one of its members has a financial interest. Fortunately for Shoenberger, he needn’t worry too much—conflicts of interest are rarely prosecuted in Orange County.
Under the agenda item vaguely listed as “other,” and without a vote, the Mesa board gave Shoenberger the go ahead to start a secretive organization that would lobby on behalf of the desalination industry and developers. The board turned a blind eye and Shoenberger spent staff time and money as he saw fit to create CalDesal. Mesa board member Shawn Dewane became its first President.
CalDesal began with lofty goals, but its membership has remained static at about 70 in number — each paying $5,000 in annual dues — for two of its three years. That membership is divided about evenly between officials from public agencies, such as Mesa Water, and a mixture of corporate CEOs and consultants looking to make a killing in the client-rich environment that CalDesal was designed to provide for them.
CalDesal’s modus operandi is to lobby for desalination projects and regulatory “streamlining” — code word for rolling back fundamental environmental protection and permitting rules that stand in the way of desalination and unbridled development in general.
As CalDesal President and Mesa director, Dewane is reimbursed for travel expenses to the Sacramento based “non-profit” and receives a stipend for attending its meetings–courtesy of Mesa’s ratepayers.
Shoenberger argues that the agency’s support of CalDesal is no different than its support of many other non-profits…like the Orange County Business Council, another non-profit the agency joined shortly after Shoenberger became GM. Membership dues, staff time, stipend pay…it all adds up to an agency that has money and time to waste.
From my examination of public records, Shoenberger spends too much of the ratepayers’ time and dime promoting desalination and not enough time looking out for the interests of the agency that pays him over $230,000 per year.
Much of Shoenberger’s time is spent serving on the boards of outside organizations, as chair of the ACWA (Association of California Water Agencies) desalination sub-committee, as a member of the New Water Supply Coalition (another desalination lobby group), and as a board member of the Affordable Desalination Collaboration (a laughable oxymoron as desalinated water is many times more expensive than any other water source). District resources support all of his outside desalination activities including his many speaking engagements and conferences within and outside the state.
Shoenberger and his board have also seen fit to reward consultants and contractors of Poseidon with Mesa contracts. At a recent committee meeting, board president Jim Fisler and director Dewane recommended that Mesa hire Richard Brady and Associates, the same outfit that completed modeling work for Poseidon.
Mesa also uses Poseidon pollster Adam Probolsky who conducted a “push” poll to demonstrate public support of ocean desalination (of course, the ratepayers who were polled were not told the cost of the proposed water or project). Probolsky works closely with Roger Faubel, a PR consultant who has worked for Poseidon for the past decade and who himself is on the Board of Directors of Santa Margarita Water District. Faubel also does work for Mesa. And last summer Mesa hired Phil Lauri who was the manager of West Basin’s Ocean Desalination program.
In earlier times, the media or enforcement agencies might have taken note of the many flagrant violations of public trust at Mesa, but not today.
Today, Mesa operates with impunity, even when it meets in anonymity–which it often does.
Since Paul Shoenberger became Mesa Water’s general manager, its board members have conducted at least 16 illegal closed-door sessions to discuss Poseidon.
Shawn Dewane refuses to comply with lawful public records act requests regarding CalDesal.
Adding insult to injury, the inquiring public is treated to rude remarks from the board, both in their presence and when they are unable to hear or respond.
The truth about Mesa’s obsession with the Poseidon project is obfuscated by its lack of transparency.
But what can we do about it?
Since the public can no longer look to the mainstream media, or to the District Attorney, or to the State Attorney General, it is up to each of us to participate in the democratic process, to attend Mesa Water meetings, to question, to expose wrong doing, and to propose constructive solutions.
As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Truth never damages a cause that is just.”
Let the truth about Mesa Water be told.
Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach and an advocate for greater transparency in public water management.
Photo top right: Fred R. Bockmiller, President of the board, Mesa Consolidated Water District.
Fred R. Bockmiller, president of the Board of Directors for the Mesa Consolidated Water District headquartered in Costa Mesa, had listened to the public speak its mind at the board’s July 24 meeting.
Former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook and I were the only unofficial witnesses in attendance except for Joan Finnegan, who serves on the board of directors for the Municipal Water District of Orange County.
Cook and I had come to speak about Mesa Water’s policy for disclosing public records. Proposed revisions to that policy were on the meeting agenda.
“With that, we’ve had public input,” declared Bockmiller, who took command of the meeting in his deep and officious voice. “And I do take public input very seriously because it’s rare that people de-stir themselves and take time to come down here.”
Bockmiller was right about one thing—public citizens, including journalists, are a rare sight at Mesa Water meetings, which, with the exception of the twice-monthly regular board meetings, are held during the morning or afternoon hours when most people are working.
Mesa Water’s board and its General Manager Paul Shoenberger (absent from the July 24 meeting) like to brag about their commitment to transparency. But, like other Orange County California water districts, Mesa’s public meetings are not televised or video and audio streamed online—by comparison, most city council meetings are.
Nor is there a monthly calendar online—public meetings are announced on the agency’s website only a few days before they occur.
A bi-monthly newsletter sent to the households of Mesa Water rate payers and available online (with some difficulty finding it) announces that the full board meets twice a month, but doesn’t mention the three other monthly committee meetings during which a lot of Mesa’s real work gets done.
For my own records, I preserved portions of the meeting in video and audio format, but the night’s most interesting revelations were captured – after Cook and I left – by Mesa Water’s own mp3 (audio) recording system that, untold to the public, is hooked up to the microphones of the agency’s directors and administrative staff and records everything said at each board meeting.
Also untold by Mesa Water (unless you know to ask), anybody can acquire a copy of those recordings through the Public Records Act, the topic that brought Cook and I to the meeting.
Cook is an environmental attorney and served two terms as mayor of Huntington Beach. As a long-time public official, she knows something about how local government works. For the past year she has been applying that experience to her efforts to monitor transparency issues at Orange County water districts.
Based on Cook’s knowledge of how the city of Huntington Beach deals with public records disclosures as well as my own experience obtaining public records from Mesa Water, we offered our comments. Whereas the Public Records Act intends to empower the public in its search for public records, we found Mesa Water’s policy at times to be intimidating and inconsistent with state law.
Cook compared the State Attorney General’s “clear and concise” PRA summary that “makes you feel like, yes, indeed, these are your documents, and we are here to help you” to Mesa Water’s policy, which, she said, didn’t always conform to the law and “discourages people from requesting documents.”
Bockmiller Interrupts Speaker
Like many government bodies, Mesa Water’s board allows three minutes per speaker, precious little time to make an important point. So interruptions of public speakers by officials are not only rude but can lead to legal consequences as well.
But Bockmiller abruptly cut Cook off in the middle of her speech, and admonished, “I’m going to have to stop you there and ask—you’re making an accusation that we’re not conforming with state law. So, if you are” –
“Sir,” Cook protested back.
“If you have specific information, I would like to hear it. Thank you,” Bockmiller concluded.
“But you really should not interrupt the public speakers,” Cook shot back. “After the fact, it’s clear you can ask questions. But when you interrupt a speaker, then you really do cross another legal line.”
Cook continued, citing a passage in Mesa Water’s policy that exempts from disclosure “Purely personal information contained in a correspondence, e-mail or in a Mesa water computer which is unrelated to the conduct of Mesa Water’s business (i.e. which is totally void of reference to governmental activities).”
That passage is unlawful, Cook said.
“Any e-mail that is sent using your district’s e-mail server—it doesn’t matter whether it talks about your dogs and your kids or whatever, that is all subject to a Public Records Act request, all of it open to public inspection.”
Cook went on to explain “in a nice way” how the City of Huntington Beach had gone to great lengths to place public documents online, including meeting agendas and minutes going all the way back to 1909 (by contrast, Mesa Water’s websites contains minutes and board agenda packets for 2011 and 2012 only).
Huntington Beach doesn’t have a written Public Records Act policy other than to follow the law, Cook added.
“I would suggest that perhaps you rethink having a stated policy because it really does just open you up to legal challenges,” Cook concluded.
Still stung by Cook’s rebuke of his rude interruption, Bockmiller quipped, sarcastically, “Thank you very much, Ms. Cook, and I appreciate the lesson in conducting a proper board meeting. Thank you very much.”
Jail Time for CalDesal Secrets?
When I spoke to the board, I pointed out that California’s Government Code requires public documents be kept for a minimum of two years, but that Mesa didn’t seem to have a retention policy (there is a retention policy, but it was not attached to the text being updated that night, nor was it available on Mesa Water’s website).
On two occasions, I added, I had been refused public documents on the grounds that they had been transferred to a private non-profit agency and were no longer in Mesa’s hands.
The documents concerned CalDesal, a secretive 501 (c) 6 non-profit organization that lobbies for desalination projects and deregulation on behalf of public water agencies and private industry.
CalDesal was officially formed by Mesa Water’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger, with the informal approval of the board. Director Shawn Dewane is the president of CalDesal and votes on its board as a representative of Mesa Water.
Speaking to the board, I referred to sections 6200 and 6201 of the Govt. Code and section 1170 of the Penal Code, both of which warn of jail or prison sentences ranging up to four years for the destruction of public records.
“There are apparently some people here who may be eligible for a jail sentence,” I cautioned.
I wondered how Dewane could serve as CalDesal’s president and never bring back any documents to Mesa Water’s office, which would have put them in the public domain.
Concluding my comments, I officially renewed my request for CalDesal related documents and asked for Mesa Water to retrieve the documents that it had previously handed over to CalDesal, at the Mesa Water’s expense, not mine.
That ended public comments.
“Mr. Attorney,” asked Bockmiller, of Mesa’s legal counsel, “does this policy conform in all respects with state law?”
“Yes, it does. It was reviewed by our office and prepared in accordance to the Public Records Act,” the attorney answered.
Mesa Water’s PRA policy is not required by statute, he added, in response to further questions from Bockmiller, but it’s not unusual for public agencies to have one, although he could not say how many do.
As for redacting incidental personal information from e-mails, the attorney was less certain.
“I would have to go back and review with them (other legal staff at his firm who approved the policy language) the specific source of this language,” he said.
That’s about when Bockmiller said that he took public comments “very seriously,” recalling that when he campaigned to for election to the board he spoke out often at board meetings and “always hoped that the district took my comments, which I made a lot of, seriously at the time.”
Mesa Water rarely hears public comments, he acknowledged, “but when we do, as Mesa Water always does, we take them seriously.”
In that context, he wanted to see legal citations for my claim that some Mesa officials might be eligible for jail sentences (those citations were provided to all board members the next day by e-mail).
By mistake, Bockmiller and Director James Fisler thought that I had singled out members of the board.
“It’s the general broad immunities that you have when you are serving on a board,” he said, explaining his view of government accountability. “[It] seems highly unlikely that we would be held responsible for that. But that’s ok. It’s always good to hear,” he said.
Director Jim Fisler, who I had not asked for records, took offence and proclaimed that “This board doesn’t provide records to Mr. Earl. This board has not been asked for records by Mr. Earl.”
Lacking the urgency to vote on the matter, the board decided unanimously to take the matter back to its legal counsel for review. It would be discussed at the next meeting of the executive committee, Aug. 21 at 2 p.m. and brought back later to the full board for consideration.
“With that,” Bockmiller declared, hammering his gavel, “we will adjourn for a brief recess.”
Despite Bockmiller’s rude and blustering manner, the board’s vote seemed to prove that our comments would be taken seriously, just as he promised.
But within seconds after Cook and I left the board room, Bockmiller and Administrative Service Manager Coleen Monteleone expressed their real feelings of contempt for the public.
And it was all captured on Mesa Water’s MP3 (audio) recorder.
Monteleone, who had been present as acting general manager in the absence of Paul Shoenberger, speaking to Bockmiller, started the embarrassing conversation with a sarcastic broadside at Cook.
“I don’t care what the city of Huntington Beach does, but thanks for letting us know,” she said, sarcastically.
Bockmiller, laughing, also mockingly addressing Cook, cracked, “What they did when you were on the board, which you are no longer.”
Monteleone: “Right, she is not on the council anymore.”
Bockmiller: “No, she’s not on the council.”
Monteleone: (pretending to speak to Cook) “Beat it!”
Then Denise Garcia, Executive Assistant to the General Manager, entered the conversation.
“I have an experience I would love to share with you about finding records for the city of Huntington Beach.”
Bockmiller: “Yes, that would be good, to find your own records.”
Bockmiller, still feeling contemptuous, then informs Director Dewane, CalDesal’s president, that he has asked legal counsel to look into a “potential legal issues,” such as “that somehow by your touching any CalDesal document it mysteriously turns into a public record.”
“No issue,” Dewane replies.
Director Trudy Ohlig-Hall, seemingly questioning the motives of Cook and myself for our interest in public documents, offers her opinion that, “There’s something more behind it too.”
“Oh, I’m sure there is,” Bockmiller agrees.
Fisler suggests it has something to do with opposition to two ocean desalination plants, one proposed for the city of Carlsbad and the other for Huntington Beach.
Then the conversation turns back to the legal issues.
Dewane: “I would appreciate being included in that conversation.”
Bockmiller: “Yeah, we’ll get that legal opinion, since it involves you.”
Dewane: (jokingly) “I don’t want to go to jail.”
Bockmiller, more seriously, acknowledges that nobody at Mesa wants to go to jail and attempts again to reassure everyone present that nobody is going to jail.
“Yeah, I can’t think of any time when any person in the state of California, under any circumstances, was sent to jail for public records issues,” Bockmiller is heard saying.
“Most likely they might have been fined or, you know, the public records had to be produced or whatever. But it seems unlikely that anyone actually went to jail for a Public Records Act thing.”
Then director Ohlig-Hall comes up with what might be the best bit of advice offered to the public officials at Mesa Water or anywhere.
“Just keep your pants on, that’s all. Then you don’t have to go to jail.”
Postscript: On Aug. 28 the Mesa Water Board of Directors voted to accept the revised Public Records Act policy but with some additional changes. After consultation with legal counsel, it was acknowledged, contrary to the board’s previous assumption, that Mesa cannot require PRA requests to be in writing, although the agency may reduce such requests to writing for clarity. The exemption for “purely personal information” was “clarified” but not dropped.
In response to Director Fisler’s previous belief that board members did not have to act on PRA requests made of them by the public, legal counsel advised that “pursuant to both State law and the policy, Public Records Act requests made to Mesa Water, or its Directors or employees, should be directed to the District Secretary.” At the Aug 21 Executive Committee meeting It was also noted by legal counsel that materials brought back to and stored at Mesa Water are public documents.
Finally, legal costs to Mesa Water’s ratepayers for the latest revision of its PRA policy—when other much better written summaries already exist for free—is unknown at this time.