Shawn Dewane of Costa Mesa is the free-marketeer point man for Poseidon Resources, the water dealer that wants to combine public and private funds to build a $1 billion ocean desalination plant in Huntington Beach.
The project would be built under the auspices of the Orange County Water District(OCWD), which manages the county’s groundwater basin and provides 2.4 million north-county residents with 75 percent of their water.
To the five elected directors of the Mesa Water District, conservation is a Trojan horse, unleashing Cuban-style authoritarianism, drop by drop.
The answer to the worst California drought in 500 years, they say, is to sell more water and build more ocean desalination plants.
“The solution to drought is water,” opined Director Fred Bockmiller during a recent (Nov. 10) Mesa workshop. Conservation doesn’t solve the lack of water, he reasoned, “It just means you don’t use it.”
In 2014, after three years of severe drought and foot-dragging by the state’s 400 water agencies, Governor Jerry Brown mandated state-wide conservation standards designed to achieve a 25 percent reduction in overall water use.
Amidst much recent criticism in the press, the Mesa Water District‘s elaborate public relations program, along with its “branding” effort in particular, seems to have backfired (read here and here).
Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa’s public relations or “communications” annual budget has expanded from about $400,000 to a projected $1.4 million for FY 2014—with about $3.8 million spent since FY 2011.
One consulting firm in particular, Laer Pearce & Associates, had a strong influence on Mesa Water’s public relations approach in the past several years, especially its branding program, and rests at the center of the recent controversy.
Today the Surf City Voice begins a daily presentation of invoices from that contract which had an end cost of $209,141.40. Consulting contracts are not on Mesa Water’s website.
Looking at Mesa Water District’s contract with LP&A invoice by invoice, was it worth the price?
The answer depends on Mesa Water’s (vs. the public’s?) priorities and needs as well as the quality of the assigned work. In the following weeks, as the reader goes through the LPA invoices that Mesa Water paid, he or she can decide if the money was wisely spent or not.
LP&A started working for Mesa Water in April, 2008. In September, 2009, Paul Shoenberger, formerly a member of Mesa’s board of directors, was appointed general manager.
The contract between LPA and Mesa Water came out to roughly 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week if you only calculate for the lower range of the $265 – $350 per hour that LPA charged.
That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per years for the same work that Mesa Water Communications Manager Stacy Taylor–who has over 20 years of professional experience, including running her own public relations firm, theoretically could have done under a salary of $194,000 per year, including benefits.
Of the $290,141.40 paid by Mesa Water to LPA, $152,709.73 was spent on its recently terminated (re) branding program, which included nearly $29,000 spent on preparation for the District’s 50th anniversary celebration, another special VIP private party paid for with additional ratepayers’ money — in the same vein as the controversial $50,000 private party the District threw in March to celebrate completion of its so-called Reliability Facility (previously Colored Water Treatment Facility).
The first invoice, #7598, is from April 11, 2008, to September Sept. 10, 2008. The bill is $3,450, mostly for “Meetings, Consultation and Project Support.” The Monthly Activity Report shows that the total budgeted for the “project” was $51,100 with $47,650 remaining. Also, the report notes, “$54,735 in additional funds were also proposed. The final budget yet to be determined.”
Here’s what Mesa Water, then named Mesa Consolidated Water District, got for its $3,450:
Attended 2/23 and 8/25 meetings at Mesa with Lee Pearl [Mesa Water’s general manager at that time], Coleen Monteleone, Amanda Gavin and Adam Probolsky to discuss outreach and survey strategy.
Reviewed proposed survey questions from Adam Probolsky and comments from Board and staff; provided comments; prepared list of additional questions for the team’s consideration.
Researched and drafted memo on potential award opportunities available to Mesa
Sent chart of local water district rates to team with comments.
Discussion with Coleen Monteleone about moving forward with initial elements of outreach plan.
Click the photo thumbnail above to read the work report in detail.
For balance, the reader/ratepayer can read Laer Pearce’s justification of Mesa Water’s contract with his firm (here).
On March 14, 2013, Mesa Water District’s board of directors passed 5 – 0 a press credentialing policy. That policy is designed to tightly control media access to public functions, like the recent VIP private $50,000 party that the agency threw for itself at ratepayers’ expense. In my public speech to the board on that evening, I speculated as to the reasons for Mesa Water’s new obsession with creating a draconian press control policy. To supplement my views expressed that night, I offer the following 13 additional, specific, possible reasons for that obsession.
Mesa Water District isn’t just building colored water treatment facilities and rebranding itself or building up huge cash surpluses by raising water rates, as reported in recent press accounts, including in the Surf City Voice.
It’s also doing its part in the war against terrorism, and controlling the media and deciding which journalists are “credible” and “factual”, not the usual job of government in a democracy, is apparently part of Mesa Water’s strategy.
That’s what a small audience of public citizens learned last March 14 at a meeting of the water district’s five-member all-male board of directors.
The meeting occurred the day after a nearly $50,000 ratepayer funded private party held early in the day at Mesa Water’s so-called Water Reliability Facility (formerly the Colored Water Treatment Facility) for about 150 VIP guests, including other water buffaloes, consultants, water industry CEOs, local politicians and family or friends of directors and staff.
The new anti-terrorism program falls under Mesa Water’s new press credentialing policy, which was approved unanimously by the board but had already gone through a dry run at the VIP event.
That event was previewed as a possible illegal use of public funds in a Surf City Voice story (here) two days before it occured.
The new policy requires that journalists who cover Mesa Water’s various outreach activities, like the VIP event, be accredited by the agency first. The standards are strict, carefully designed to maximize media control by Mesa Water and the amount of favorable media coverage for the district’s policies and projects.
Some examples of the convoluted, Stalinist, and probably unconstitutional policy, which was passed by the board March 14:
Journalists will be given credentials “on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration such factors as: the nature of the Mesa Water activity; the outlet’s editorial focus, influence, news credibility, and reach…”
Credentialed journalists must present their credentials to any Mesa Water representative upon request;
Reporters who want to record the event must get prior approval and “must be accompanied by Mesa Water staff or have prior approval from Mesa Water Communications Department.”
Writers for online media must represent websites that provide “credible, factual, and original editorial news coverage…”
Writers for personal blogs and websites cannot get credentials.
There’s more to the two-part application, which, it says, must be filled out seven days before, but representatives for already favored (corporate) media, the Register, Daily Pilot, and Orange County radio station KOCI (which is sponsored by Mesa Water with a $13,000 contract that guarantees favorable mentions, according to a Register story), weren’t held to the new standard, since it hadn’t been passed by the board and was used as a guideline, according to Denise Garcia, executive assistant to General Manager Paul Shoenberger.
This reporter did not apply for a credential due to the principle that news content should not be determined by government officials. Also, Taylor already was familiar with my water journalism, no small part of it critical of Mesa Water, which spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of ratepayer dollars to study and to contain it.
My request to enter the grounds of the Mesa Water Reliability Treatment VIP event was denied on the spot, of course, by Taylor, who claimed that I was being excluded because:
“It’s a private event. Invite only. And this is for the supporters of the project, the people that have partnered with us to get this project built. So this is a celebratory day for industry partners and supporters of Mesa Water. We did have a couple of public events prior to this and you’re certainly welcome to come any time by appointment.”
Taylor repeatedly pointed out that I was welcome for a private tour by appointment. But the whole point of my being there, obviously, was to cover that event, which was not only paid for by ratepayers ($49,650) but was also sponsored for at least $5,550 by various water industry corporations, including Poseidon Resources, that have a potential financial interest with Mesa Water.
Knowing ahead of time that I would not be allowed to enter the event—in fact, sources at Mesa Water claimed that staff had a code word they were supposed to communicate to each other if I showed up—I called board president James Fisler to ask for one of the five guest passes he had been given by Mesa.
Then Fisler attacked my preview story of the VIP event as “so inaccurate” and said, “I just don’t know about you, John.”
Fisler was partly right.
As I noted the same day in a correction/retraction (here), the story had inaccurately stated that General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority to spend ratepayers’ money on the private VIP party. But the rest of the story, that the event appeared to be a misuse of public funds, stands correct, I pointed out.
But Fisler was angry at me for other reasons, not related to inaccuracy, because I didn’t write about what he perceived to be Mesa Water’s great accomplishments, like its triple-A bond rating—the result of increased water rates and a $22 million rainy-day stash of cash with plans to double that amount.
The VIP event wasn’t a personal use of funds, he said, and, no, he won’t give me one of his five invitations because “I don’t like what you write.” Then he retracted that reason and said I wouldn’t get an invitation because the invitations are for his friends. Besides, “the flag [thing] bothered me,” a reference to my decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance at water board meetings.
At the March 14 board meeting, Fisler explained why he supported the media credential program.
“I think that we have a very dynamic communications department outreach,” he said. “And we will be having events in the future and it’s very important that we have a process in place to control who is on property.”
The press credential rules do not prevent reporters from filming, like I was doing at that very meeting, he said. “This is about events where we are controlling the size of the crowd, perhaps, or a list of invitees. And I think it’s a good policy to have.”
Then, Director Shawn Dewane took Fisler’s reasoning a huge step further, citing national security as another reason for Mesa Water’s new press credential policy. “Critical water infrastructure is controlled under federal law called Presidential Homeland Security Directive Number 5,” he said.
“Water infrastructure projects fall under the directive,” he continued, “and it is in the best interests on the public at large that people are generally not allowed to walk around public infrastructure projects like this [MWRF] and photograph critical public infrastructure facilities and be able to display them however they might and broadcast that around the world. I believe that the District discussed this several years ago and that this policy is in compliance with that.”
Actually, Directive Number 5 says nothing about protecting national security by excluding journalists from lavish parties thrown for water district officials and their friends, but says that the federal government will help state and local authorities “manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system.”
Dewane’s grandiose concern for preventing a terrorist attack at the Mesa Water Reliability Facility contrasts with all the photos and video images of the MWRF that clutter the agency’s website (see photos on this page)—for all the world’s would-be terrorists to see—and the Facebook photo of the testosterone saturated Dewane himself aiming what looks like an AK 47 at, one presumes, imaginary journalists or other likely terrorists.
By John Earl Surf City Voice
Analysis and commentary
Lately, the people who act like they own the Mesa Water District, namely its five-member board of directors, general manager, and communications manager, have been learning a hard lesson in democracy; that, no matter how much of the ratepayers’ money they spend to make themselves look good or how cleverly they spin their “unified message” to shield themselves from transparency by the water agency’s real owners (the ratepayers), their days of reckoning will come.
Since late 2008, Mesa Water has spent over $290,000 on a consulting firm that charged $265-$350 per hour, according to invoices, to help the agency create a new name and logo for itself (a process called re-branding) in order to “enhance Mesa Water’s visibility and positive recognition” and to create a “unified look and voice” among directors and staff.
Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa has budgeted $3,831,232 through FY 2014 ($1.4 million for FY 2014 is tentative) and has already spent an estimated $1,053,465 on its Strategic Communication Plan.
Besides that, there is Mesa Water’s stash of rainy day cash, $22 million currently—funded by a 25 percent rate increase over five years that started in 2009—with plans to almost double that by 2016.
Against that backdrop, Mesa’s days of reckoning started to arrive about a month after its communications manager, Stacy Taylor, threw a private bash for VIPs (regular ratepayers not welcomed), meaning other water district officials, consultants, selected politicians, industry CEOs, and personal friends or family of Mesa’s directors and carefully selected members of the corporate press.
This reporter was specifically banned from the event for reasons that I will report on later. But I previously reported about the event as a likely illegal misuse of public funds (here) and I stood outside of the entrance taking photos and doing video interviews.
The private VIP party was to celebrate the recently completed $20 million upgrade of the Colored Water Treatment Facility now re-branded as the Mesa Water Reliability Facility. As Mesa’s PR team expected, the Daily Pilot and OC Register dutifully wrote glowing reports about the facility (here and here) without a peep about the arguably illegal misuse of $50,000 plus in public funds that were used for the private event.
To Mesa’s re-branding crew, the event was the successful result of years or work and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Strategic Plan put to the test. Everything had been planned perfectly, right down to the invitations, valet parking, refreshments, musical entertainment and, most important, the press coverage.
What could go wrong now?
After all, the Daily Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water never amounted to more than slightly rewritten Mesa press releases, exactly what you would expect from a local “throw away” paper.
And the Register, exposed by the Surf City Voice on several occasions (here and here) for its conflicted coverage of the proposed Poseidon desalination plant (a pet project of General Manager Paul Shoenberger and the Mesa board of directors), would publish the occasional perfunctory article on rate increases, grand jury reports, pension and salary issues, but had paid scant attention to Mesa Water’s numerous transparency problems.
But a local activists (read here), growing in number, are upset by the lack of transparency among Orange County water districts in general and in particular the dogmatic support by some of those districts, including Mesa Water, for the Poseidon ocean desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach. They have been reaching out to voters, local elected officials and the media with their concerns.
They were inspired by the persistent watchdog activism of former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook and the late Fountain Valley mayor Gus Ayer. And many of them resent the slanted and sparse news coverage by the Register and Pilot given to water management issues.
The Surf City Voice regularly covers “water boarding” in Orange County, including Mesa Water, and has been monitoring the branding issue since last summer when it was briefly brought up within a story (here) about attempts to discipline former Mesa director Trudy Ohlig-Hall.
Investigative reporters Nick Gerda of the Voice of OC online and David Nazar on Real Orange on PBS SoCal have also paid extra attention to water boarding shenanigans overlooked by the Register and Pilot. Earlier this month Gerda (here, here, and here) and Nazar (here) were first to report in-depth about Mesa’s huge cash build-up and its excessive PR spending.
Then the Register, trying hard to come out of a post 2008 recession/depression slump and to reverse its reputation as a do-nothing paper, published reporter Mike Reicher’s story on April 12 ridiculing the MWRF party and exposing Mesa Water’s branding program.
Noting the event’s over all costs, including $1,500 worth of cookies shaped like water drops, Reicher wrote that, “Last month’s unveiling of a revamped water filtration facility is just a small example of Mesa Water District’s lavish spending on marketing and communications.”
Reicher’s story pointed out that Mesa’s PR/marketing budget is ridiculously high compared to other similar sized or even much larger Orange County water districts. Mesa’s extra cash reserve and the relatively high salary paid Mesa’s Communications Manager, Stacy Taylor, were also reported and the usefulness of the branding program was questioned.
What really got the latest round of extended news coverage of Mesa Water out of the starting gate, however, was a guest commentary published (here) March 27 by Jay Litvak, husband of Glynis Litvak who had recently resigned from her position in Mesa’s finance department amidst a grievance process she had officially started against her boss, Paul Shoenberger.
Considering Mesa Water’s strenuous efforts to raise its PR profile in the water community and to make itself look good, as well as the massive build up of unrestricted and non designated cash, Litvak wondered if the agency was trying to make itself look good to a potential buyer—which could lead to its privatization and immunity from California’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act.
The question stirred up a hornet’s nest and got a quick response from readers, including a defensive response (here) from Howard Hull, a political crony of Mesa Water’s current president, James Fisler, but it has yet to be answered by Mesa Water or the press.
Litvak’s commentary in the Pilot was an open invitation for the paper to be the first to expose Mesa Water’s budgetary peccadilloes in-depth. The Voice of OC and the Register took Litvak’s bait but the Pilot remained grounded, however.
Instead, the Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water’s latest scandal (here) was reduced to a roundup of the superior news reporting provided by its competitors, a roundup that nonetheless revealed the paranoid and tortured rationalizations of Fisler in reaction to Mesa’s critics.
Mesa’s critics, he told the Pilot, come from a “small circle,” half of whom are outsiders. As for the district’s aversion to coming into the digital age of transparency with video and audio streaming of its meetings, Fisler must have had an incredulous facial expression when he said: “We don’t get any feedback from that. I don’t think we grow as fast from that.”
When a government body resorts to blaming outside agitators, it’s a sure sign of desperation and disconnect from its constituents. .
And Civics 101 tells us that the more hidden a government body is from public view (video and audio streaming could only broaden that view) the more likely it is to abuse its power.
Allow a government to stockpile large piles of unneeded and unrestricted cash behind a veil of secrecy – fortified with a perpetual propaganda machine – and it’s only a matter of time before the Bell starts ringing, and I don’t mean the Liberty Bell.
The main architect of Mesa Water’s risky quest for public greatness and influence is its General Manager, Paul Shoenberger. But Shoenberger almost always had five eager accomplices, without whom he could not have proceeded.
So, if Mesa Water’s multi-million dollar PR makeover continues to backfire, expect its elected herd of water buffaloes to do what any other semi-respectable elected political body would do to save itself– find a scapegoat and send him packing.
The way things are going now, Paul Shoenberger should probably consider himself re-branded.
My story published yesterday (Mesa Water’s Celebration: Misuse of Public Funds?), about Mesa Water’s plan for a private celebration utilizing public money, contained one very important error: it strongly implied that the Mesa Water board had not approved of $49,650 in labor and materials costs for the event.
The implication drawn from that incorrect assertion was that General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority in funding the event. In fact, he was carrying out the orders of the Mesa Water Board of Directors which approved the expenditure of funds for the private celebration at its Nov. 27 board meeting.
My incorrect assertion was based on my interpretation of remarks made by Director Fred Bockmiller in a phone interview and printed in the article. Bockmiller told me that the board had not voted to make the event private and then said “I don’t believe there was ever a vote on it being an event.”
In fact, the event was listed is listed in the official minutes of the Nov. 27 board meeting as a “VIP event” and the board did vote to fund it 3-1-1, with Director James Atkinson voting no and Director Trudy Ohlig-Hall absent.
In my late night rush to finish the story by early morning, I should have slowed down long enough to double check a key element of the story. It was a careless error on my part. I sincerely apologize to the Mesa Board of Directors, to General Manager Paul Shoenberger in particular, and to all my readers.
The other key element of the story—that public funds were used to fund a private event, creating at least the appearance that Mesa Water had broken state law—still stands.
Editor’s note: Part of this story has been retracted and corrected. Please see that retraction and correction (here) before reading this story. Thank you.
The Mesa Water District Board of Directors will throw a $49,650 VIPs (and selected press) only “private ceremony” to celebrate the completion of two years of renovations on its Colored Water Treatment Facility, according to an official announcement tucked deep within the district’s official website and a purchase order obtained by the Voice.
But the closed event suggests that either the board has trouble controlling its general manager, Paul Shoenberger—who is the everyday boss of the district but is supposed to follow board policies—or in complying with California laws that prohibit using public funds for personal purposes, or both.
The $21 million facility—started in 2000—removes an amber tint, caused by an ancient redwood forest, from part of Orange County’s groundwater basin. But the treatment has a cosmetic effect only because the water supply, despite its color, is already completely safe to drink.
The celebration, funded primarily by ratepayers, Mesa documents show, but co-sponsored by various private water industry concerns too, promises a select group of invitees to three hours of plant demonstrations, tours, Native American music, and food and beverages, as well as “recognition from notable elected officials.”
Sources inside Mesa told the Voice that Gov. Jerry Brown, Costa Mesa congressman Dana Rohrabacher and State Senator Allan Mansoor had been invited. The press release promises only a “commendation from Governor Brown and other U.S., state, and local government and water representatives,” however.
The event will be held this Wednesday from 1 – 3 p.m. at the facility, located at 1350 Gisler Avenue in Costa Mesa.
The press release brags that the facility, recently renamed Mesa Water Reliability Facility, makes Mesa Water the second water district in Orange County that doesn’t have to rely on more expensive water imported from northern California or the Colorado River.
It’s “the largest accomplishment in Mesa Water’s history since its formation in 1960,” the official press release says.
But members of the general public will not be allowed to join in the expensive celebration that they are paying for unless given a special invitation by the whim of Mesa officials.
In the spirit of old-fashioned political patronage, board members can invite five guests each.
Since the celebration is advertised by Mesa Water as a private event, however, it has at least the appearance of illegality on its face.
But even if the event has been scheduled for a public purpose, which the PR indicates it has not, “A public official possesses only those powers that are conferred by law, either expressly or impliedly.”
The purchase order for the Colored Water Treatment Facility renovation celebration, approved by Communications Director Stacy Taylor, presumably under the consent of General Manager Shoenberger, at $49,650 (for labor and materials), exceeds GM’s spending limit—set by the board by resolution—of $25,000.
But not only didn’t the board approve of Shoenberger’s overspending his limit on the celebration, it never voted to make the event private or to even have it at all, according to Mesa Water Director Fred Bockmiller.
“It’s something that Mesa staff wanted to do,” he said. “And this is the way they wanted to roll out various roll-outs of the Colored Water Treatment Facility,” now known as the Water Reliability Facility. “I don’t believe there was ever a vote on it being an event.”
Bockmiller said that he sees nothing wrong with holding a private event paid for with public funds.
It’s not unethical, he said, and other water districts, like the Orange County Water District when it opened its ground water replenishment (sewage recycling) program, do it too.
Like at OCWD, public tours of Mesa’s Water Reliability Facility are likely to follow, he indicated. And, the press release also indicates, tours are available to the public by appointment.
Water board critic and former Huntington Beach Mayor Debbie Cook agrees with Bockmiller that other water districts act the same way, but she sees different implications from that fact.
“This board is demonstrating a reckless disregard for ratepayer money: They act in ignorance of the law, and they exercise no control over their CEO,” she told the Voice by e-mail.
Photo: Paul Shoenberger by the Surf City Voice
“The sad part is they are just one more bad actor in the water industry.”
Mesa Consolidated Water District board members Shawn Dewane and James Fisler are hoping for a knock-out punch against fellow board member Trudy Ohlig-Hall in tomorrow’s election (Nov. 6) on behalf of her challenger, Ethan Temianka, who they have both endorsed.
Onlig-Hall represents Division Three of Mesa Water’s service area, which includes parts of Costa Mesa and Newport Beach. She is up for reelection having served since 1987 on the five-member board, three terms as its president.
The punch was officially thrown at the Oct. 23 Mesa Water board meeting when Dewane moved that staff return with a resolution censuring Ohlig-Hall “for her inappropriate behavior” toward two female employees and stripping her of her committee assignments, including her position on the Finance Committee where she regularly nit-picks and badgers about wasteful spending supported by the other board members.
Until the allegations surfaced, the most substantive campaign issue Temianka had—one commonly used by novices trying to make politics their career—was that his opponent is a “career politician,” an unintended reference to her superior resume (25 years in water management) versus Temianka’s resume—he sits on Costa Mesa’s recreation commission but has no water management experience.
Dewane applied the “broken window policy of governance” to explain his motion.
“If you tolerate the small things, the big things tend to take root,” he said.
Ohlig-Hall’s “hostile, rude aberrant” behavior has been ongoing “since the day I was on the board” nine years ago, he alleged, and it would reflect poorly on the district not to protect the staff “who have no power (a tacit acknowledgement of their non-union status).”
Fisler softened Dewane’s motion to allow Ohlig-Hall to keep her committee assignments, but censure is the single strongest action the board could take against her, especially at reelection time.
The allegations against Ohlig-Hall first became public when the Voice reported them Aug. 29. The incident that led to the censure attempt took place on the morning of Aug. 20 when she spoke to two Mesa Water employees to check travel arrangements to a San Diego water conference. In the course of her conversations with the two workers she was (allegedly) verbally abusive, causing one to cry and the other to sob.
The next day the incident was reported by General Manager Paul Shoenberger to a special meeting of the Executive Committee, which is chaired by Director (and board president) Fred Bockmiller. Fisler is the committee’s other member.
After an initial in-house investigation, the committee opted to hire an outside firm to do an “independent” investigation. The committee would then make recommendations on the matter to the full board based on that investigation. Instead, the committee simply placed the matter on the Oct. 23 agenda of the full board.
The underlying premise of going after Ohlig-Hall is Mesa Water’s strategic plan, which strives to “attract and retain skilled employees.” In order to do that, according to a staff memo that accompanied the agenda, “Mesa Water ensures a professional work environment with written policies that apply to the entire organization on proper conduct in performing the work of the District.”
In an interview last August, Director James Atkinson, who chairs the Finance committee, told the Voice that since Shoenberger took over as general manager three years ago employee morale has been high. But that claim is contradicted by three facts that also provide greater context for the attempt to censure and oust Ohlig-Hall from the board:
1) It took General Manager Paul Shoenberger (who has been in charge of administration for three years and was a board member for nine years prior to that) and the board years to act decisively on an issue that is alleged to have been going on for decades;
2) Mesa Water’s Senior Financial Analyst, Glynis Litvak, has filed a worker’s grievance against Shoenberger—a sure sign of low employee morale, and;
3) Mesa Water’s former Chief Financial Officer Victoria Beatley abruptly resigned last June and now works as the treasurer for the city of Seal Beach. A knowledgeable source told the Voice that Beatley was escorted out of the door on the day that she left. Contacted by the Voice, Beatley would only say that “I left voluntarily” – another sign of an unhappy employment experience by high-level staff at Mesa Water.
The investigator’s report evokes sympathy for staff members who allegedly had to put up with Ohlig-Hall’s behavior for years. But it also evokes sympathy for the director herself—she may have troubles of her own but is far from the wicked witch that Dewane and Fisler depict her as.
The report shows that Ohlig-Hall has a history of inappropriate behavior toward various Mesa Water staff: being moody on the phone and then calling later apologetically; taking up excessive staff time to make travel arrangements; talking about her disagreements with the general manager and other directors; repeatedly criticizing one employee about her clothing and hair style and telling her that she couldn’t do anything right; and, in the latest incident, referring to her as “stupid” and telling the other employee (who sobbed) that “I’m fucking sick and tired of people apologizing to me. You don’t understand. I’m alone here and (name of other employee) was rude to me. I can’t take another damn thing today.”
Ohlig-Hall was unique among the five directors, the rest always being polite and easy to deal with, according to staff interviewed by the investigator.
“Different times of the month, it just depends, she just gets lonely,” said the employee who sobbed. Her (Ohlig-Hall’s) children live far from her. She would call and say she had just been upset about somebody else, trying to check her own behavior. But she became worse after her husband died several years ago. “And I think that was the difference completely in this incident. That was just directly toward us.”
Ohlig-Hall refused to be interviewed by the hired investigator on advice from her attorney, but she had already been interviewed by Mesa Water’s Human Resources Analyst, Shelly Cisneros. The director told her that although she often spoke loudly to staff she wasn’t yelling. She denied calling any worker stupid or using foul language toward any of them.
“I love those kids,” she said, now sobbing herself. “Shit, I would never hurt them.”
Ohlig-Hall complained that Shoenberger would not let the issue go and was making a “big deal” about it. She didn’t want it to go to the board for its judgement. “If I get reelected,” she warned, “I am going to be spending the next four years with him and I think he should leave it alone.”
The day after the incident, Ohlig-Hall, whose first language is German and who struggles with English, sent an apologetic e-mail to the employee who had sobbed, describing the incident as a big misunderstanding. “I like to say I AM SORRY from the bottom of my hart (sic). Never would I hurt you intangibly (sic) you mean a lot to me.”
The board could have directed staff to prepare a resolution demanding that Ohlig-Hall publicly apologize to the two employees and prohibiting her from contacting staff without going through the general manager first. But in the eyes of board president Fred Bockmiller, who had handled the affair with balance throughout, she lost her chance for that option when she walked out of the meeting after Dewane’s motion for a resolution of censure.
Atkinson was more sympathetic toward Ohil-Hall and gave her the benefit of doubt. He agreed that “a change of behavior is necessary.” But the issue could have been handled differently, he said. The other board members were “politicizing the problem much more than it needs to be,” which he thought was probably why Ohlig-Hall left the meeting, not because she didn’t want to apologize.
But long-time Ohlig-Hall friend and supporter Ernie Feene, speaking during public comments at the meeting, was more direct, calling the string of events leading up to the present “ludicrous” and slamming Dewane and Fisler for political bias. “For the two of you to bring up things that she has supposedly done for 25 years [that] is not on tonight’s agenda—it’s absolutely out of order,” she protested.
But Dewane dug in deeper. Ohlig-Hall has become a financial liability due to potential lawsuits, he said, while ignoring the board’s own neglect of the issue for years. And each director has been exposed to her “cannon” and their wives have refused to sit with her ever again after having dinner with her at gatherings. “It’s intolerable. I will not stand for it”, he proclaimed.
In the past two years that I have sat in on countless water board meetings, mostly at the Municipal Water District of Orange County, but also at other water agencies, I have never noticed any rude behavior from Director Ohlig-Hall nor received any reports of rude behavior, save for one time when I was told that during a private conversation she had referred to a friend of mine, Debbie Cook, as a “bitch.”
But only recently both Debbie and I have received far worse treatment from Ohlig-Hall’s accusers at Mesa Water, which I have written about in detail (see “Does Mesa Take Your Comments Seriously”). And one of the key witnesses against her, Coleen Monteleone, Mesa Water’s Administrative Manager, was also mixed up in that sordid affair which showed the public agency’s contempt for public opinion.
Add to that Fisler’s remarks posted under an assumed identity on the Orange Juice blog, insulting my hygiene, eating habits and patriotism—laughable but also unbecoming (not to mention cowardly) of a public official.
And Bockmiller has a reputation even among those voters I have spoken to who greatly prefer him over his election opponent, Costa Mesa’s mayor Eric Bever, as being generally arrogant at public meetings.
There has not been nor is there likely to be a public apology from Bockmiller, Fisler or the staff for their rude and abusive behavior toward the public. Nor will they censure themselves, of course. But they have had no problem judging Ohlig-Hall, so far.
Dewane’s motion passed 3 -1, Atkinson voting no and Ohlig-Hall long gone from the room. General Manager Paul Shoenberger will draw up a resolution censuring her and the board will vote on it at the next meeting in November, after the election.
But Temianka’s supporters jumped the gun, sending out fliers by email falsely stating that the Mesa Water board had already voted to censure his election opponent, Trudy Ohlig-Hall, whose inept social skills and tendency to nit-pick about budget items have finally annoyed too many people too much.
It seems that the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors of the Mesa Consolidated Water District, whose members, along with General Manager Paul Shoenberger, like to brag about their dedication to transparency, tried but failed to pull a fast one today – to hide from public view two public meetings at which possible disciplinary action, including censure, against another board member will be considered, the Voice has learned.
Earlier today, this reporter was informed by sources that the first meeting would be held today at 3:30 p.m. in the district’s conference room. Normally, all public meetings, including committee meetings, are listed in the right-hand column of the district’s website, visible on every page.
But notices of today’s “Special” meeting and another one scheduled for tomorrow at the same time, are tucked away under two menu tabs, “Board of Directors” and “Committee Meetings”, that the website’s regular viewers, who are accustomed to the regular posting policy, are likely to miss.
A cryptic press release, also obscured behind website menu tabs, slips the following passage in between several paragraphs about Mesa Water’s long-range strategic plan and claims about what a wonderful place it is to work at:
“There was a recent report to Mesa Water’s human resources department involving District staff and one of its Board members; Mesa Water is taking this very seriously. Mesa Water is investigating the event and will report the results of the investigation after it is completed and the proper course of action is determined.”
But the agendas for the two meetings are even more cryptic, listing under Action Items, “Mesa Water Staff (no enclosure)” and “Other (no enclosure),” without a clue given to the nature of the accusation or which board member was allegedly involved, much less the context also missing from the press release—a long-festering dispute over budget matters between Trudy Ohlig-Hall and Paul Shoenberger.
Shoenberger’s hostility toward Ohlig-Hall was obvious as he sat, red-faced, at the Aug. 20 meeting of the two-member Finance Committee of Director James Atkinson (chairman) and Ohlig-Hall.
One could easily say that Ohlig-Hall nit-picked the GM on various contract items but also hit the nail on the head about over $200,000 dubiously spent on a public relations consultant to help with “branding” and media relations—including, documents obtained by the Voice show, probably thousands of dollars spent teaching Shoenberger how to respond to inquiries from this reporter and researching my background.
Shoenberger was already red-faced about pointed questions this reporter asked moments before during the same meeting, about tens of thousands of dollars of hidden labor and service expenditures by Mesa Water involving CalDesal, a secretive desalination lobbying organization originally incorporated in Shoenberger’s name under the direction of the Mesa Board.
The next day, Aug. 21, at the Executive Committee meeting, chaired by board President Fred Bockmiller with Director James Fisler, Shoenberger dropped the bombshell about Ohlig-Hall, without mentioning her by name, under another cryptically placed agenda item and in a memo from Shoenberger to the committee. In that memo, Shoeberger described the following incident that allegedly took place prior to the Finance Committee meeting the day before:
“On Monday, August 20, 2012 prior to 12:00 noon, I observed an employee sobbing. It was reported to me that two employees had a difficult interaction with a Director over the phone that included the Director allegedly yelling and using curse words. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident.
“We are looking into various options as to controlling the interaction between Board members and the staff, which may include Directors speaking only with the General Manager and the Administrative Services Manager.”
A discussion ensued, without mentioning Ohlilg-Hall by name (she was not present) in which various but options limited by law were discussed, including censure, stripping the director of all her committee assignments, and, the one that Shoenberger seemed to prefer, requiring that all the directors speak only to him and his assistant, Administrative Services Manager Coleen Monteleone—an option that would further insulate from accountability a man who already has a substantial amount of independent power over the financial affairs of the district .
Bockmiller rejected Shoenberger’s power-grab option as potentially divisive and “unacceptable,” to which Shoenberger quickly warned, “Our HR attorney said the potentially worse case could be a lawsuit [by the alleged employee/victim]. First and foremost, we need to protect employees from harassment.”
Bockmiller opined that the district would have no legal liability if the director had acted outside of his or her job description, but acknowledged that “This kind of thing is about as bad as it gets.”
But was the alleged incident really that bad?
Since Shoenberger was not privy to the contents of the phone conversation, only the alleged victim of harassment and Ohlig-Hall could know the answer to that question.
Ohlig-Hall told the Voice that she was very sorry for the incident and had sent an apology by e-mail to the employee the next morning, but that the incident had been overblown.
At the time of the phone call she was upset, she said, because she had been booked by the employee at a hotel for a San Diego water conference, partly paid for by the district with an upgrade that she prepared to pay out of pocket, on a night for which the conference had been cancelled. During the conversation, she claims, she did raise her voice but did not use curse words. By her account, in frustration, she said, “Screw it, I’m not going [to the conference].” In fact, she didn’t attend any of the two-day conference.
It’s no secret around Mesa Water that Ohlig-Hall, who has served three terms on the board, can be temperamental at times, something even she acknowledges. Add to that her strong German accent and trouble with the English language – sometimes it’s impossible for this reporter to understand what she is saying from the dais – and it’s easy to see how misunderstandings might occur between her and staff.
But on its face it’s hard to see why her latest incident is being taken so seriously by her fellow board members at this time.
As Director Fisler pointed out at the Executive Committee meeting Aug 21, one solution for the employee who feels abused over the phone is to “just hang up.”
Ohlig-Hall’s behavior, by her own account, was unacceptable, but there may be another reason for Shoenberger’s and the rest of the board’s sudden concern for employee rights.
Her often annoying habit of belaboring or nit-picking a budget point to death causes some other board members to accuse her of micromanaging, something she says is part of her job of looking out for the interests of Mesa Water’s rate payers and that she will never apologize for.
In any case, Ohlig-Hall’s hearing today, held in a public meeting without her active participation and despite potential legal concerns about the right to privacy of the alleged victim, may lead to a greater understanding of what goes on beyond the public’s view at the Mesa Water Consolidated Water District.