Tag Archives: Mesa Water

Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Pro-Desal Director Pushes False Conservation Stats

By John Earl

Part 4 of a series: part 1; part 2; part 3

In a January 26 Facebook post,  Mesa Water  and Orange County Water District’s (OCWD) dual board member, Shawn Dewane, proudly announced President Donald Trump’s decision to list Poseidon Resources’ proposed Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant as a “Top 50 Nation Priority Project.”

I am proud to be an advocate for pure, plentiful and affordable water supply for our community,” he declared.

Dewane’s words were telling of the ideological anti-conservation foundation upon which the Poseidon proposal rests.

Director claims conservation is more expensive.
Mesa Water/OCWD director, Shawn Dewane, uses Facebook to argue, incorrectly, that conservation is the most expensive water source and that its costs could have already paid for the proposed Poseidon ocean desalination plant.

It is important to change the mindset from scarcity to surplus, and this project [the Poseidon desalination plant] is part of that vision,” he wrote.

Contrary to popular belief,” Dewane claimed, “conservation does not come for free and in fact, prices have risen enough because of demand reduction [during the drought] that we could have paid for this entire project.” (emphasis added)

In a later (April 19) Facebook post, Dewane elaborated on that theme, speaking of water-use restrictions imposed by the state during the recent drought, which officially ended April 6.

The truth is that the demand reduction accounted for a roughly 30% increase in the cost of ground water to the retail producers in the Orange County Water District are[a], which is passed along to the consumers. That same price increase would have paid for all of the water produced by the Poseidon project. Instead of a new water source, we simply got higher rates and no additional supply. Conservation is the most expensive source of water.” (emphasis added)

Are Dewane’s anti-conservation assertions correct? Mostly, they are not. Let’s examine them:

  • Dewane’s claim: that “we could have paid for the entire [Poseidon ocean desalination] project” with the amount of money collected from water price increases due to “demand reduction” created by state-imposed conservation measures during the drought.
    • Analysis: The estimated cost of the Poseidon project is $1 billion. In the fiscal year, 2014 – 2015, OCWD’s 19 member-agencies pumped 305,259 acre-feet (af) from the groundwater basin, according to staff reports. The following year, they pumped 281,750 af, or 23,509 af less water. OCWD’s 19 member-agencies would have to collectively pay $1,059 per af or $24,896,031 for imported water to make up for the revenue loss from the state-imposed restrictions. If those agencies were to apply that difference as a down payment for the desalination plant, they would still be $975,103,969 short. At that rate, it would take them about 40 years to pay for the plant, assuming that costs wouldn’t rise, which they would.
  • Dewane’s claim: that the replenishment assessment (RA) increase that OCWD charged its member-agencies to make up for revenue loss for conservation (the “roughly 30 percent increase”) “would have paid for all the water produced by the Poseidon project.”
    • Analysis: From 2015 to 2017, the RA rose from $322 af to $445 af, by 38 percent or $123 af. The OCWD predicts that its 2.4 million service-area residents will use 303,000 af of water for the fiscal year 2017 to 2018. For that amount of water, the $123 price increase comes to a total of about $37.3 million. The cost of a year’s worth of Poseidon desalination water (about 50,000 usable af of 56,000 af) would be (based on Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad plant) about $2,500 af or $125 million.
  • Dewane’s claim: “Instead of a new water source [Poseidon’s desalination plant] we simply got higher rates and no additional supply.”
    • Analysis: The quickest way to increase water supplies in the Orange County water basin is by reducing pumping, as the OCWD chart (below) indicates. The Poseidon project would give a “new” source of water, but no more water, except a small amount (on paper only) during an extreme drought. That’s because for Poseidon to receive the $400 million subsidy it needs from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to build the desalination plant (without it, Poseidon says, the plant can’t be built), the water Poseidon produces must replace an equal amount of imported water. That replaced imported water would be sold to water agencies outside of the OCWD service area, at a lower rate than Poseidon water, courtesy of OCWD ratepayers.
  • Dewane’s claim:  that conservation is the most expensive source of water. See part 2 and part 3 of this series.
This OCWD options chart shows that lowering the basin pumping percentage (BPP) refills the basin at far less cost than ocean desalination (not shown), estimated to be from $1,900 af to $2,500 af (currently at Poseidon’s nearly identical Carlsbad desalination plant).

 

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Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Poseidon’s Point Man Spins Alternative Water Facts

By John Earl
Part 3 in a series: Part 1; Part 2

The Mesa Water District and the Orange County Water District’s dual board member, Shawn Dewane, loves to spin alleged factoids comparing conservation as a water source to the billion-dollar ocean desalination plant that Poseidon Resources wants to build in Huntington Beach.

Dewane plays to his political base, hence his occasional appearance on Costa Mesa Public Square (CMPS), the Facebook page where he reigns as the (mostly) unquestioned authority on all water matters, especially Poseidon.

Facebook post by Shawn Dewane
OCWD/Mesa Water Board director Shawn Dewane posting on Facebook.

You can scroll down the CMPS page and see a series of misleading or false assertions made by Dewane related to Poseidon’s proposed project.

For example, on CMPS last April, Dewane posted that “The facts are that Conservation (sic) is the most expensive “source” of water and hurts the poor the most.”

But Dewane’s assertion is false.

Last October, the Pacific Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank that uses “science-based” research to influence “efforts in developing sustainable water policies” worldwide, issued a comprehensive report that analyzes all of California’s water management options (“Cost of Alternative Water Supply and Efficiency Options in California”).

The report concluded that using “urban water conservation and efficiency measures” is the most cost-effective way to meet future water needs and that ocean desalination is the most expensive form of water management.

The study found that, over time, many conservation-efficiency measures save money by creating a negative cost. A more efficient food-steamer, for example, saves 53,000 gallons of water and costs minus $14,000 per acre-foot per year.

By comparison, the cost of water now produced by Poseidon’s Carlsbad ocean desalination plant (nearly identical to its proposed Huntington Beach desalination plant) is plus $2,500 per acre-foot.

If OCWD’s 19 member agencies cut their basin pumping percentage (the amount of water they take from the groundwater basin vs. from more expensive imported water) from 75 percent to 65 percent to conserve water, the replenishment assessment (RA) charged by OCWD to refill the basin (with imported water) and cover fixed costs, would increase by $106 for a total of $508 per acre-foot, according to a OCWD staff report.

That’s about a fifth of what Poseidon charges now in Carlsbad.

Without the Huntington Beach Poseidon project, the RA will go up to $571 an acre foot by 2022; with Poseidon, it will go up to $830 per acre foot.

Comparing the cost of Poseidon water (at the most likely near-future rate) to the cost of the same amount of imported water that OCWD would buy within a year gives a clear-cut picture of the relative costs of conservation and ocean desalination.

The Poseidon plant would produce about 50,000 acre-feet of usable desalinated water per year. At a cost of $2,500 per acre-foot, that comes to $125 million.

The cost of untreated imported water, which the OCWD uses to refill the basin (aside from rainfall percolation), is about $746 per acre foot—or about $37 million per year for 50,000 acre-feet.

The cost of treated imported water, the water OCWD agencies would buy on their own to make up for pumping less groundwater, is $1,059 per acre-foot—or about $53 million per year for 50,000 acre-feet.

By comparing the real costs of desalinated ocean water to the costs of water conservation, it is clear that Dewane’s assertion that conservation is the most expensive source of water is false.

Next: I will look at Shawn Dewane’s claim that state-imposed water restrictions during the drought caused a water price increase that “would have paid for all of the water produced by the Poseidon project” and that “Instead of a new water source, we simply got higher rates and no additional supply.”

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Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Dual Water Board Director is Poseidon’s Point Man

By John Earl

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.

Shawn Dewane
Shawn Dewane at a OCWD Board of Directors meeting. Photo: John Earl

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.

Voters elected Dewane to the OCWD Board of Directors in 2010. Continue reading Conservation Vs. Ocean Desalination: Dual Water Board Director is Poseidon’s Point Man

Mesa Water on Conservation: In Cuba maybe, but not here

By John Earl

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.

The Governor’s plan increased water savings by 28 percent at little if any inconvenience to Orange County residents. Continue reading Mesa Water on Conservation: In Cuba maybe, but not here

Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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).

Laer Pearce Invoice
Work report from the first invoice to Mesa Water from Laer Pearce & Associates

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).

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Mesa Water Vs. the Media: 13 Possible Reasons Why

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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.

  1. New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists
  2. Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense
  3. Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even
  4. Huntington Beach Mayor Proposes Coastal Commission Reject of Poseidon Desalination Permit
  5. A REBUTTAL TO POSEIDON RESOURCES’ ‘FACT vs. FICTION’ FLYER
  6. Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires
  7. ‘Nowaterdeal’: Desal Plant Opponents Will Reach Out to Thousands of Orange County Voters
  8. Can the Municipal Water District of Orange County Find A Reason to Exist?
  9. Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab
  10. Get Desal Permits Quickly by Coordinating Early & Designing a Good Project, State Panelists Say
  11. Election Sob Story: Mesa Water Directors Plot to Remove Trudy Ohlig-Hall from Office
  12. Does Mesa Water Take Your Comments Seriously? Yes, to Your Face – No, Behind Your Back
  13. Interview with Mesa Water’s Paul Shoenberger on CalDesal

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New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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.

Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.
Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.

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.

Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters
Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters

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.

Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.
This Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.

“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.

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Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires

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.

Final selection for Mesa Water District's new logo. Photo: Public Record
Final selection for Mesa Water District’s new logo. Photo: Public Record

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.

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Records
Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Records

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.

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Record
Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Record

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.

Logo considered by Mesa Water for "rebranding." Public Record
Logo considered by Mesa Water for “rebranding.” Public Record

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. .

Native American entertainment provided at Mesa Water's private party, paid for by $50,000 of ratepayers' money. Photo: Mesa Water website.
Native American entertainment provided at Mesa Water’s private party, paid for by $50,000 of ratepayers’ money. Photo: Mesa Water website.

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.

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Retraction and Correction: Mesa Water Spent Public Money on Private Event, But GM Did Not Exceed His Authority

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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.

Sincerely,
John Earl
Editor/Surf City Voice

Mesa Water’s Celebration: Misuse of Public Funds? Ratepayers Pay Thousands for ‘Private’ Event

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

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.

“The starting point for any analysis concerning the misuse of public funds begins with the principle that public funds must be expended for an authorized public purpose,” says the Office of the Attorney General of California.

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

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“The sad part is they are just one more bad actor in the water industry.”