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.
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.
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.”