Mesa Water’s Reliability Celebration: Misuse of Public Funds? Looking back
Editor’s note: This story was originally posted on March 12, 2013 as “Mesa Water’s Celebration: Misuse of Public Funds? Ratepayers Pay Thousands for ‘Private Event’. Voters who are weighing whether to vote for Karl Seckel or Stacy Taylor for director of Division 4 of the Municipal Water District of Orange County will find this article informative. For more information on that race, click here. Also, note that this story had incorrectly asserted that Mesa Water General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority in funding the event. That has been corrected to note that, in fact, Mesa’s board of directors had approved the expenditure.
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 at $49,650 (for labor and materials), exceeds GM’s spending limit—set by the board by resolution—of $25,000.
But on Nov. 27 the Mesa Board voted 3-1 to fund the event, with Director James Atkinson voting no. Director Trudy Ohlig-Hall absent.
Mesa Water director Fred 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.