Public Officials are Obligated to be Transparent
This post was published March 19, 2012
Special to the Surf City Voice
Last week I sent a complaint to the California Fair Political Practices Commission asking it to investigate what I believe are serious violations of the California Fair Political Practices Act, including failure to report income and conflict of interest voting, by John V. Foley, Chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).
Foley is not an elected representative of the people. He was appointed to the MWD by our own Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC). He was then elected by MWD members to be chairperson of that body.
The details of Foley’s apparent misconduct have been provided in reports by the Surf City Voice and the Voice of OC. According to those reports, Foley failed to disclose over $600,000 in past income, most of it to his wife, from government and private sources. Also, according to those reports, he arguably cast illegal votes (as an MWD director) on matters related to that income.
Those details have been ignored by the OC Register and the Los Angeles Times even though they have been contacted repeatedly by myself and other concerned citizens. That is why I feel compelled to take action as a public citizen: our public officials and our largest self-proclaimed watchdog institutions have failed us, so concerned citizens must act to take back control of their government.
I filed my complaint last week, but doing so was partly the result of a frustrating process that started 10 years ago.
At that time, many of us in living in southeast Huntington Beach became concerned with plans to build a private ocean desalination plant in our area. Initially, it appeared to be yet another piece of ugly industry being added to our community that already played host to the AES power generator, with its huge smoke stacks, the OC Sanitation District’s sewage treatment plant, the City Trucking depot, and the ASCON toxic waste dump—38 acres of hazardous waste material dumped close to our homes and schools—that still needs remediation.
Did yet another industry need to be built on our share of the coast?
Upon closer scrutiny, we discovered that the company planning and pitching the desalination plant, Poseidon Resources, Inc., had never built a fully functioning ocean desalination plant before.
But Poseidon pitched its project as a purely private one. The public would pay nothing; it would reap the benefits, but without taking the risks. Four miles of our streets would be trenched for pipelines, but apparently we were supposed to accept that as one of the hazards of living that came with having a home in our area.
As our research progressed, we learned that there wasn’t any real need in Huntington Beach for desalinated water. We also learned that the “no cost to the public” promise was a pipe dream because ocean desalination was the most expensive alternative source of water. By contrast, water recycling (the Ground Water Replenishment System in Fountain Valley), conservation and retention were all much less expensive water sources.
The more we learned about the Poseidon project, the more skeptical we became.
Why would our public officials be so quick to jump on such a super expensive, energy exhausting, environmentally damaging and out-dated form of technology when there were other readily available and more viable means of meeting our water needs?
When we delved into Poseidon’s dealings with our local city and water officials we were struck by the lack of accountability and transparency that we found while those officials were proposing to spend hundreds of millions of rate payer dollars with apparently little regard for how they would be spent.
Positions on water boards may be seen by some as plumb pickings with nice stipends, health insurance, expense accounts and other benefits along the way. But with election or appointment to these offices comes the responsibility to be ethical and follow the law.
I regularly attend many MWDOC meetings. About a year ago it was announced that John Foley was going to share some office space at the agency’s headquarters in Fountain Valley. I knew that he was the chairman of the Metropolitan Water District. I noticed in a MWDOC expense report that Foley’s wife had been paid by MWDOC for consulting services. I asked about the legality of her contract and what the protocol was for selecting her out of all the other possible consultants. The answers were not readily available.
Now it appears that Mr. Foley violated the law by not reporting his wife’s income (and some of his own) on his 700 forms and that he created an illegal conflicts of interest by voting on desalination issues that his wife was paid to work on and for contracts for companies that she worked for.
When asked by a local reporter about not reporting his wife’s consulting income, Foley said he didn’t know he was supposed to do that. But Foley, who has been on the MWD since 1989 and undergoes ethics training by MWD every two years, should have known what his reporting obligations were.
So I ask, is his failure to comply with the law from ignorance or arrogance? Either one does not go far in protecting the public.
Public trust goes hand in hand with transparency and truth. Those endowed with the public trust have an obligation to give their constituents no cause for doubt.