By John Earl, July 9, 2014; cross-posted from Surf City Voice:
At the June 18 regular board meeting of the Orange County Water District, Director Jan Flory of Fullerton asked her nine colleagues if they would support consolidating the dates of four public committee meetings in order to save $106,000 a year and to make those meetings more convenient for the public to attend–early morning and high-noon start times are great for water buffaloes but inconvenient for the general public.
Flory suggested holding two committee meetings in succession at 3 and 4 p.m. with a 30 minute break before each of two regular monthly board meetings held on the first and third Wednesday of each month at 5:30 p.m.
The current system is “cumbersome and inefficient,” she told her colleagues that night, “and it occurred to me that there was a much more cost-effective way of dealing with this.”
Noting that “most of the time” the majority of directors attend each of the essential committee meetings (Water Issues, Administration & Finance, Communications/Legislation and Property Management), blurring their distinction from regular board meetings, Flory calculated that ratepayers pay $106,000 for OCWD committee meetings at a rate of $221 per meeting per director over a 12-month period.
Because directors can only collect $221 per day for meetings, “That cost could be entirely eliminated by merely scheduling two of the committee meetings before each board meeting,” Flory said.
“I can see that this is going to be tilting at windmills to a degree, but I want to express my concern about it,” she added, with deliberate understatement.
Board members can receive stipends for up to 10 meetings per month. There are seven or eight “standing committees”, depending on which definition of standing committee you accept, and at least another seven “ad hoc” committees. The standing committees usually meet on a regular basis and ad hoc committees are supposed to meet as needed.
But OCWD directors also collect stipends for attending a myriad of non district meetings, expense reports examined by the Voice show, including for personal meetings with staff, individual legislators, corporate CEOs, as well as for attending outside conferences, meetings at other water boards, tours of OCWD facilities, meetings with the Grand Jury, tours of petroleum plants, anniversary celebrations (e.g., Sacramento Day), city council study sessions, dinners, and media interviews.
Most of the committee meetings go on for less than an hour, some a bit more than an hour and some go for less than 30 minutes. But only one committee meeting in the last 6 months went (slightly) longer than 90 minutes.
But committee minutes and this reporter’s personal observations indicate that some directors, including Harry Sidhu, Shawn Dewayne, Roger Yoh, Stephen Sheldon and, most notably, Denis Bilodeau, have a difficult time either getting to the most essential meetings on time or staying for long after they arrive.
Bilodeau, whom the OC Weekly exposed twice in recent years for billing the District for meetings he didn’t attend, was late by at least ten minutes for every committee meeting he did attend (according to official minutes) since last January, by at least 15 minutes for 12 of those meetings, and 15-35 minutes late for eight of them.
Even at the June 2 regular board meeting, Sheldon arrived at the dais about 70 minutes late, attending only the remaining 20 minutes.
Directors are paid the full stipend regardless of how late they arrive for a meeting or how early the exit the board room.
OCWD directors almost always attend the maximum number of payable meetings per month and collect 56.5 cents per mile for traveling to and from those meetings.
Based on Director Cathy Green’s expense report for March, 2013, she asked to be paid $215.00 for 380 miles of travel made mostly in several 13-mile round trips between Huntington Beach and the OCWD offices, plus $2,210 for meetings that month, for a total of $2,425.
If Green’s expense claims are more or less typical of other board members, the math adds up to about $291,000 per year for the entire board of directors.
Actual costs for OCWD directors’ per diem (not including transportation) for 2013 came to $164,520.72 or $16,452.07 average per director for the year from a range of $17,469.27 for Director Barr to $26,756.73 for Director Sheldon.
But serving on the OCWD Board of Directors is about much more than the per diem. It’s also about a healthy array of benefits, including health, dental and vision insurance, life insurance, a pension, and a $1,290 annual “equipment allowance.”
Collectively, the total per diem and benefits paid out to the 10 OCWD directors who served in 2013 (Flory did not start until January, 2014) was $406,173.73 or an average of $40,617.37 per director, with a range going from $28,775.18 for Director Barr to $50,653.38 for Director Sheldon.
On average, the hourly pay (based on per diem and benefits) for a director attending 10 meetings per month, assuming upward to 50 hours of paid work, would be about $329.00 per hour.
For such a handsome reward for relatively little work, courtesy of Orange County ratepayers, shouldn’t it be easier for the public to find out what its money is being spent on?
“It’s my belief,” Flory explained, “that the public is excluded by these various meetings. Three of them are held at 8 o’clock in the morning. One of them, the Property Management Committee meeting, is held at noon on the last Friday of the month. So, it is difficult for the average person to attend three meetings.”
Flory noted that the real business goes on at the committee meetings, which are composed of five first-vote board members and five alternate board members who replace absentee regular members in descending order.
In other words, with the full board often sitting at the table for discussion, committee meetings almost function as regular board meetings in their own right.
The agenda items that the “committees” make recommendations on are placed on the consent calendar for the regular board meetings at which they are redundantly passed without public input.
For instance, Flory told the board, there were 18 items on the consent calendar for that night, June 18. At the previous meeting there were 27 consent calendar items, conveniently hidden from the public’s view through the entire process.
Consolidation of the committee dates would allow the public to view two committee meetings and then attend a regular board meeting right afterward, twice a month.
But Flory was gentle with her colleagues, realizing that she was asking them to give up a lot.
“I don’t think that is going to fly with this board,” she said, meekly, “but I would like to solicit the directors’ opinions about that to see where they stood on such a thing.”
Director Kathryn Barr, representing Garden Grove and Westminster, went first.
“The schedule [change] as proposed, as I can see it, would have a very negative effect on at least two of our directors, maybe three,” she said, referring to schedule conflicts held by those directors.
In her own case, Barr said, she leaves her house in Garden Grove an hour before each meeting, and if she were to attend three meetings in a row starting at 3 p.m., “I don’t know if my attention span is really going to be that good going through that long a meeting.”
And any citizen who wanted to attend a committee meeting would probably find it easier to come into work late in the morning than to leave work later in the day. “I can’t see where that would really benefit anybody.”
She would not support the change.
Director Harry Sidhu of Anaheim liked the idea consolidating the meetings to save money on directors’ stipends and said it would save him time as well.
Director Cathy Green, representing Huntington Beach, explained that she likes to get her meeting agenda packets early so that she can read through them and ask staff questions before the meeting. “So, I’m not that slow a reader, but the fact of the matter is I still need the time and when you’re compacting them [meetings] together, I’m not going to get that.”
Director Philip Anthony concurred with Green and Barr, adding that “If people are just going to make the committee meetings just crank through automatically in an hour” it will be “very very bad for the district–and for the public.”
Saving money is a good intention, but not at the expense of getting the District’s work done, he said.
“All these committee meetings are well over an hour and they have a lot of serious work done by the staff and the board,” he added, firmly. “So I would urge the board to keep the present system we have. It’s tried and true and it works very well.”
Director Roger Yoh from Buena Park confided that he was one of the directors Barr was referring to whose personal schedule would be disrupted if the current committee schedule were to change.
For Director Stephen Sheldon, Newport Beach, the “committee system works great” as it is. Many of Flory’s comments are valid, he said, but for practical reasons the current system works best.
Director Vincent Sarmiento, attorney and member of the Santa Ana City Council, thanked Flory profusely for her efforts to save money for the District, but explained that, with meeting consolidation, “by the fifth meeting, my attention span is very limited. That means probably about five minutes,” creating a “diminishing return” that would cause him to “compromise the quality of work we do here as a group.”
Again, Sarmiento thanked Flory for her good intentions, but, “As much as I appreciate the effort, I think that the system we have right now, at least, is working was well as it could be.”
But Flory, still hanging on a thread of hope, offered a compromise.
“Let me ask my fellow directors. Would there be any appetite for scheduling [only] one committee meeting before each of the board meetings, just to kind of give it a spin, see if it works?”
Complete silence was the reaction from her colleagues, who also sat motionless, some with heads down, others looking into space, like school children afraid of being called on by the teacher.
The childish response of the other board members seems odd at first; after all, a spot check of the expense reports for directors Barr, Yoh, Sheldon and Green shows that board members often attend two board meetings in succession.
In 2013, Barr did so four times, Yoh eight times, Sheldon seven times, and Green, six times.
But none of the double meetings attended by the excuse-making directors were on the same day as the regular twice-monthly board meeting. Flory’s one-committee-meeting compromise would still reduce their stipends by changing a system that her predecessors had developed long ago in order to milk it for every potential penny–no way were they going to change that now.
Flory’s proposal to increase public participation in OCWD meetings and save the ratepayers money was now as dead as the silence in the board room.
Nine days later (June 27) I had an opportunity to witness firsthand the “serious work” that OCWD directors do by attending a meeting of the Property Management Committee, scheduled to start at 12 p.m.
But my punctuality on that day was even worse than Director Bilodeau’s – he arrived at 12:10 versus my entrance at 12:25.
Sadly, the meeting had already ended at 12:20, according to the official minutes.
Bilodeau, Sidhu, Sheldon, Dewayne, and Yoh had already earned their $221 stipends for 10 minutes of “serious work” and were well into eating their lunches, paid for by the ratepayers.
“Would you like a sandwich?” Director Sheldon kindly asked.