OCWD’s Sarmiento: “All of Us Want to be Transparent,” snicker. UPDATE – Vince Rotates Off the Board


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By John Earl
cross-posted from Surf City Voice

Which delusion of grandeur do elected officials suffer from the most?

Answer: that they have only our best interests at heart.

That delusion plays out often at meetings of the Orange County Water District’s board of directors.

Sarmiento;  photo by John Earl.

Sarmiento; photo by John Earl.

Take Vincent Sarimiento, appointed to the board by the Santa Ana City Council upon which he serves. He isn’t the only delusional OCWD director, but he does ooze with sincerity.

But first, some background.

The OCWD manages the groundwater underneath the Santa Ana river, supplying 70 percent of the drinking water for 2.4 million residents living in 17 cities in central and northern Orange County.

The OCWD was formed in 1933.  To this day, its board has performed largely outside of public view, unlike Orange County’s city councils which enjoy regular public scrutiny.

As if upholding sacred tradition, the OCWD board treats the water district as its fiefdom, which it gladly shares with fellow water buffaloes (as long as they flow with the herd) but not with the unknowing rate-paying masses whom it treats as outsiders.

For more than a year, former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook and myself, along with other ratepayers, tried to stop the OCWD board’s misuse of committees to rubber-stamp important actions without public discussion.

We also exposed altered and previously hidden public records, secret executive committee meetings, serious conflicts of interests held by directors, illegal discussions, implementation of new procedures without a board vote, and bullying of public speakers.

And we watched the OCWD board rush to the negotiating table with a developer’s proposed $1 billion ocean desalination plant that will replace imported water at three to 10 times the cost for 30 years—without adding a drop to Orange County’s water supply.

Accountable government feeds on public access, yet most of OCWD’s directors treated our requests for transparency, including live Internet streaming of their inconveniently scheduled and poorly attended meetings, with disdain.

Fifteen of the 17 cities in OCWD’s service area, including Santa Ana, have successfully provided live video streaming for years, but not one of Orange County’s 16 water districts provide it (South Coast Water District broadcasts its meetings on local cable television).

Thanks to Director Jan Flory of Fullerton, however, live streaming for OCWD was at least considered in committee last July 3.

Dewane, transparency's staunchest foe.

Dewane, transparency’s staunchest foe.

Director Shawn Dewane, who chaired the illegal secret Executive Committee meetings as the board’s past president, disliked Flory’s idea so much that he tried to table it—for one year—by using a rule that does not exist in the District’s bylaws.

Directors Dewane, Denis Bilodeau, Kathryn Barr (now retired), Roger Yoh, and Cathy Green continued to use parliamentary maneuvers to stall a vote on live streaming.

But through Flory’s efforts and growing public pressure, the issue was finally put to a vote by the full board last January 21.

That’s when Sarmiento lost his grip on reality (and syntax), as he often does at board meetings during discussions about transparency.

“In any event, I think talking about this, all of us want to be transparent.  I think we all are,” he said.

“And I think we are in the age of open government,” he added, ignoring his own board’s behavior.

Sarmiento uses double talk to keep friends on the board while creating the appearance of objectivity to the public. But his double talk always leads him to put tradition before transparency.

In Sarmiento’s view, the only purpose for live video streaming his Santa Ana City Council meetings is the appearance of openness—because nothing “sinister” could happen, anyway.

“So, I understand why Director Flory believes this is an important step,” he ventured.

“I know at cities we are constantly trying to engage the public as much as possible and disclose as much information as we possibly can, just because we don’t want the perception to be that something is being hidden.” (Emphasis added)

(Even appearances aren’t important at OCWD, Sarmiento believes, because the call for streaming is “driven by a single issue,” i. e., opposition to the proposed desalination plant.)

Fear accompanies Sarmiento’s self-delusion; opening government, even for appearances, is dangerous.

Open government is a “slippery slope” that could lead to additional expense for closed captioning (currently not required by law) to benefit hearing-impaired ratepayers—a group the board majority didn’t want to accommodate.

“If we want to make sure we engage the public, then let’s be sincere about it and let’s do it thoroughly,” Sarmiento said.

That would mean adding $17,500 to a yearly streaming cost $12,000 to $20,000, after start up costs, according to staff.

As part of a $206 million budget, those figures would compare quite well to other far less useful expenses paid on behalf of OCWD’s directors since last July, including:

  • Corner Bakery $1,210.09
  • Lucci’s Deli $6,353.00
  • Top Hat Productions (Catering) $1,965.66

top hat spreadThat’s $9,528 paid by ratepayers in just seven months to feed the directors as an incentive to get them to their meetings.

The District also spent $5,043 on video recording—that could have been done in-house—of seven monthly meetings of the Water Advisory Committee (WACO), a biased public forum intended to push the party line on policy matters.

If Sarmiento is really concerned about a slippery slope, he should oppose the excessive WACO cost and tell his colleagues to eat with their own money.

But it’s not the public’s interest that wins him over at the end of the day.

“I’m just torn that if we go down this path, we go down and do more things, the public could say they want to look at our calendars and they want to look at different other things.”

(In this reporter’s experience, it is the “different other things” that are often worth knowing.)

“That is certainly disclosable,” Sarmiento admitted.

“But we have to be prepared that if we go down this path there’s going to be other demands made on this board. And rightfully so.”

“It’s a public agency,” he concluded, oozing with sincerity, before he voted down the public’s demand for transparency.

Flory’s motion for live video streaming of OCWD board and committee meetings was defeated 8 -2 (Flory and Cathy Green voted yes.)   A motion by Director Bilodeau to announce on the OCWD website the availability of audio recordings of all meetings was approved, unanimously.

– See more at: http://www.surfcityvoice.org/2015/02/vincent-sarmiento-all-of-us-want-to-be-transparent-says-orange-county-water-director/

 UPDATE TUESDAY NIGHT!

Vern here.  Just as I was editing this piece to cross-post (in the middle of the Huntington Beach High Density meeting actually) I received a text from a Santa Ana pajarito (though it may not be le mot just to refer to hulking Thomas Anthony Gordon as a “little bird”) telling me that Sarmiento has just resigned from the OCWD Board, and has been replaced by fellow councilman Roman Reyna.  It would be fun to think that the above article, which came out yesterday, precipitated this event, but… it wasn’t THAT scandalous was it?  Anyway, we hope Roman proves more open to real transparency AND less a devotee of Poseidon, than Vince was.  ¡Vaya con dios, Vince, and felicidades Roman!  You read it here first, loyal readers.roman reyna
New: Latino populist on the Water Board!


About Surf City Voice

John Earl is the editor of the Surf City Voice. Frequent contributor Debbie Cook, a former Huntington Beach Mayor, is board president of the Post Carbon Institute.