OCWD – $240 million water budget passed at ‘WORST PUBLIC MEETING EVER’




[This is part 1 of a series of articles by John Earl examining how the Orange County Water District conducts its public meetings, and is crossposted from Surf City Voice.]

The Orange County Water District Board of Directors (OCWD BOD) is out of control and the consequences could be costly for the District’s 2.4 million customers.

That’s my conclusion after attending hundreds of OCWD board meetings and examining thousands of documents over the past five years, including hundreds that I received recently from a Public Records Act inquiry.

Those recent documents show collusion between the OCWD BOD and Poseidon Resources Inc. to build and run a $1 billion ocean desalination plant off the coast of Huntington Beach.

The root of OCWD’s accountability crisis is in its carefully guarded traditions, including how it conducts its meetings.

OCWD formed in 1933. Until 2013, when it announced its intention to team up with Poseidon, its public meetings were held in obscurity and few non-industry spectators attended.

OCWD refuses to livestream public meetings as most local government agencies do, and those meetings are still sparsely attended by comparison. That makes it easier for its board of directors to engage in questionable practices with impunity.

The Law

California’s Ralph M. Brown Act guarantees public access to and participation in meetings of local legislative bodies.

And it says:

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

But the OCWD BOD regularly operates by hiding important discussions from the public, including its obsession with the Poseidon project. Its obfuscation tactics range from sleight-of-hand that violates the spirit of the law to blatant if not willful disregard for the law.

OCWD’s Hidden Board Meetings

Most Orange County water agencies hold two regular board meetings per month plus multiple day-time standing committee meetings, the latter being more convenient for directors than for their constituents.

OCWD follows that pattern but convenes its five standing committee meetings as joint meetings with the Board of Directors, as stated in fine print at the top of each committee agenda:

“The (name of the committee) meeting is noticed as a joint meeting with the Board of Directors for the purpose of strict compliance with the Brown Act and it provides an opportunity for all Directors to hear presentations and participate in discussions.” — Emphasis added.

OCWD board members go over budget items at a recent committee/board meeting. Photo by John Earl

Like board meetings, standing committees have decision-making powers and are subject to the Brown Act. The local government agency must accurately announce its public meetings at least 72 hours in advance.

But whether OCWD’s joint meetings comply with the Brown Act or not is debatable.

Any interested person browsing the OCWD website calendar would at first-glance see only two regular board meetings scheduled per month and up to five “committee” meetings per month–without any mention of joint meetings.

Misleading notice: Listed as committee meetings are actually full board meetings.

Only the person who clicks on the link that opens the committee agenda and reads the agenda’s fine print will know that it is for a joint meeting of the board and the committee, at which all ten board members can be present, including five designated committee members and five designated alternates from the same board.

Listed as a committee meeting but not a committee meeting.

In effect, all board members are alternates for all committees.

If that’s not confusing enough, the OCWD practice of blending board meetings with committee meetings appears to violate the Brown Act in several ways.

First, the Brown Act requires meetings to be accurately noticed. The legislative body can’t call a meeting a committee meeting when it’s really a meeting of the full board. Doing so stifles public participation, possibly violating the Brown Act.

Second, how does a legislative body conduct a meeting with itself without defying common sense and the meaning of the law?

Joint meetings occur between separate legislative bodies. For example, the city council has a joint meeting with its planning commission.

Or the OCWD BOD meets with the Municipal Water District of Orange County Board of Directors.

If the OCWD BOD does paradoxically hold a joint meeting with itself, it must have a quorum (six of ten board members) present. Without a quorum, the present directors must adjourn the meeting.

A committee meeting (with a quorum of three) could then be held, but only if non-committee board members remove themselves from the dais and become observers, as described by the California Attorney General in a 1997 opinion:

“To permit legislative body observers to sit on the dais would grant them greater rights than members of the public. It could also create the impression that the standing committee meeting constituted a meeting of the legislative body itself. Having the observers sit in the area designated for members of the general public would eliminate any confusion as to their role in the proceedings and effectuate the Legislature’s intent of not granting special privileges to those attending ‘only as observers.’”

The District’s joint meetings often lack a quorum for the full board but are never adjourned and reconvened as committee meetings. Instead, the remaining directors shift into committee mode without saying a word. Moreover, the makeup of the committee is shifting throughout the meeting as directors come and go.

Adding to the confusion, OCWD board members who are committee alternates always sit at the dais even when there is a committee quorum, contrary to the State Attorney General’s legal interpretation of the Brown Act.

Also, if the full board and its committees are one “joint” body, then any time that three or more directors meet to discuss anything without announcing it they will violate the Brown Act.

Rubber-Stamp Meetings

At these joint meetings (mislabeled on the calendar as “committee” meetings), future regular-board agenda items are discussed in depth and are all but decided by inference or direct vote (with or without a quorum) before coming to the full board during one of its twice-monthly meetings.

The unaware public citizen, misled by the announcement of a “committee” meeting, who waits until the next regular board meeting to speak on an agenda item (first discussed in committee) would be wasting time by speaking to directors whose minds were already made up.

Local government agencies that rubber stamp agenda items at public meetings violate the spirit of the Brown Act by making public participation meaningless, like what happened when the OCWD BOD approved its 2018 – 2019 budget of $239.7 million at its regular April 18 meeting.

Read the rest of the story at Surf City Voice – and find out how this was the “Worst Public Meeting Ever!”

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.