Remembering Phil Anthony: Oh, the Water…




Phil 1977 and Phil 2015, in front of his aquifer.

I’d known Phil Anthony, who died two weeks ago in his family’s Fallbrook home at the age of 82, as the honest, soft-spoken Poseidon opponent on the OC Water District, who’d told me in a 2015 interview that the proudest achievement of his life was our world-famous Groundwater Replenishment System.  He’d also mentioned that he’d been a County Supervisor for one term in the 70’s, and had first become a Westminster Councilman in 1962 – wow!  56 years in Orange County politics, the last 37 on the water board.

Yet when you look up his past, you see him included in “OC’s Notorious Public Officials,” indicted for receiving laundered campaign funds, and pleading nolo contendere to one count of campaign irregularities.  How could that be – the guy who seemed most honest out of the ten water board members, most of them bought and paid for by the Poseidon hedge fund?  Did immersing himself in Water Issues in the 80’s cleanse him somehow?  There had to be a story here.  Let’s go back…

1962 Westminster, California

JFK was President, Marilyn Monroe was found in the nude, and the Cuban Missile Crisis came and went.  Americans hadn’t even heard of the Beatles yet – the radio played Bobby Vinton, Ray Charles, and Chubby Checker, and TV was black and white.  If you kept it on late enough at night you’d see an Indian head test pattern.  Commercials were like this:

Westminster had a population of 25,000 and had only been a real city for five years (since swallowing up Barber City but being rejected by Midway.)  The landmark Mendez v. Westminster civil rights case (against the school district of that name) was 15 years old, holding that Mexican kids could go to the same schools as white kids, and laying the ground for Brown v. Board of Education.

And this was the time and place that a young Margie Rice (now the octogenarian “grand dame of Westminster,” in her 28th year in Westminster and Midway City government) first met 27-year old Philip Anthony, who showed up with his mother to introduce himself at a PTA meeting and ask for everyone’s vote for City Council, an ask that paid off.

Originally from Clinton, Iowa, Phil had graduated from Huntington Beach High School, received a Bachelor of Science degree from Cal State University Long Beach in chemistry and a Master of Science degree in physical chemistry from the University of Hawaii, and was working as a Rockwell aerospace engineer.

His career on the Westminster council lasted 14 years, and it’s hard to say what he did there beyond building immense reservoirs of goodwill and encouraging Margie in her political aspirations.  He served a term as Mayor from 1972 to 76 (that’s when the Vietnamese refugees woulda first been coming over, creating “Little Saigon.”)  And 1976 is when things started going a little haywire for Phil, so let’s hit Fast Forward.


1976, the County Swamp.

1976.  The Beatles had come and gone with Phil in Westminster government, your TV was most likely in color, and you either liked Led Zeppelin now, Disco, or the Sex Pistols.  The 70’s were a time, in Orange County government, of even greater corruption than usual.  Nixon, and then the Nixon-pardoning Ford, were leaders of the free world, and with Yorba Linda’s finest in the White House, the fish rotted head down to our great County.

OC’s decades of corruption from 1960-2000 are chronicled brilliantly in former OC GOP chair Tom Rogers’ lost masterpiece “Agents’ Orange,” which we have located and will start publishing on this blog in installments.  The theme of Tom’s book – still timely – is that of both Republican and Democrat politicians betraying the supposed ideals of their Parties for the lure of developer cash and naked power.  It was common – but illegal – for some Supervisors to demand bribes for their votes; but on the other hand – if you can imagine it in this Age of Rackauckas – we also had a DA who went after crooked politicians of both Parties – Cecil Hicks in the 70s and 80s, succeeded by his deputy Mike Capizzi in the 90’s.

Caspers – still missing at sea!

In the first half of the 70’s while our Phil was still in Westminster, the Board was dominated by a troika proudly calling themselves “The Coalition,” specializing in “shakedowns” – their rule came to a dramatic end when Coalition member Supervisor Ron Caspers disappeared mysteriously with the boat “Shooting Star” in ’74 – an incident probably due to pilot error, but still nurturing suspicion that the three had “shaken down” the wrong people. 

The fellow representing Phil’s district 1 on the BOS, a maverick Democrat named Robert Battin, was brought down by Hicks in 1976 and sentenced to a month in jail for “misusing his county staff to run for lieutenant governor.”  Governor Jerry Brown replaced Battin with the appointment of our friend Phil Anthony.  (That’s right, Jerry Brown 1.0, still dating Linda Ronstadt!) 

But first let me tell you about the most colorful character of all, Supervisor Ralph Diedrich (right.)  Loud, wealthy, larger than life, forever unrepentant, and nicknamed “Super D”, he brought the shakedown to a new level, demanding and getting many tens of thousands of developer dollars in return for his votes.  But above all he coveted a dependable three-member majority on the Board that he could count on to vote with him (premonitions of Agran or Pringle?)  

The first person he approached with the really really bad idea of asking them to run, sharing his campaign loot with them, and counting on their loyalty, was a young hypothermal engineer and OC Planning Commissioner named … wait for it … Shirley Grindle.  She firmly declined, already knowing what shenanigans this Super D was up to – several people had already complained to her!  So when she saw him cozying up to poor Phil, just finishing up his little half-year appointed term, she knew what was up.  “You know though, Vern … I don’t think I ever warned Phil,” she admitted to me last week.

…illustrating the difficulty of the author keeping himself out of the bio.

Soon into his first full term on the Board, having been re-elected successfully with a lot of Super D’s loot, Phil found himself charged with seven counts of “receiving laundered money,” one of which count he plead “nolo contendere” to.  Phil stayed in office till 1981, but was defeated by a corruption-sick electorate. 

Grindle authored her celebrated TINCUP campaign finance laws, and morphed into the OC’s octogenarian Campaign Finance Watchdog that we all know, love, and fear.  And Super-D … well, I hate to digress, but … stayed in prison longer than his original sentence because of gambling and racketeering behind bars, and got in plenty more trouble when he was finally released – read it all here.

And Phil, in 1981, found a home on the OC Water District (OCWD.)  

Now let’s take a halftime break with Van Morrison, and, as I intimated earlier, let the Water cleanse us:

On July 30, the OCWD put out a long, three-page tribute to their longest-ever serving director, from which I’ll quote liberally:

“During the mid-1980s, Director Anthony and his fellow board members began planning the Green Acres Project that supplied non-potable water (recycled water) for golf courses, public parks and landscaping in the cities of Fountain Valley, Santa Ana, Costa Mesa, and Newport Beach. The project, which still operates today, has saved those cities a substantial amount of money. In the late 2000s, he led efforts to complete the Prado Wetlands expansion in Riverside County and construct the OCWD Advanced Water Quality Assurance Laboratory, which opened its doors in 2009 and earned full certification, among many other programs and projects.”

Another passion of Phil’s was education:

Environmental stewardship is something Director Anthony strived to instill in the future generations. He once said that ‘Children today will play a vital role in preserving our natural resources in the future.’ Director Anthony founded the Orange County Children’s Water Education Festival in 1996. The first festival served 500 Orange County students. Today, the event, co-hosted by the Disneyland Resort and NWRI at the UCI, has grown to serve 7,000 students annually.

“’Nearly 20 years before the phrase STEM emerged onto the scene, Director Anthony saw the great need to expose students at a very young age to careers in science, engineering and technology, and to environmental issues,’ stated Frank Dela Vara, Director of Environmental Affairs at the Disneyland Resort. ‘It was truly an honor to work with him to help inspire the next generation of water and environmental leaders.'”

The author drinks recycled GWRS water.

But as he told me in our 2015 interview, he considered the high point of his career – and one which is still being expanded even in the wake of his death – to be our world-famous Groundwater Replenishment System.  Both times I went there, first to sign up for a tour and later to tour and report on it, half of the dozens of attendees were engineers from other nations eager to learn how we make WATER TOO PURE TO DRINK out of our wastewater, water so pure it has to be pumped back into the ground to regain minerals the human body needs.  You can read all about that here.

Apparently Phil was even more responsible for that than I thought.  At the time, San Diego and San Fernando were trying to do the same thing, but demagogues caught on, coined the phrase “toilet to tap,” and whipped the public into a frenzy of revulsion, making the projects politically untouchable.  But Phil took it on himself to patiently educate the Orange County public about the process’ safety and necessity.  As current Board chairman Denis Bilodeau attests, 

“Phil had great conviction that advanced water recycling had to be part of Orange County’s immediate water future. He demonstrated great political courage in rallying the OCWD and OCSD boards, local, state and federal officials and community organizations to move this controversial project forward. Outreach to educate community stakeholders about the need, safety and benefits of potable reuse began nearly ten years before the project came online and included more than 1,200 presentations. Phil personally gave a majority of those presentations.”

But the reason most of us loved him was his commonsense opposition – sometimes alone on the Board – to the $1 billion Poseidon desalination boondoggle being planned for Huntington Beach, which he saw correctly as an unnecessary waste.  We’ll be surprised but pleased if the Board doesn’t replace Phil with another pliant yes-man for the Canadian water pirates, and maybe lets the public vote instead.  Also Chairman Bilodeau, who I know thought very highly of Phil, should consider starting to vote his conscience on the matter as well.  And finally it would totally not be inappropriate to name the Groundwater Replenishment System after Philip L. Anthony.

Some tributes that have popped up on my Facebook wall:

  • Diana Lee Carey, Westminster Councilwoman:  “Phil was a friend and advisor. I was honored to be his representative on the Citizens Term Sheet Review Committee for Poseidon. He will be missed.”
  • Merle Moshiri, Residents For Responsible Desalination:  “He will be missed by so many. A voice of reason in the OCWD wilderness.”
  • Fred Bockmiller: “He was a pleasure to work with on the ACWA-JPIA board. May he rest in peace.”
  • Jim Atkinson, Mesa Water:  “Phil was a visionary water leader and a man I am proud to have been able to call a friend. He shared his guidance and wisdom openly, without being condescending or overbearing. I respected him will miss him as part of the Counties Water leadership! Keeping thoughts of a great man in my mind always.”
  • Milt Dardis, R4RD: “Phil represented the Peasant Rate payers. He did not sell out to Poseidon and past on thousands of dollars in political donations. Was the voice of reason against the Poseidon paid honks on the OCWD. Now it will be interesting who replaces him. Check book vote and dropped wallet or someone who will represent the Peasant Ratepayers. Is $500,000 Senator Barbara Boxer available?”

“IF we (Orange County) decided we need desalination – a BIG if – we could do it better, cheaper, and faster ourselves.” – Philip L. Anthony.

A Celebration of Life is scheduled for 4:00pm August 19th at The Rose Center in Westminster, CA.

“Water flowing underground…”


About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official political troubadour of Anaheim and most other OC towns. Regularly makes solo performances, sometimes with his savage-jazz band The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at, or 714-235-VERN.