Debbie Cook: What you’ve been missing at your local Water Board Meetings!

OCWD’s Steve Sheldon lampooning the very idea of transparency;
a glowering Erik Garner, managing partner of BBK, reacting to the author’s criticisms;
and Sheldon snoozing on the dais.

“When we don’t participate we act blindly and get the government we deserve.”

by Debbie Cook, cross-posted from SoCal Water Wars (previously “Surf City Voice.”)

Editor’s note: Debbie Cook is a former Huntington Beach City Council member (2000-2008) and two-term mayor of that city. She served on California’s State Desalination Task Force in 2003 and as a city official voted against the ocean desalination plant proposed by Poseidon Resources Inc. Cook has been monitoring government transparency at local water districts for 12 years and has contributed to SoCalWaterWars (formerly Surf City Voice) in the past.

The word “transparent” is often used to describe clean water, but I have never heard it used to describe the water districts that manage our water systems, except by the districts themselves.

The description you would more likely hear is, self-serving, rude, unethical, corrupted, toxic.

Consider the first time I attended the Mesa Water District of Costa Mesa, for example (by clicking this link), and was illegally interrupted during public comments by the board chairman while explaining the illegality of their proposed new public records policy.

Then, during the board’s donut break, I was mocked and insulted by the board secretary and directors over a hot mic used for recording meetings. Here’s a short snippet that summed up the board’s attitude toward the public:

Secretary: (sarcastically) I don’t care what the city of Huntington Beach does, but thanks for letting us know.

Chairman: (laughing) What they did when you were on the board, which you are no longer.

Secretary: Right, she is not on the council anymore.

Chairman: No, she’s not on the council.

Secretary: Beat it!

There are over 52,000 public and private water utilities in the U.S. alone operating largely in anonymity. Public utilities offer varying levels of transparency, private utilities virtually none.  

After 15 years of scrutinizing local water agencies, I am troubled by the things that I have witnessed. Below are some random examples with attached links to news stories where possible:

  • Adding last minute items to agendas, illegally, while pushing a potentially shady insider land sale.
  • Making a recommendation in committee to table even though there is no such motion in the Orange County Water District lexicon. (at right)
  • Documents that aren’t available online.
  • Telling the public that appointments would be necessary to review meeting minutes.
  • A board president who didn’t report his wife’s income (she was a consultant for two water agencies he represented (Metropolitan Water District of Southern California—as board president, and the Municipal Water District of Orange County, the agency that appointed him to the MET board).
  • Giving staff a tongue lashing for delivering truth.

Studies show that even those people who run for public office because they wanted to advance a public good, are likely to become corrupted when they feel like they have obtained a position of privilege. 

I’ve witnessed the corrupting of officials while serving…

Read the rest at SoCal Water Wars, including Debbie’s SOLUTIONS!

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.