Cal Am pulls strings in water board vote

By Ron Weitzman

Guest commentary in September 17, 2011, Monterey County Herald

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When a vote seems to be irrational on the face of it, you have to look beneath the surface to try to understand it.

That appears to be the case with the vote taken by the water management district board at its Aug. 15 meeting when it abruptly reversed itself on its decision the previous month to form a community committee to study the WaterPlus proposal that it purchase California American Water.

On a motion by Kristi Markey, who had previously voted in favor of the committee, the board voted 5-2 against the formation of the committee. The dissenting members were Judi Lehman and Brenda Lewis, who both appeared to be stunned by the reversal, as were the members of WaterPlus who were present. By its decision, the board seemed to be saying that even if the WaterPlus numbers are right—as well they may be since no one has shown them to be wrong—it will not matter: We are just not going to purchase Cal Am.

Why the reversal? The answer appears to be that each of the five members who voted for the reversal is in one way or another beholden to Cal Am. Here is the anatomy of their vote:

David Pendergrass: As the mayor of Sand City, he is the mayors' representative on the board. He depends on Cal Am because his city has requested it to propose to the Public Utilities Commission that Cal Am charge all its ratepayers almost 100 percent of the cost of the recently completed Sand City desal plant.

Although an administrative law judge has recommended against this proposal, on the grounds that Cal Am ratepayers who live outside of Sand City can reliably count on receiving only a small fraction of the water produced by the plant, the PUC had not yet acted on the proposal at the time of the vote

Bob Brower: He is chairman of the board, representing Carmel and Carmel Valley, but he is also on the executive committee of the Monterey County Hospitality Association. The MCHA depends on Cal Am because it has requested that it propose to the PUC a change in rate structure that will lower rates for the hospitality industry at the expense of low-tier, water-conserving residential ratepayers. The PUC has yet to act on this proposal, which represents a serious conflict of interest for Brower.

David Potter: He represents the Board of Supervisors on the water management district board. His wife, Janine Chicourrat, is the current president of the MCHA, and so he is no less beholden to Cal Am and has no less a conflict of interest than Brower.

Kristi Markey and Regina Doyle: Both have run for the board as strong environmentalists especially concerned with restoring the riparian habitat of the Carmel River ravaged by Cal Am's illegal overpumping of the river basin. Cal Am had been charging ratepayers an extra 8.375 percent on their bills to support a habitat restoration program managed by the district.

Last year, an administrative law judge recommended discontinuation of the rate surcharge, and the PUC later agreed with the judge. Meanwhile, the district has been dipping deeply into its reserves to continue the restoration effort and has requested Cal Am to make an urgent proposal to the PUC that it restore the surcharge. Markey and Doyle evidently did not wish to rock the boat.

Whenever a board or council vote appears to defy logic or to be inexplicable on the face of it, community advocacy groups like WaterPlus are well-advised to delve beneath the surface to uncover the true reasons underlying the vote. Be assured; they are there, though perhaps not immediately obvious.

In this particular instance, each of the five votes against the formation of the committee was cast in behalf of a special-interest group rather than the totality of ratepayers. Each appears to have been cast out of fear that Cal Am might act unfavorably toward the voter's favored group had the vote gone the other way.

In anticipation of the November election for two members of the water management district board, a September 13 Herald editorial was less than optimistic that the election would make any difference, regardless of the outcome. The board would just continue to tie itself in knots as it has for the past three decades. The example cited here shows why, as long as Cal Am can pull the strings.

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Ron Weitzman lives in Carmel and is president of WaterPlus

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