Big Gulp

Supervisors swallow local mans . . . argument

Every drinking fountain in every public park, recreation area and building across Orange County will be shut off this summer, according to an out-of-court settlement with a business group that charged in a lawsuit that the thousands of free-water outlets constitute unfair government competition with the private sector.

"Every public drinking fountain is a taxpayer-financed monument to big government's intrusion into one of the most basic aspects of our existence: the human need for water to survive," says Philyer Poquettes, president of the Orange County Business Council (OCBC), which filed suit against every city and county agency that heretofore provided even one drinking fountain at public expense. "The free water that springs from these spigots is wasteful, unfair and insulting."

The OCBC's suit is an intriguing mix of fundamental human and economic philosophy, which contends that quenching one's thirst is best left to individual initiative and market forces. Its legal footing is planted in the contention that "thirst is one of the basic triggers of the natural economy, which as foreseen and extolled by great minds from Adam Smith to the Culligan man, raises the importance of purchasing a beverage to the level of instinctual self-preservation."

"The human race got by without public drinking fountains for most of its millions of years of existence, and to suddenly say that a man cannot get his own drink of water is to diminish that man," asserts Poquettes, 39, of Laguna Niguel, who recently got into the bottled-water business with a local brand called Aliso Creek. "As a businessman in the beverage industry, I'm both offended and injured because our tax dollars are used to support drinking fountains, which in turn diminish the market for products we sell."

Nobody seems to know exactly how many public drinking fountains exist in Orange County, how many gallons flow through them every year, and how much money is apt to be saved when they are turned off.

"Drinking fountains have been considered a fact of life for so long that nobody really understands their specific cost-benefit ratio," acknowledged Todd Spitzer, a county supervisor who cast his vote in favor of an immediate and unanimous surrender by local governments at the first whiff of the OCBC's suit. "But it only makes sense that turning them off will definitely be cheaper than leaving them on—well, once they're actually turned off, anyway. It'll probably cost a little extra to do the actual turning off. That only makes sense, too. But you've got to spend money to make money. Definitely. That's called priming the pump, and it only makes sense that that is as true now as when they first put those drinking fountains in."

His colleague on the Board of Supervisors, Jim Silva, forgot to vote on the issue—"Two of my kids are in the Air Force Academy, if you can believe that," he explained—but remembers arguing in favor of shutting off public drinking fountains during a portion of the meeting devoted to something else entirely.

"I think it's a good idea," Silva said. "All things considered, I mean, with the water we're drinking now, and for nothing, just imagine. And then there's whole other side that nobody rarely even does think about, which makes you realize. You know?"

As part of the settlement, Poquettes received free and exclusive beverage-supply franchising rights to Santa Ana's Centennial Regional Park and Trabuco Canyon's O'Neill Regional Park. He also heads the committee that will award franchising rights to every other public park, recreation area or building, and as an incentive to get the best deals, he will receive a 15 percent commission.

As proof of the public support for the arrangement, Poquettes pointed to the blinking 20-line phone that he had just ordered installed. He promised a careful, go-slow approach to awarding the valuable franchises. "After all these years, there's no need to hurry now," he says, leaning back and letting the phones ring. "In a situation like this, patience can really pay off—if you know what I mean."

Poquettes foresees a time when the site of every drinking fountain in Orange County will be replaced by a pop stand or vending machine. And he suggests that the benefits extend far beyond the obvious. "The presence of all these little stands, which we might accentuate with video games or whatever, will really enhance our sense of community," he says. "After dark, the vending machines will actually improve security, enhancing public lighting with their bright glow and providing a certain comfort with their familiar brand-name labels."

According to Poquettes, the ongoing development of "smart machines" would also allow people over 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages through technology that would recognize their previously registered tongue print. The robbing or vandalizing of these machines would be raised to a felony with mandatory sentencing, says Poquettes.

 
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