By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
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By Gustavo Arellano
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Illustration by Mark DanceySewage is never far from the tip of Norman Z. Eckenrode's tongue, and after 11 years on the board of directors of the Orange County Sanitation District (OCSD), the past two as chairman, you'd expect that. "I can talk pretty comfortably about effluent, about secondary treatment, about microfiltration," boasts Eckenrode with a good-natured cackle. "I know more than the fundamentals, let's put it that way."
It's not easy to put a price tag on that kind of experience, especially since Eckenrode's service to the district is part of the job he was elected to do as a Placentia city councilman. But in 2001, the OCSD paid Eckenrode more than $20,000.
Of course, Eckenrode doesn't pretend to know everything about the science of water sanitation. His real expertise is pizza—he owned a Shakey's in Brea for years.
"But it's not a problem," he chirps reassuringly. "If I don't understand something, I just get on the phone and call the general manager."
That would be Blake Anderson, who became general manager of the OCSD two years ago after rising through the agency's ranks for two decades. Anderson oversees an annual budget of $246 million, financial reserves of more than a half-billion dollars, and responsibility for the 240 million gallons of sewage that Orange County flushes into the ocean every day.
Maybe Eckenrode doesn't see a problem with allowing Anderson to fill in his blanks, but that arrangement contradicts the relationship they are supposed to have. Eckenrode and the OCSD's 25-member board of directors—mostly city council members from around Orange County—are assigned to superviseAnderson. Instead, their behavior often resembles subservience. Anderson tends to steer the board's agenda, recommend courses of action, supply data to support those suggestions—and, if there are any questions, answer with more data that supports his case. Much of this falls within the parameters of Anderson's job description, but it also makes the general manager a de facto minister of information and propaganda.
"When it comes to the information and perspective that the directors get, Blake is definitely the filter," says one director, who requested anonymity. "If it's not something he wants, the board members rarely hear about it from him."
But what looks worse than the rubber stamps that directors so frequently apply to Anderson's initiatives are the checks those directors are cashing along the way. Each director receives $170 per meeting. And the OCSD conducts lots of meetings, some of them fully catered with gourmet meals.
In fact, the entire system of representative oversight that the OCSD board of directors is supposed to provide appears flawed. It creates situations in which directors might be attracted to the board for its lucrative compensation—potentially enough to fund, say, a re-election campaign—rather than expertise or a passion for clean water. It is structured so that directors are dependent on the general manager for information. And it raises the question of whether directors are more loyal to their cities or to the OCSD, which pays them so much better.
For example, the 20 large that Eckenrode received from the OCSD in 2001 roughs out to $1,700 per month, not counting a litany of other board perks and expenses. That's more than four times as much as the $400 per month the citizens of Placentia give him to serve on their City Council.
There is no law against elected officials being paid for their appointments to various quasi-governmental boards or commissions. "But maybe there should be," says Shirley Grindle, longtime watchdog of local government, who has authored several laws banning political corruption. "If elected officials make a substantial income by serving on these boards, and if the boards' decisions affect local constituents, then there's a hell of a good argument that the officials' judgment might be colored by the money."
The color of the OCSD board members' judgment is critical to the ongoing controversy over the quarter-billion-gallon grunt that Orange County flushes into the local ocean every day. And so far, it's just as murky.
Activists calling themselves the Ocean Outfall Group (OOG)—named after the outfall pipe that transports sewage 4.2 miles off the coast between Huntington and Newport at a rate of 10 million gallons an hour—are begging the OCSD to comply with the treatment standards of the 1972 Clean Water Act. The OOG fears that the huge plume of piss and poopage (six miles long, three miles wide, 100 feet thick) emitted by the outfall pipe is a danger to health, the environment and the economy. It suspects this plume contributes to the county's frequent beach closures and postings.
But the OCSD's board of directors has resisted complying with federal standards already achieved by all but 35 of the more than 16,000 sanitation districts in the country.
Ask Blake Anderson, who insists that the OOG's claims aren't necessarily so. He keeps telling the directors that his staff has found no evidence that the 11,500-acre cloud of crap—the same size as Garden Grove—has any adverse effects at all.
"We spend $2 million a year on a monitoring system that looks at everything from fish populations to fish-tissue analysis to bacteria on the beach," says Anderson. "From our observations, we have maintained a balanced indigenous population of sea life, and our discharge plume has not impacted the beach's bacteria quality."