Flush TwiceIts a Long Way to Huntington Beach

Why wont the sanitation district clean up the massive sewage plume off the countys coast? Follow the money

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.


Photos by Keith May

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.

Why?

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."


Anderson

That's what Anderson keeps telling the Environmental Protection Agency, too. It's what he must say for the EPA to continue granting the OCSD a temporary 301 (h) waiver to the Clean Water Act. The current five-year waiver expires in 2003, and the OCSD is already preparing to apply for another.

"Bottom line: the sewage that goes into the ocean cannot be damaging," asserts Janet Hashimoto of the EPA's regional office in San Francisco. "If it is, the situation does not warrant a waiver."

The OOG is asking the OCSD to drop its application for the waiver. So are several OC politicians—from such moderates as Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) and Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-Huntington Beach) to conservative Assemblyman Ken Maddox (R-Garden Grove), whose Assembly Bill 1969 outlawing the OCSD from applying for another waiver passed through the State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials on April 23 by a 5-1 vote.

Meanwhile, Anderson has been putting off action for months, keeping the OCSD board in line and critics at bay by insisting that they "wait for the science"—the results of a $5.1 million OCSD-funded study taken last summer. The first of three sections of the study was posted on the agency's website on April 26—but none of the findings dealt with the plume. Instead, there were analyses of the Santa Ana River, AES power plant and other potential land-based causes for bacterial outbreaks at local beaches. The rest of the study will be presented to the board of directors on May 15, and their vote on the waiver application is scheduled for June—leaving opponents scant time to influence the decision.

In one form or another, the OCSD has been employing this wait-for-the-science strategy for years.

"But the reports of their science have been hiding data, obfuscating data, minimizing data—or not releasing interpretations of that data at all," says Jan Vandersloot, the Newport Beach dermatologist who has been leading the OOG.


Eckenrode

In April, the Orange County grand jury excoriated the OCSD for withholding for nearly six years the results of a publicly funded 1996 study of bacterial contamination near the shoreline.

"They say their science is showing this or that, but when you actually look at it, it is bad science," Vandersloot added. "Bottom line, we are winding up with an ocean that is dirtier and dirtier."

Yet the OCSD will again make its case with the minutiae of measurements gathered from water-sample tests, which will then be compared to a range of readings that are deemed "acceptable."

As for that 11,500-acre Hershey squirt hovering just off the coast, which is amplified by another 240 million gallons of undersanitized sewage every day? Sorry, but the official EPA forms don't have a category for that.

The board got a little nervous when bacteria readings on Feb. 11 showed the plume had crept within a half-mile of Newport. But rather than order full secondary treatment of OC sewage, it followed Anderson's suggestion: kill the bacteria by pouring massive doses of bleach into the sewage before it reaches the ocean. In other words, the OCSD is trying to solve a pollution problem with more pollution.

The OCSD is not the only cross-governmental agency that pays its directors for showing up to meetings. In fact, in an era of closely monitored personal-income statements and limits on campaign contributions, paid appointments to various boards and commissions are among the few legally pickable plums for elected officials.

For example, the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), which oversees Orange County's toll roads, pays directors $120 per meeting, plus a driving reimbursement of 39 cents per mile. And the Vector Control board, which oversees mosquito infestation, pays $50 per meeting.

The range in compensation among various boards has an impact on the appointments of city council representatives.

"I'm finding they aren't made according to our expertise," says Carolyn Cavecche, who joined the Orange City Council 10 months ago. "I asked for the appointment to the Sanitation District because, with my background in medical microbiology, I have a basis of knowledge—I understand the terms, at least. But the Sanitation District appointment tends to go to the more senior council members, so [Mayor pro-tem] Mike Alvarez got it. I got Vector Board. That's how appointments go. I think the Sanitation District pays the most, so of course people want to be on it."

Huntington Beach City Councilman Peter Green pitched a major hissy fit in December when incoming Mayor Debbie Cook appointed herself to replace him on the OCSD board. Huntington Beach's mayors have tended to serve on the OCSD board, and Cook is a longtime environmental activist with a passion for the issues.

But Green was desperate to keep his seat on the board, which paid him $8,007.73 in cash and another $1,007.18 in lodging and expense reimbursement in 2001. He tried unsuccessfully to rally his longtime colleagues to go over Cook's head and pass a resolution that would preserve his lucrative post. It didn't work.

Always one of the juiciest appointments, the OCSD got even juicier in 2001 when the board voted itself a 70 percent raise—from $100 to $170 per meeting. The board itself convenes only once a month, but a variety of subcommittees get together according to various schedules, needs and whims. By attending the maximum-allowable six meetings per month, a director can rake in $1,020 per month—or $12,240 per year. As chairman, Eckenrode is permitted 10 meetings per month, which propels his potential haul to $20,400 annually.

"Yes, I got $20,000 last year," Eckenrode acknowledged. "No, I don't think that is excessive. You've got to look at it this way: I was being paid for 10 meetings a month, but I attended a lot more meetings than that—sometimes between 15 and 18."

Eckenrode insists that compensation for the OCSD directors be evaluated in context with the pay structure of other boards.

"Look at the Orange County Water District," he says. "It has 10 members, and each one can attend 10 meetings at $165 per meeting. And look at the Irvine Ranch Water District. Over there, directors not only get paid for meetings, but they also get retirement pay—and they get a couple of other things, too, things I can't remember off the top of my head. So you can't just pick on us."

Why do these boards and commissions pay members, anyway, considering that appointments to them are actually part of a city council member's job? There are many rationales, but at some point in every theory, just about everybody mentions the same reason: without the money, hardly anybody would show up.

Is there a direct relationship between the money and the votes?

"I think that's a very cynical view of the world," says Anderson. "I think the amount of money we pay the people on our board is a bargain when you consider the time it takes to read agendas, work with staff and attend meetings."

Nonetheless, like most boards of its kind, the OCSD does tend to operate under the radar. Although most meetings are open to the public, attendance is usually poor and press coverage is worse. The current controversy over the 301 (h) waiver has generated an unusual amount of scrutiny at the OCSD, but for the most part, the board has been a good gig for local politcos—relaxed, lucrative and well-funded. It's an environment that can promote back-scratching among politicians.

"A kind of 'group think' can take over in situations like that," says Assemblyman Maddox. "It's not wrong, exactly, but it's not right, either."

For example, Green might have won his little insurrection on the Huntington Beach City Council last December if he hadn't let it slip that he was leaning toward voting for the 301 (h) waiver—despite the fact that the council had already voted unanimously on Sept. 17 to oppose the waiver. Most on the council seemed appalled to hear that Green might be willing to double-cross them when he returned to the OCSD board. Veteran Councilwoman Shirley Detloff said publicly that she was "shocked."

Irvine City Councilwoman Beth Krom is among the minority of the OCSD directors who openly oppose the waiver. However, she seriously doubts that the ultimate vote on the issue will hinge entirely on money from the OCSD. "But that's not to say there isn't a good-old-boys network in there," she says. "This ispolitics."

Consider the case of Alvarez, the brand-new OCSD board member from Orange. When the OOG presented its case against the waiver to a special study-session meeting of the Orange City Council on Feb. 19, Alvarez listened quietly. He joined the council's unanimous vote to take the matter under further consideration. He noted that comments from a majority of council members indicated that they were likely to vote against the waiver. Then, after the meeting, Alvarez told the Weekly that whatever the council ultimately decided would not determine the vote he casts at the OCSD board meeting.

"It's my vote," Alvarez said. "I'm the one appointed to the board, and I'm the one who will decide how I am going to cast my vote."

Alvarez's attitude caught his colleagues by surprise.

"I'm very disappointed to hear that," said Cavecche. "I would hope that after all the time and investigation we're putting into this issue, our mayor pro-tem would represent our position. If he won't, I'm going to find out. The mayor may have full authority to make appointments—but the council can remove."

Alvarez insists he is the council member best situated to make the call on the waiver, since as a member of the OCSD board of directors, he is the best-informed on the issue.

And how has a first-time member like Alvarez gotten up to speed on the issues of water sanitation?

"At this point," he says, "I pretty much rely on Blake Anderson and his staff."

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