During public comments at last Wednesday's session of the Orange County Water District (OCWD), environmental activist Debbie Cook announced that board members continue to meet with no advance public notice–a potential violation of state open government laws. It's not the first time questions have been raised about OCWD directors and closed door sessions. In September, the Weekly discovered the OCWD executive committee met on at least nine occasions since 2010–billing taxpayers for the time–while providing no advance public notice and no minutes of the meetings.
The focus of last week's secret meeting was a yet-to-be approved ocean desalination citizens' advisory committee (ODCAC). The executive committee approved a list of potential ODCAC appointees composed of politicians, consultants and one activist, and was presenting the list to the board for final approval. Once approved, ODCAC will advise the OCWD on issues pertaining to a proposed $1-billion desalination facility in Huntington Beach.
“The whole point of this committee was so we activists could raise issues we think the district isn't considering, but what they did was create a forum to exclude our voices,” Cook told the Weekly.
After Cook made her public comment, the board abruptly decided, over the objections of Director Cathy Green, to wait until the next OCWD meeting before voting on the matter.
When the Weekly first wrote about the district's penchant for meeting behind closed doors in September, district spokesperson Eleanor Torres argued that although the executive committee is listed as “standing” in OCWD's own district manual, it in fact is an “ad hoc” committee. Therefore, she said, the committee isn't subject to the Brown Act (a state law regulating government transparency).
“You are correct that the Executive Committee is listed under the category of “standing” in the Board Manual,” Torres wrote in an email to the Weekly. “The Manual does not include a definition of standing.” She then went on to explain that executive committee meetings don't involve any actions requiring advance notice.
“District meetings that must be and are agendized are those that involve board members taking action and/or involve quorum,” Torres wrote in an email.
But in providing a list of potential appointees to the board for a vote last week, it appears the executive committee in fact took action on an unagendized item.
Political ethicist at Santa Clara University and former Santa Clara Mayor Judy Nadler said there are few good excuses for committee secrecy.
“If you're a public agency, you can only have closed door meetings under very specific circumstances according to the Brown Act,” Nadler told the Weekly.
She explained typical exemptions from the Act include personnel matters and pending litigation. Nadler added that even if transparency laws aren't broken, government secrecy leads to public cynicism.
“It's about the principle of open government, that [people know] you're being fair, that you avoid conflicts of interest, that you're transparent,” Nadler said.
Among the individuals suggested for the desalination advisory committee was a representative from Carollo Engineering. In 2012 OCWD awarded the firm a contract to rehabilitate district property. In June of this year the district awarded the company an additional $64,000. Cook, a former Huntington Beach mayor, questioned the ethics of putting a paid contractor on a district committee.
“It seems unethical to me because [Carollo has] a business interest. I was raising it as point of 'did you know that,' and of course their response was 'we didn't know that,'” Cook said.
OCWD is currently considering a plan to issue the debt for the proposed Huntington desalination facility, which is the brain child of private Connecticut-based company Poseidon Water LLC. Critics view the project as an unnecessary boondoggle.