In 2010, questions about the expense reporting of Denis Bilodeau, a director with the Orange County Water District (OCWD), bubbled to the slippery surface of OC's political pond. That summer, the Voice of OC alleged that between the years of 2001 and 2007, Bilodeau charged taxpayers for nearly $3,500 worth of meetings he “either didn't attend or that didn't occur.”
At the time, Bilodeau hemmed and hawed to reporters about how he was incapable of properly filling out expense reports and blamed the discrepancies on mistakes made by district staffers. OCWD spokeswoman Eleanor Torres backed Bilodeau's explanation, adding that a 2009 review of how minutes were recorded made things more accurate.
But after doing its own review, the Weekly has learned OCWD and Bilodeau are still struggling with accuracy, or something far worse.
Since September 2010 Bilodeau charged the district for at least five meetings the record shows he was not present for. The total cost to taxpayers of these $221 meetings plus gas mileage is $1,230.
Speaking to the Weekly by phone, Torres said she was unable to comment on specific meetings without reviewing Bilodeau's records herself, but explained that directors are allowed to collect stipends for a maximum of 10 meetings a month and that a mistake in reporting was possible.
“It could be that he attended more than 10 meetings and that reflected incorrectly in his report,” Torres said.
Mistakes or not, Bilodeau also accepted stipends for meetings of dubious public value, most notably a dinner held by the OC Tax Payers Association at the luxurious Island Hotel in Newport Beach. For those who don't know, OC Tax sponsors a political action committee and is chaired by Republican public relations consultant Curt Pringle. The committee donates thousands of dollars to benefit local candidates it likes, and smears the ones it doesn't. You've got to wonder what that has to do with water.
But perhaps most unsettling to supporters of open government, were the 14 secret executive committee meetings held outside OCWD's Fountain Valley office that included directors Bilodeau, Stephen Sheldon, Wes Bannister, and Philip Anthony. Multiple expense reports indicate the meetings took place at Director Sheldon's Newport Beach office where he operates a PR firm.
In 1953 California passed the Brown Act to ensure public access to standing meetings of local governments and put the kibosh on closed door sessions. According to Peter Scheer, an attorney and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, standing meeting are legally required to be preceded by public notice.
“That means giving notice 72 hours in advance and telling people what issues are going to come up, and telling them where (the meeting) is should they wish to attend,” Scheer said.
The $60,000 question now is whether OCWD's executive committee a standing committee. The answer depends on which source you check. If it's the OCWD's own board policy manual, the executive committee is listed at the top of the agency's standing groups. But if you ask Torres, the answer is different.
“No, the executive committee is an opportunity for our officers to meet, so that's what the executive committee is,” Torres said.
In a follow-up email, Torres acknowledged that the executive committee is listed as standing in the district manual, but that “the manual does not include a definition of standing.”
She further explained that while the manual does say standing committees are required to provide the public 72 hours of advance notice, “the Executive Committee does not fall under the notice requirement.”
So what exactly was discussed at these private sessions, (made possible with thousands of dollars of public money)? Since there are no agendas and no minutes, we'll likely never know.
But whether or not a violation of the Brown Act occurred, Scheer explains such violations don't usually bring criminal penalties.
“In theory the district attorney could take criminal action, treating the violations as misdemeanors, but that almost never happens,” Scheer said.
Ironically, even when proper notice is given, water board meetings are lightly-attended affairs. But currently the OCWD has undertaken a discussion which equates the life sustaining liquid we take for granted with cold hard cash— a $1 billion desalination facility to be built by a Poseidon Water LLC in Huntington Beach. Records show Bilodeau and others on the OCWD have accepted hundreds in campaign donations from the private company, while director Sheldon has served as a Poseidon consultant, collecting upwards of $10,000 in fees. Though the desalination plant is an issue that could effect the wallets of millions of OC residents, so far, only a small group of dedicated citizens have closely followed the matter.
If secret executive committee meetings are any indication, that may be just the way OCWD directors prefer it.