Cook: Are Special Districts Shadow Governments? Consider our own OC Water District

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On John Oliver’s March 6 show, he devoted 15 enlightening and hilarious minutes to an otherwise sleep inducing topic: “Special Districts.” Describing these agencies as “shadowy ghost government with little oversight and unknown to the public,” Oliver asks, “What could go wrong?”

Plenty, and our own Orange County Water District (OCWD), is a poster child of one such shadowy ghost government.

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There are 14 special district water agencies in Orange County alone. The OCWD’s 10-member board, manages the Orange County groundwater basin. The basin provides approximately 75 percent of the water needs of 2.4 million residents in 17 cities.

If you couldn’t attend an OCWD meeting but wanted to learn more about your water, you might look for a live or archived video broadcast on the internet as is provided by most municipal governments.

But you wouldn’t find one for OCWD.

In fact, few ( like the Costa Mesa Sanitary District and the South Coast Water District) of the 31 special districts in Orange County video their meetings.   In early 2014, at the behest of activists, Board Member Jan Flory of Fullerton tried to get the Board to approve video streaming. Despite the nominal cost, estimated by staff at between $12,000 and $20,000 per year, the item was defeated 8-2.

Barring that option, your next move might be to visit the OCWD website.

There, you would be led to believe there are two board meetings per month, the 1st and 3rd Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. You’d be wrong. Technically, OCWD has between 7 and 10 board meetings per month but never more than 10. Ten is the magic number because the law places a limit on how many $250 stipends each member can earn in one month.

Let’s say you examined the January 20 agenda. Perhaps Item 7, the “County of Orange Adopt a Channel Program” with a price tag of $55,800 caught your attention. You decided to make the trek to Fountain Valley to hear why OCWD should spend rate-payer money on trash and graffiti removal along the Santa Ana River.

At the meeting you might have expected a staff report or board member discussion. You’d be wrong again. That and 17 other items were on the “consent calendar” approved in one fell swoop without a word from staff or board.

But how could these board members not have a single question on 18 items that included millions of dollars in expenditures?

Here’s how.IMG_3825

The real board meetings and decisions happen in a cramped conference room, behind uninviting double doors, in a “staff only” area at 8 in the morning.

These more informative board meetings are listed on their web page under the disguise of “committee meetings.” But you wouldn’t have known unless you had opened the committee agenda.

What about the posting of notices required by California’s open meeting laws?

OCWD posts its agendas but they do it inside the building, IMG_3824which is inside a gate, which is locked after hours. When evening meetings go late, it is even locked before the meeting adjourns! So much for public access.

Apparently OCWD’s legal counsel isn’t aware of an Attorney General opinion on the matter: notices cannot be placed in buildings which are locked for some portion of the 72 hours immediately prior to the meeting.”

That no one else has complained or noticed shows how few people pay attention to this “special” district. Ironically, the Board uses this fact as an excuse to vote against video streaming.

So now let’s take a closer look at a committee meeting agenda and whether it comports with notice requirements.

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Fig 1. Committee Meetings are actually full board meeting.

OCWD has structured its “committee meetings” to be composed of 5 members and 5 alternates. If any member is absent, then one of the five alternates becomes a voting member for that meeting. All members who attend sit at the table and all receive their $250 stipend whether they are voting members or not. Most committee meetings last less than an hour, and all include a meal. So attendance is usually high.

I’m not talking about a situation where a city council meets jointly with its planning commissioners. In that case, they are two distinct bodies. The city clerk properly notices both meetings, calls both meetings to order, conducts a roll call for each body, and adjourns each body.

In this case, the OCWD board is meeting with itself. The Board is not the “parent” of the subcommittee. The board is the subcommittee and visa versa. The board secretary calls one roll and, depending on who is coming and going, the voting members are constantly shifting. This is nothing more than a ruse.

This hybrid that OCWD has created is a legal conundrum designed to hide the public’s business from the public. A California Attorney General opinion suggests it is inappropriate.

The fact is, all of the important decisions, meetings with consultants, board discussions and staff presentations, happen at these “committee meetings.” By the time an item gets to the “consent” calendar, it is a done deal. The public is left in the dark without the option of pulling the item from the consent calendar.

If OCWD considers this “strict compliance” with the Brown Act, then you can bet they have no problem violating other areas of the law. And they do, frequently. Such as adding last minute items to agendas that do not qualify as emergencies or even “urgent.” Or discussing items, as they did at Thursday’s Admin/Finance Committee that are not on the agenda, despite a tepid admonishment from legal counsel.

So how do we cast light on these shadowy ghost governments? How do we get more public participation, media coverage, and enforcement of the laws?

I believe that live and archived broadcasting of meetings is the first step in restoring public trust and increasing public participation. That is why, a year ago, I started Livestreaming every water meeting I attend. An iPhone on a tripod can be a powerful tool for change. And it is virtually free.

Why is video streaming meetings important? First, it is convenient for the public, especially those ratepayers who live far from OCWD’s campus.

Second, video is a better documentation tool than audio recordings. Voters should be able to see their elected officials in action, who are the players, the lobbyists, the consultants and staff. With video, you can decide for yourself whether arrogance is a quality you want to reward with your vote.

Third, video provides more complete information. Being able to see a slide presentation as it is given is important to understanding complicated issues.

And finally, it encourages public participation, exactly what is needed in a democracy.

Ultimately the onus is on the public to take its rightful place in governance. For the short term I will continue Livestreaming, but for a permanent solution, you need to write your representative at OCWD and demand that all meetings be video streamed.

Debbie Cook is a former mayor of Huntington Beach who advocates for governmental transparency and public participation.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Involvement Editor Theresa Sears at TSears@voiceofoc.org

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that none of the 31 special districts in Orange County video their meetings. We regret the error.

  • Cynthia Ward

    The High Speed Rail Authority used to operate like that. They refused to video or audio their meetings, an attendance was made worse because they bounced all over the State in the name of “access” so you never knew when the next Board meeting or Cmte meeting might be near you or hours away. They claimed the meetings were reflected in their official Minutes, which were not released to the public until approved by the Board, and of course they would wait MONTHS to approve the minutes so by the time you found out something was being discussed they were ready to vote on it. Oh you did NOT want your business to be taken for right of way we may or may not eventually use? Well where were you when we discussed this months ago? Right? Activists did the same, showed up for EVERYTHING they could, and developed a network up and down the state, so when meetings were n So Cal those of us down here would report in, Central Cal, same, they had activists there, and up north the peninsula was crawling with angry people willing to drive a few hours to tape a meeting. We got the BEST stuff from those tapes, including a classic discussion between Mehdi Morshed and then-Chair Pringle, with Morshed basically admitting those involved with CHSRA were blowing conflict of interest, and Pringle trying to silence him without looking like he was trying to shut up his CEO.

    Anyway, I say that to say THANK YOU to those who put in the time and effort to attend these long boring meetings where one is forced to sit and tear their hair out watching sausage being made. I have so many friends who say, “Cynthia I don’t know how you can do that, to sit through that whole thing,” And I ask, “How can you NOT?” No I don’t enjoy it, yes, I have better things to do, but if we don’t show up, guess what happens while our backs are turned?

    So thank you to Debbie Cook and all those who put in the time, away from family, ignoring the laundry and the backed up voice mails, and the millions of other things demanding your time, and getting the video that reminds our leaders who it is they are supposed to represent. If others could step up and pitch in by taking a shift, the work can be spread out and not fall solely on the shoulders of the few who do the job. Anyone out there want to step up? Commit to ONE meeting a month. Get enough to do it and nobody gets burned out.

  • RyanCantor

    I’m so glad it’s this agency that’s considering a multi-billion dollar desalination plant in Huntington Beach.

    They seem like straight shooters. I’m sure the public will get a fair, transparent, and reasoned approach to this single greatest ratepayer expense in a generation.

    • David Zenger

      “Billions for desal, but not a penny for transparency!” went the war cry.

    • Paul Lucas

      Most people have no idea that these bodies i e special districts have a much greater impact on our daily lives than does the POTUS.

  • David Zenger

    Thanks for a concise and perfectly clear essay.