Editorial: County’s Gobernadora Basin Shows Supes’ Casual Malfeasance

This is the time of year you can see the county Supervisors gearing up for their annual June budget Kabuki drama with its predicable fourth act – sarcastically known to insiders as “frugality theater.”

During this part of the show the Supervisors will wring their collective hands over this or that pittance that the public simply can’t afford. There is irony in this performance since so much is simply wasted in County government; and even worse is the long history of the county handing out public assets to the wealthy, the well-connected and the clients of lobbyists who have invested liberally in supervisorial political campaigns.

Here’s an illustration of what I’m talking about.

In November 2004 the County of Orange granted land use entitlements and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) approval for the massive development of 14,000 new houses and millions of square feet of commercial space to Rancho Mission Viejo (RMV). Part of the approval of “The Ranch Plan” included a development agreement that required RMV to perform certain obligations in order for it to continue to proceed.

One of the requirements that RMV agreed to was the construction of a storm water mitigation facility in Gobernadora Canyon, south of Coto de Caza. The purpose of this facility was to control periodic rain water flow from the development to the north that had been built without regard for the effect of concentrated urban storm runoff. This situation had caused significant ecological erosion damage downstream along Gobernadora Creek. As stated in the Development Agreement, the responsibility for building and maintaining this facility lay squarely on Rancho Mission Viejo.

Let’s jump forward now to early 2011 when the Orange County Public Works Department brought a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to the Board of Supervisors between the County, RMV and the Santa Margarita Water District to build a dual-use facility alongside Gobernadora Creek. The northern portion was to be a percolation/recharge basin for the water district; the southern half was to be the promised storm water deceleration basin identified in the 2004 Agreement. As party to a future agreement, the County was to pay for ongoing maintenance of the basin at a projected cost of $5600 per year. The alignment of a future recreation trail across the creek in this vicinity was also to be part of the discussion.

In my then-capacity as an executive assistant to a County Supervisor, I questioned staff on why the County was in any way obligated to participate in this arrangement, and why the public was paying for facility maintenance when there was absolutely no requirement for the County to do so. I received no cogent answer from County staff. Despite the obvious problems, the MOU was approved by the Board of Supervisors.

Almost two years later, in the fall of 2012, the formal agreement finally returned to the Board for approval; but, in the intervening time, details were now included that caused a significant change to the scope of the original MOU. Now the County was to take ownership of the Gobernadora Basin after it was built, and was to assume liability for its operation and maintenance.

In effect, the Gobernadora Basin, that was never a County responsibility, was to become a de facto public flood control facility, despite the fact that Gobernadora Creek is not part of the County Flood Control system. To add insult to injury, the County staff now advised that we taxpayers subsidize the cost of construction inspection service fees for RMV, and proposed a budgeted an amount of $300,000 for that purpose.

When I inquired of the Public Works Department and the County Counsel’s office about the propriety of the proposed arrangement I received the usual admixture of double talk, obfuscation and shrugs, a reliable sign that this strange agreement had already been promised at the highest level, and that of course, the Fifth District Supervisor, Pat Bates, in whose district Rancho Mission Viejo lay, must have been fully apprised of what was going on.

In short, I kept asking why the County was voluntarily taking on what was supposed to be a purely private obligation; and the engineers and lawyers kept telling me how they had the legal ability to do it. I argued that the proposal was nothing more than a gift of public funds to an extremely wealthy and well-connected developer, as well as an unnecessary assumption of risk by the public.

Naturally, at the same time I began asking uncomfortable questions, the RMV lobbyist was making the rounds on the Fifth Floor lauding a great “win-win” deal, observing that the County was going to be getting a recreation trail in the bargain. Of course he omitted to tell anybody that provision of a recreation trail alignment all the way across Gobernadora Canyon was yet another requirement of the RMV per the 2004 development agreement; and that this basin “trail” only consisted of a short, unconnected part that would run along the top of the basin dike – an alignment, ironically, that was not even preferred by the County Parks Department.

The final agreement was approved in December of 2012 by Pat Bates, Janet Nguyen, Bill Campbell and John Moorlach. If any of them were the least bit bothered by this completely unnecessary assumption of risk and cost by the taxpayer, they didn’t show it.

To you, the story of the Gobernadora Basin may seem insignificant.

Not to me.

In my experience, this was far from being an isolated instance of the Orange County government working, sometimes working pretty darn hard, for private interests with disregard for the public.

You may be one of the people in Orange County who believe that the wealthy and privileged receive special treatment from a government that is supposed to belong to everybody. You may be one of the people in Orange County who think that the lobbyists who work for the special interests have way too much influence. You may be one of the people in Orange County who are right.

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  • Roger Butow

    That kayaking strategy is warm & fuzzy but its champion, CoastKeeper, should know better. Our watercourses are the conveyor belts of highly contaminated constituents, many cause not just short term illnesses but long term (potentially mortal) carcinogenic substances. They persist, they accumulate and are accreted by sediment, so they continue to be a health threat on their tumbling journey to the sea. A lot of these pollutants are discharged during the first flush phase in the fall, when perhaps 1/2–1″ of rain purges the storm drain systems of their accumulated detritus, and they then discharge into streams like the SA River. And isn’t high flow during/after rain the best kayaking conditions? The same stupidity is going on up in the LA River. Urbanized watersheds quickly (due to old school engineering) move sheet flows to these streams, basically pollutant-laden toilets/culverts. Once you read what’s IN urban runoff, why would anyone RISK encouraging people to do an activity that exposes them: There are the vapors/gases, there’s the contact and/or immersion potential, and then there are the Personal Injury Attorneys! These streams become attractive and public nuisances—So funding or assisting (aiding & abetting) non-profits wishing this as a recreational/educational tool is poor risk management—And that’s an understatement. If the victim is a child or woman, look for Gloria Allred to be parked at County offices and Superior Court steps in a press conference. On CNN. And let’s be realistic, if a minority child and/or mother, look for a negligence lawsuit billing bonanza!

    • David Zenger

      I don’t know if this idiotic idea ever even came to fruition. Bill Campbell was pushing it hard three years ago and of course the rest of the Board went along for the ride (so to speak).

      The Flood Control people wanted no part of it, and nobody even bothered to check with Risk Management. The thing was processed as a OC Parks concept. I believed the liability waivers were just a joke.

      I argued all the points you are making but of course they fell on deaf ears. Campbell had decided! So naturally all the people who knew better kept their mouths shut. That’s the County way.

  • Cynthia Ward

    Wow. And I know this is only a drop in the bucket, with this kind of waste and mismanagement of public funds going on in many other projects and departments, and is not limited to the County but also the standard practice in many cities if you look closely.

    This confirms something I was thinking this morning, that taxpayers need to begin demanding an Ombudsman to review this stuff. While I applaud Shirley Grindle’s work toward an ethics office, and agree we need it, we also have MANY MANY more cases of just lazy book keeping and bad management (basic raw stupidity) that we might not connect a quid pro quo to with an ethics office but could perhaps review for “best practices” to prevent waste. Imagine how much money might be saved, not to mention the headaches of taxpayers often sandwiched into these bad decisions, by those who are accountable to NOBODY.

    Thanks for sharing your inside view, David.

    • David Zenger

      Cynthia, the problem is that nobody is doing serious in-house auditing. At the County, the Performance Auditor has been ignored or undermined, or distracted; the Internal Auditor is a lap dog; the Auditor-Controller doesn’t audit anything.

      There is endless talk about “best practices” and “bang for the buck” and other dreary cliches from the executives, but the formula is really simple: support the Supervisors in their endeavors (no matter how idiotic – like kayaking in the Santa Ana River! -and make them look good and they will do the same for you – no matter how badly you mess something up. I called it the Mauk Doctrine.

      Then there is the great looming cloud of unknown risk on the horizon that goes unaddressed because the County refuses to adopt an intelligent program of Enterprise Risk Management. In other words, everybody is just waiting for the next big disaster.

      Cities have similar problems in places like Anaheim (now) and Irvine under the Agran Regime: political direction trumps professional standards. But mostly cities don’t even try to apply the resources necessary for performance or fiscal audits.

      • @Dan Chmielewski

        another in a series of “how I was awesome” editorials by Mr. Zenger; will the VOC offer these pages for the county employees you mistreated, disregarded and maligned due to your own arrogance that got you canned? You don’t have a lot of fans at County and it has nothing to do with your work.

        • David Zenger

          Name a single County employee that I mistreated. Name one. Anyone.

          As we used to say: alligator mouth, hummingbird behind.

          • @Dan Chmielewski

            so you can attack them? ain’t happening…my tally is more than 15..you can probably figure it out. But then again, you’re good at making claims that don’t match up to reality. What’s it been — two years? No new job in the public sector….wonder why?

          • Cynthia Ward

            Dan, here is where your argument does not hold water. Zenger has always been Zenger. For as long as I have known him (2007? 2008?) he has not changed, his attitude has always been one of disdain for those who fail to watch the public till, and one would have to be delusional to believe he would ever set aside such a basic set of values to become a politically correct yes-man for the establishment. Zenger was a whistle-blower before he got hired, and continued that role into his employment, yet remained employed for quite some time. It was only after he started lifting some of the larger rocks that powerful folks didn’t want lifted that he got the pink slip. As far as these stories. we NEED to hear them because they set a pattern for us to watch for and hopefully find some way to mitigate the damage being done when government fails to think before spending our money.

          • @Dan Chmielewski

            Here is where my argument holds water. I’m not talking about how Zenger adheres to going after big targets — Shirley Grindle is better at it and gets better results. Instead, it’s how he treats rank and file staffers from admins to kids with a few years of experience. He’s a jerk to people without power or influence who are hired to do basic work. And every story he writes, the same pattern emerges; Dave paints himself the hero of every essay. If Dave were as good as he says he is, he’d have been hired by someone of influence by now instead of his former blogmaster Tony Bushala. And even then, its not clear that Bushala has a full time job for Zenger. My list of former employees who refer to Zenger as a jerk (or worse) is now at 18. Really, Zenger complaining about waste in government is like Fitzgerald complaining about a lack of kindness during public comments at Anaheim City Council meetings like he did last time; laughable conditions for both.

          • @Dan Chmielewski

            Is it possible for you to write a story where you aren’t the hero Don Quixote?

          • @Dan Chmielewski

            Nelson disputed that Zenger was fired because he was a whistleblower instead saying he was insubordinate and disrespectful.

            “It was personal between Dave and I. He was disrespectful to me repeatedly,” Nelson said.