I read with great interest Royal Calkins’ post summarizing the efforts of Public Water Now members and supporters to work for public water to replace private water historically provided by Cal Am. The comments I have seen thus far in response are from regular commenters on the blog, so not much new interest seems to have been ignited.
I have been an avid supporter of prior and current efforts by many to accomplish the demise of Cal Am on the Peninsula. The ratepayers of the Monterey Peninsula do not deserve to be the receivers of what is now considered the most expensive water rate in the country. They deserve to have a public agency, which would, in theory, provide much less costly rates, real accessibility to the decision-makers, and the ability to remove from office at the ballot box those officials who don’t live up to the ratepayers’ expectations.
Trouble is, in order to determine the potential for those lofty and necessary goals and dreams, it is more than necessary to consider the entire context of the ongoing war, which has spanned over several decades and has been fought so hard by the few but incredibly committed and knowledgeable men and women on behalf of all fellow Peninsula ratepayers.
But before discussing the hurdles, this point is important. George Riley, head of PWN, Ron Weitzman of the Water Ratepayers Association of the Monterey Peninsula, Marc del Piero, and dozens of other activists already are fully aware of the challenges. They have toiled long and hard with their own money and time on behalf of all of you who are affected by exorbitant unfair rates. Many people know of them, have read their commentaries and understand that a few people are fighting for all of them. But I bet very few people realize all the hurdles that must be overcome. It is my hope that when the public becomes aware of the scope of the effort they will want to join in the fight.
The hurdles are all known: politics; the difficulties inherent in the process of acquisition, with all of its legalities and uncertainties; timing; gaining the vocal and active major support across the board from a strong majority of affected ratepayers; and, last but not least, money. And there is another important hurdle, the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District.
It is already known that the mayors, as nominal leaders of their cities, have thrown their support to Cal Am from the very beginning, starting with the formation of a joint powers agreement they formed to work “fairly and openly” to bring the most “effective and cost-effective” water supply to their constituents. That hasn’t worked out. I am not pointing a finger at any individual but am looking at the wide picture. People who seek public office want to stay there, usually for very good and ethical reasons. However, they find out immediately that, in order to do so, they need the support of the people who have the influence, time and money to promote those influences. Therefore, the heads of cities financially dependent on the hospitality industry are less likely to take public stances that are not favored by those who have influence in that industry. The cost of water is not so concerning to the industry as it has the means to pass on additional costs to their customers. As we all know, residential ratepayers do not have that option. But, probably in the minds of the mayors, the ability to keep the Peninsula’s economy humming trumps their willingness to go to the mat against the California Public Utilities Commission and Cal Am. During the past Measure O effort to acquire Cal Am, guess who dumped lots of cash to defeat the measure. Cal Am with support from hospitality big-wigs. Not a surprise.
There is more than one option for the acquisition process but only one is capable of success. California law gives the authority to local governments to acquire land and assets from private utilities, primarily by simple purchase of through eminent domain. The problem is Cal Am will not sell any of its land or assets. it will not be a friendly negotiator in the eminent domain process and it has publicly stated that it does not fear litigation. So, if even the new measure passes, the cost of acquisition would need to be studied, at a rather hefty price. If it clearly concludes that acquisition is feasible and will ultimately lead to a lesser burden on ratepayers, it could then lead to an acquisition process filled with hurdles.
Timing is critical. If the process of retaining counsel, etc., is stretched out, the first election date might not be until next spring when other local issues and re-elections take place. That might work for the proponents, but any distraction is a problem. The campaign needs to attract motivated and committed members of the public who will spend their time and money in full support of the measure. Working against that is the fact that the previous measure fell short in each city on the Peninsula.
Aiding the effort, Cal Am has shot itself in the foot with its outrageous rate increases. More and more people are expressing their anger for having to put up with rates that make water almost an unaffordable necessity. But even so, a critical mass has not yet coalesced to provide PWN and its fellow activists necessary to make a much stronger statement at the polls. I am not sure if the response to Royal’s piece is indicative of that, but the commenters who posted were persons who regularly do so, and didn’t include any or many new names who are coming on board with their anger and concern. More work needs to be done and it takes time AND money to do so – both hurdles in themselves.
Money. Cal Am has access to as much money as it needs to fight off its opposition.
Finally, there is the water district. There has been talk of creating a new joint powers agency to take up the mantle and provide public water once Cal Am is defeated. That option is a hurdle by its very nature – joint powers agencies are formed by two or more local jurisdictions. Given the political bent of current local jurisdictions (e.g., the cities), there is not much reason to believe that a new combination of the same parties would not end up same old same old. A better choice is the MPWMD. After all, it is a water district with jurisdiction over the entire Peninsula. It has a large and capable staff and a proven leader in its general manager. However, the district is not clean of internal hurdles either. It has been incapable of implementing a solution to the long-standing water supply problem (although the voters rejected some options sought by the District). The makeup of its board and how it is selected need a new look. Five members of the board represent five districts and are directly elected, and that is good. However, two members are appointed, one by the county Board of Supervisors and other by a city committee. The problem is that the statute does not dictate that the supervisor must be from a supervisorial district that represents at least part of the water district’s area of responsibility, and the method of appointing a city representative is completely inconsistent with the actual language of the statute. More importantly, a supervisor from a district other than supervisorial districts 5 and 2 (the ones that cover part of the Peninsula) has never been appointed, but the statute allows for that not to happen. And, with respect to city reps, while the illegality of the history of appointing a city rep (which nobody really cares about), there should be a separate agreement that the rep chosen should rotate on a regular basis among all of the six Peninsula cities. As it has stood, one man, the mayor of the smallest city on the Peninsula, has represented all of the cities for decades. Those with more at risk should have the greater opportunity to sit in that seat.
No matter if the new measure is passed and the water district is named to succeed Cal Am, there are some procedural issues that need to be addressed if the public is going to have its expected access. The district board rigidly follows the three-minute speaking rule for public comment. Perhaps members of the public could petition for spots on the regular agenda rather than having to make a point in three minutes.
Further, no one should expect that a public agency would not raise rates. It would when necessary. Hopefully, that would only occur after hearings in which groups ratepayers with similar points to make could be agendized.
The bottom line is, for public water to really work, the board of the district has to be in full support of the effort and the process has to be transparent and accessible with real, not symbolic, input from the public.
Bill Hood is the former executive director of the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments. He is also a retired water lawyer and engineer who divides his time between Ohio and Carmel.