The possibility of another attempt to put Cal Am Water in public hands prompts reflection over the history of major Monterey County ballot measures in which money and the big-lie technique prevailed. The first in recent history was Measure M back in 2000.
It was initiated by the Pebble Beach Co. with the aim of forcing the county and the Coastal Commission to allow it to build another golf course at the famed resort, but that’s not how it was sold to the voting public. Instead, the commercials and four-color fliers promoted the false notion that Measure M would stop development in the Del Monte Forest that surrounds the existing golf courses.
Measure M did contain a provision limiting the company’s ability to develop 425 acres that previously had been zoned for housing, but the company hardly needed a ballot measure to protect the property. The Pebble Beach Co. offered to permanently fallow the land for ballot measure purposes only after it had already shelved any plans to develop it. We hear a lot about Fake News. This was a Fake Ballot Measure. The campaign featured TV ads with popular actor Clint Eastwood, a Pebble Beach Co. principal, strolling through the trees and saying something like “if you love these woods as much as I do, you’ll vote yes on Measure M.”
The measure passed easily, helped by voters in the far reaches of the county who had no idea they were really voting only to add a golf course. Though the golf course deal was later scuttled by the Coastal Commission, Measure M demonstrated how moneyed interests could manipulate voter initiatives. Until about that time, the side attracting the most money had prevailed in every statewide ballot measure in California. Monterey County would prove to be equally fertile ground for deceptive politicking.
Other examples of dishonest but successful ballot measures include the 2016 ballot fight over the Monterey Downs horse race project and, of course, Measure 0 of 2014 in which California American Water twisted the truth to persuade voters not to move forward with a public takeover of the Monterey Peninsula’s privately held water system.
A giant anomaly, of course, was last year’s Measure Z, the anti-fracking measure approved by Monterey County voters despite a gusher of oil company money that paid for ads falsely charging that the initiative would shut down oil production in the area. But Measure Z’s success is no assurance that reality will trump money in the next big ballot showdown, which is likely to be another attempt to bring Cal Am under public ownership. If that ballot measure materializes in the coming, as expected, voters are likely to see another slick and misleading opposition campaign essentially paid for by the same ratepayers the measure would be designed to help.
Public Water Now, led by water activist George Riley, is believed to be on the verge of a decision to move ahead with a public takeover measure, which would be fueled in part by giant rate increases the company has imposed on its captive customers and the certainty that its struggling desalination project will lead to large additional increases.
The last time the issue made it to the ballot, in 2014, Cal Am prevailed by a count of 55 percent to 45 percent. But analysis of the vote showed that early, absentee voters who had been primarily exposed to Cal Am’s advertising voted against the measure while voters who waited for detailed information from the measure’s proponents voted for it. In other words, higher-information voters favored the ballot measure while those who were spun by Cal Am went the other way.
Cal Am’s anti-O campaign repeatedly described the takeover effort as a risky gamble. If O had passed, it would have required the Peninsula’s water management district to study the feasibility of a public takeover. The study wouldn’t have come cheap but it would have cost far less than Cal Am spent combating the ballot measure. Cal Am called Measure O “the risk we can’t afford.” What we can’t afford, Riley and a growing number of others believe, is Cal Am bills.
The Cal Am campaign also emphasized that negotiating a sale to the public would distract the company from developing a desalination plant – a plant that seems barely closer to reality even now, three years later. Cal Am also repeatedly mischaracterized attempts to takeover water systems elsewhere and the results of successful efforts.
A public takeover of Cal Am’s Peninsula water system would be an extremely difficult and expensive process and Cal Am can be expected to fight Public Water Now at every turn. The company has maintained through the years that the Peninsula system is barely profitable yet it has made it clear that it will fight any and all takeover efforts, which suggests the network of pumps and pipes is more profitable than the company lets on.
My own limited research leads me to believe that in the short term, a public takeover would not result in lower water bills because a public agency would need to borrow sizable sums to complete the transaction. Dave Stoldt, manager of the water management district, once estimated that there would be no actual savings to the customers for as long as 30 years. Proponents disagree, saying savings would materialize much more quickly. Either way, I believe a takeover is worth pursuing because the savings to future customers, decades and decades of future savings, would make the effort worthwhile even if our bills didn’t immediately go down.
To me, the prospect of a takeover is an important public policy issue that should be decided by careful analysis and a considerable amount of professional cost accounting. The decision should not be based on a clever advertising campaign.
The way Cal Am conducted itself last time around was shameful but you didn’t hear a peep about it in polite Peninsula circles. As they did with the Monterey Downs ballot measures, pillars of the community knew that the side with the most money was cheating but they just looked the other way.
If Cal Am listens to anyone in public life on the Peninsula these days, those people should make it clear that the company should stick to the facts and the math and not create its own make-believe reality. The hospitality industry and other business interests have benefited in recent years from sweetheart rate arrangements with Cal Am. They should not let those short-term gains stop them from encouraging Cal Am to be the good corporate citizen it claims to be.
At the same time, Public Water Now and its supporters can and should be expected to play it straight. If buying out Cal Am is a good idea, the numbers should tell the story. If it doesn’t make financial sense, the idea probably isn’t worth pursuing no matter how much better off we would be with a water company run by an accountable local agency rather than for the benefit of distant shareholders.