It’s a good idea to have Monterey County represented on the mayors’ water authority. The agency’s main role is to push for a desalination plant to help ease the water shortage and to help oversee its construction and operation. Without county representation, residents of unincorporated areas of the Peninsula would have almost no say in the process.
It would not be a good idea, however, to have county Supervisor Dave Potter represent the county as planned. As ideas go, that’s a bad one, a very bad one, a no-good, rotten, horrible, what-are-they-thinking type of idea. It’s like using the wrong tool, painting your house the wrong color, or hiring a plumber to fix your car.
Even under considerable pressure from the state, getting a desalination plant built is proving to be a huge challenge for local officialdom. It’s complicated, controversial and costly. It doesn’t help that the leading players in the process are California American Water and the California Public Utilities Commission, two entities with public approval ratings about on par with the Kardashians.
Among the problems with Potter is that he could have been the public official who led the Peninsula toward a water solution years ago but never really tried. He was in the perfect position. He has been on the Board of Supervisors for more than a decade. He simultaneously served on both the California Coastal Commission and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, two key players in the water world. Instead, Potter played a low-key but important role in actually derailing the previous effort to build a desal plant. Cal Am’s initial effort was getting nowhere fast when it completely crashed and burned after it was discovered that Monterey County’s official delegate to the process, Steve Collins, was being paid under the table by the project engineer. Collins says Potter and Supervisor Lou Calcagno engineered and approved his actions. They deny that, of course, but there’s little doubt in the public’s mind that neither of the supervisors has been forthcoming about what they did and when they did it.
In the court of public opinion, Potter has pleaded ignorance. Many students of local governance don’t buy it. Potter gets deeply involved in most issues of importance. If he was as uninvolved as he claims to have been in round one of the desalination process, he was derelict. If he was as involved as he should have been, he knew what Collins was up to.
Potter is a remarkably intelligent and crafty politician who has flirted with serious financial and legal issues throughout his career. He has been on the wrong end of several personal lawsuits, and he needed to turn to rather mysterious financing to avoid bankruptcy. His former wife once alleged he had forged her name to paperwork for a second mortgage on a house he had purchased from the family of a development lawyer. He brought us the hugely controversial Monterey Downs racetrack proposal. That he has remained in good standing with voters is testimony to his considerable political skills or the public’s forgetfulness.
It is true that of the five county supervisors, Potter is the most knowledgeable about desalination. That is not necessarily a good thing, however.
One of the biggest obstacles to successful completion of Cal Am’s current desalination plan is public skepticism, both about Cal Am’s ability to carry it off and about the price tag. The failed process previously and the current one have been start-and-stop affairs. Some of that is natural because the list of regulatory agencies involved is monumental, but the constant delays also have raised questions about Cal Am’s ability and even its commitment. While the process stretches on, Cal Am merrily collects considerable profits from the Carmel River water it sells to Peninsula residents, and it is virtually guaranteed to be repaid for every expense attributed to the desalination effort, every expense plus a 10-percent profit.
Potter’s appointment to the authority board would not reduce the skepticism one ounce. In fact, it would add considerable unnecessary weight. His motives and allegiances would be questioned at every turn.
At the moment, county officials are awaiting an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office on whether Potter or other county officials would have a conflict of interest. There is considerable litigation swirling around the players in the desalination arena, and the county is heavily involved in all that. But letting an AG’s opinion be the decider would be the worst kind of cop-out. Potter may not have a conflict in the narrow legal sense in that none of the participants in the process is likely to wire money directly into his bank account or stuff cash into his pockets, but he could hardly be more conflicted.
Potter’s wife is a hotel executive and the local hotel industry is Cal Am’s biggest supporter on various water issues. Potter had a highly publicized legal dispute with one of Cal Am’s potential desalination competitors, Nader Agha, after soliciting him for an unorthodox and essentially illegal campaign contribution. Another potential competitor is represented by local public relations kingpin David Armanasco, whose interests usually mesh with Potter’s. Among other things, Armanasco negotiated the out-of-court settlement that prevented details of the Potter-Agha matter from becoming public.
So what should the county do? It is considering paying its share of past expenses for the mayors’ authority and becoming a dues-paying member, complete with representation on the authority board. Potter already is a member of the authority’s governance committee, but it remains possible that he could be removed before any permanent harm occurs.
Calcagno is out as the county’s representative. He leaves office at the start of the year and one of the first questions about any property proposed for desalination purposes is whether Calcagno owns it.
Supervisors Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas are out as well. Armenta has absolutely no standing on the Peninsula, and Salinas, despite being a former state legislator, has shown no inclination to study Peninsula issues.
That leaves Jane Parker, which is a very good thing.
Now that Potter has become a full-time champion of development interests, Parker is THE environmentalist of the board. Her critics in the hospitality industry and at the chamber of commerce would violently oppose her involvement, which would represent yet another mistake on their part.
Parker is indeed close with environmental interests who fear that a large desalination plant would be growth inducing. She, therefore, could not be counted on to be a gung ho, no-questions-asked supporter of the current process. Which means that project advocates would need to convince her of the worthiness of their decisions. Which means that, unlike Potter’s assent, Parker’s approval would have meaning. If funny business were to break out as it did in the first attempt, Potter would likely be an accomplice. Parker would be the first to point out the problem.
Though there is good reason to worry about the necessity, expense and viability of desalinated water, there also is good reason for this project to continue. If there is not a confluence of additional conservation and other smaller projects that combine to ease our water woes, desalination could in fact be the key to preventing a state-ordered cutback in water usage, a cutback that could devastate the Peninsula’s economy. It is a solution with a long list of harmful side effects, but for the most part those who oppose it are those whose livelihoods are not dependent on an adequate water supply.
Too much has gone wrong with the process and there are too many unanswered questions to warrant full support at this point. The principals need to step it up. But if the process is to proceed, if it is to have any hope of gaining the public support it needs to prove worthwhile, Potter should be on the sidelines and Parker should be in the thick of things.