February 06, 2006

Copley News Service

 

Mayor's bid to make ally MWD chief worries some
With board slated to interview five finalists Tuesday, some at the agency are stunned by the intensity of lobbying campaign by Villaraigosa and others.
By David Zahniser

 

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has launched a lobbying campaign to put one of his close political allies in the top job at the powerful Metropolitan Water District -- a prospect that unnerves water officials in some of the region's smaller cities.

Even as he presses ahead with his well-publicized plans to take over the Los Angeles Unified School District, Villaraigosa is quietly assembling a coalition -- one that likely includes San Diego County -- to name former Assemblyman Richard Katz as the new head of the MWD, an agency that serves 18 million people in six counties.

With the MWD's 37-member board slated to interview the five finalists on Tuesday, the intensity of the lobbying campaign has stunned some at the agency, who say the search has become more politicized than any hiring process in recent memory.

"It's a political campaign, and it's never been that way," said MWD board chairman Wesley Bannister, who represents the Orange County Municipal Water District. "We've turned a slow, methodical selection of a person based on skills and knowledge and talent and turned it into a whirlwind political campaign."

MWD board members say they have received calls from attorneys, lobbyists, fellow board members, mayoral aides, Villaraigosa and Katz himself asking them to vote for Katz. Bannister said Los Angeles and San Diego have already lined up behind the former lawmaker, a situation that would require him to find only a handful of other votes on the MWD's 37-member board.

Still, some at the agency wonder if L.A. plans to flex its muscles further by resurrecting a $150 million proposal by the Santa Monica-based land company known as Cadiz for a water storage facility in the Mojave Desert.

Cadiz has backed Villaraigosa

Since 1999, Villaraigosa has received at least $61,450 in campaign contributions from Cadiz, its executives and its board of directors, according to Ethics Commission reports. Villaraigosa worked for Cadiz as a consultant in 2001 and 2002, and the company's president, Keith Brackpool, has been one of the mayor's close friends, a political fund-raiser who directed $25,000 toward Villaraigosa's inaugural ball, which raised money for after-school programs.

Katz is a onetime water adviser to former Gov. Gray Davis who worked closely with San Diego. In fact, a course outline for Katz's Winter 2004 "Water Politics" class at UCLA shows that the former legislator used the Cadiz proposal as a class project.

"What were the roadblocks that stopped the project?" reads the course description. "Can it or should it be revived? If so, how?"

The MWD narrowly defeated the Cadiz project in 2002, setting the stage for a breach-of-contract lawsuit that still isn't settled.

MWD board member Tim Brick said he fears Katz will favor the project, which was opposed by environmentalists.


"The Cadiz project has a lot of threats to the desert and to the pockets of Southern California consumers," said Brick. "It also represents a privatization of the water system that I don't think is healthy for (MWD) or for Southern California."

Katz did not return calls seeking comment on Sunday. But Villaraigosa -- who put four new members on the MWD board in December -- voiced his strong support for Katz, who is one of his political advisers and an appointee to the L.A. County Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Mayor cites Katz's record

Villaraigosa said the MWD needs Katz's expertise on water issues, which he honed as a lawmaker and as a member of the State Water Resources Control Board. The mayor also downplayed the likelihood that the MWD board will resurrect the Cadiz project.

"It's not an issue that's before us, and it's not related to Richard Katz's selection," he said. "My understanding is that they've dispensed with that issue."

Villaraigosa Deputy Mayor Nancy Sutley, one of Los Angeles' four appointees to the MWD, said she had spoken to "a number of board members" about the hiring decision and argued that such interest should be welcomed.

"I don't think the smaller cities have anything to fear from us being more involved," said Sutley, who handles energy and environmental issues for the mayor.

Villaraigosa and Sutley have contacted MWD board members in regions stretching from the South Bay to the San Gabriel Valley, including one call by the Los Angeles mayor to Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, sources familiar with the search said. Carol Kwan, a Manhattan Beach resident who serves on the West Basin Municipal Water District, received a call from Sutley even though her own board has already voted to back another candidate, MWD interim Chief Operating Officer Debra Man.

"They said that (Katz) came with pretty strong politicial background," Kwan said. "But that's not what I want. I want someone that's able to do the job."

Katz and Man are competing for the MWD job against Virginia Grebbian, head of the Orange County Water District; MWD executive vice president Gilbert Ivey, and MWD general counsel Jeffrey Kightlinger.

Under the complex arithmetic of the MWD, Los Angeles and San Diego could give Katz 37.3 percent of the board's vote, even though those two cities each have only four seats on the 37-member board. With those two cities behind him, Katz would need only a few more board members to push him past 50 percent.

One board member said he had received five calls in favor of Katz, while another said he received two calls from Katz and one from City Hall lobbyist Harvey Englander, who handled Katz's campaign for State Senate in 1998. Some MWD board members questioned whether the lobbying is appropriate for an administrative position that will oversee 2,000 employees and a budget of $1.7 billion.


In August 2001, Katz gave an interview to the Metro Investment Report in which he described the Cadiz project as an innovative initiative at the MWD. The MWD board rejected it the following year by a close vote -- 50.2 percent opposed -- after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein argued it would undermine the Desert Protection Act that she had championed.

Last summer, four MWD board members appointed by Villaraigosa's predecessor, former Mayor James Hahn, voted against a proposal for settling Cadiz's claim against the agency.

Desert project linked to Katz

In November, Cadiz filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit demanding that the MWD complete the $150 million water storage and extraction project. Two weeks later, all four of Hahn's appointees were removed by Villaraigosa.

Bannister, the MWD board chairman who made arguments in favor of the Cadiz project in 2002, would not say which of the five candidates he supports. But he said Cadiz is part of the talk surrounding Katz's candidacy.

"I have no doubt that if Katz is named CEO, then we will see Cadiz back on our agenda very soon," he said.