Documents Uncover Secret Public Relations Campaign Targeting San Diego County Water Authority

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Documents Uncover Secret Public Relations Campaign
Eastern Municipal Water District plan for Metropolitan Water District latest in series of secretive and deceptive public relations campaigns

Documents obtained under the California Public Records Act show that the top official with the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California participated in meetings on the development of a covert public relations campaign designed to discredit the San Diego County Water Authority and its long-term water supply diversification strategy.  The sub-rosa campaign is the latest in a string of similar efforts by MWD and some of its member agencies dating back to the late-1990s, records show.

Eastern Municipal Water District’s records show that in 2012 MWD’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, participated in meetings on a secret public relations campaign in San Diego County being developed for MWD by Eastern and its consulting firm, Sacramento-based California Strategies. Eastern’s board of directors handled the project in closed sessions, though Eastern’s claims that the work was protected from public disclosure under attorney-client and attorney work product privileges proved meritless.

“Metropolitan has a long and dark history of abusing its power – and trying to hide its activities from public scrutiny,” said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the Water Authority. “This latest episode shows that MWD will stop at nothing to maintain its monopoly and punish San Diego County.”

Through a series of Public Records Act requests in 1997 and 1998, the Water Authority unearthed a coordinated, multi-million dollar public relations campaign by MWD and 12 of its member agencies designed to scuttle the Water Authority’s deal to transfer water from the Imperial Irrigation District.  The campaign, orchestrated by MWD and the so-called “Partnership for Regional Water Reliability,” included “opposition research” into the finances of all 120 California state legislators, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, and all members of the Water Authority and IID boards.

Public disclosure of the campaign created a backlash against MWD and spawned state legislation to reform MWD, including Senate Bill 60, which was signed into law in 1999. That bill was crafted to prohibit MWD and its member agencies from “any association structure or identification that is likely to mislead the public as to the association’s true identity, its source of funding, or its purpose.”

In 2011, the Water Authority discovered through Public Records Act requests that 20 MWD member agencies had secretly organized in the fall of 2009 under various names, including the “MWD Member Agency Managers Workgroup,” the “Anti-San Diego Coalition” and the “Secret Society.” Records showed that the group was advocating for policy and rate decisions that disadvantaged San Diego County to the benefit of MWD member agencies elsewhere.

In late 2012, the Water Authority became aware of activities in San Diego County that suggested MWD had launched another secret public relations campaign, this time through Eastern. The Water Authority’s Public Records Act request to Eastern produced documents that included a copy of Eastern’s $15,000-a-month contract with California Strategies. Eastern initially refused to provide another document that showed the scope of work the consultant was hired to carry out.  After pressure from the Water Authority, Eastern provided the scope of work for the California Strategies campaign, but redacted all the language about the specific services to be provided by the firm. The Water Authority eventually compelled Eastern to remove the redactions, which revealed that the public relations campaign was, in fact, being conducted “on behalf of MWD and its member agencies.”

After more than a year of delay, Eastern released to the news media 88 pages of records on Nov. 27, 2013, and filed a petition with the court seeking to dismiss the case. In its court briefs and oral arguments seeking dismissal during a Dec. 4 hearing, Eastern’s lawyers told the court that all records had been produced. Eastern’s general manager, Paul Jones, signed a declaration under oath that all records had been produced.  The court denied the motion to dismiss. On Dec. 20, 2013, Eastern released 1,033 pages of public records – more than 10 times the number of documents it had provided just two weeks before.

The records revealed that the public relations plan for MWD included staffing up a San Diego office lead by a “high integrity individual from the San Diego community,” polling and focus groups, and “message development and tactical refinement.” One document provided by Eastern shows the plan involved placing MWD representatives on key local boards, conducting one-on-one outreach with civic leaders in San Diego County and improving its local media presence.

Released records reference the “value of having discretionary funds available for business meals (within reason) and contributions to local organizations and programs.” Contributing money “may be tricky,” said a Dec. 7, 2012, email, “but not necessarily if done in modest amounts.”

“The challenge we have is finding a way to subtly and effectively educate these leaders and other key organizations and individuals,” according to one of Eastern’s documents on Oct. 9, 2012.  “However, doing this educating under the nose of the CWA presents a unique set of risks; hence our use of the term ‘subtly’ above.”

While Eastern played a lead role in developing the public relations strategies, records show that MWD’s general manager and a former general manager-turned-consultant were in on the plan from early on. The documents tout MWD’s ability to offer a pension, lifetime health benefits and a “base salary close to $200 k per year” for a San Diego-based team leader who could “implement MWD’s big picture vision.”

Part of the plan included labeling two lawsuits by the Water Authority challenging the legality of MWD’s rates as “petty,” and a threat to a solution in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta.  On Feb. 25, 2014, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Curtis E. A. Karnow tentatively ruled that MWD violated cost of service requirements of California’s Constitution (Prop. 26), California’s wheeling statutes, the Government Code and common law when setting rates for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014. (For more information about the Water Authority’s lawsuits against MWD’s rates and the tentative ruling, go to www.sdcwa.org/mwdrate-challenge.)

In a March ruling in the Eastern Public Records Act litigation, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Chalfant determined that the Water Authority’s records lawsuit against Eastern “led to the production of additional documentation.” On April 15, he approved an order declaring the Water Authority the prevailing party and said the agency is entitled to recovery of its attorneys’ fees from Eastern. On April 18, Eastern agreed to pay the Water Authority $95,808 in attorneys’ fees and costs; Eastern has not disclosed how much it spent on its own lawyers trying unsuccessfully to hide its misguided plan for more than a year.

“Eastern’s repeated refusal to follow the law wasted tens of thousands of dollars of their ratepayers’ money,” said Kelly Aviles, special counsel for the Water Authority, with the Law Offices of Kelly Aviles, in La Verne, Calif. “Eastern not only spent $60,000 on an underground P.R. campaign in another county, it compounded the waste of its ratepayers’ money by spending even more trying to hide it.

“While the court’s enforcement of the Public Records Act against Eastern ultimately exposed the district’s plans, Eastern’s ratepayers have every reason to question why its local water district designed a public relations campaign for MWD in San Diego and spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees to flout the state’s open records law.”

The Eastern documents will be discussed Thursday by the Water Authority’s Imported Water Committee during the Board of Directors regular monthly meeting. To read the Board memo and documents obtained by the Water Authority’s Public Records Act request, go to http://www.sdcwa.org/public-records-eastern-municipal-water-district.