Mesa Water District Officials Are Still Flying High

Since the Mesa Water District Board of Directors will be interviewing applicants for a board vacancy tomorrow, a review of the expense of director and staff travel and dining costs and reimbursements is timely. In 2013, the Orange County Register published an article on the expensive travel and dining habits of Mesa Water District officials when attending conferences on the ratepayers’ dime.  Based on credit card statements and expense reports, OCR reporter Mike Reicher calculated that 13 Mesa Water officials “rang up more than $170,000 in expenses over 2011 and 2012.”

The biggest spender was General Manager Paul Schoenberger, with more than $30,000 during those two years. The Register reported that during 2011 and 2012, these 13 officials charged $45,500 for in-town meals, at least $36,000 at hotels and $21,000 in airfare.

The June 30, 2013 article reported:

“In May, weeks after the Register received the first batch of documents from a public records request, the board met and decided to add in-town meal guidelines to its credit card policy for directors. They now have a guideline of about $30 per person for each in-town meal, before tax and tip.”

Two and half years later, the Board of Directors adopted updated guidelines on November 16, 2015, increasing that amount from $30 to $80 per person, excluding taxes and gratuities.

This all indicates a realization that expense account spending needed to be reined in. But has Mesa Water District changed its high-flying ways?

You be the judge.

Reviewing expense reports submitted by Mesa Water District directors and staff for 30 conferences they attended from 2014 through 2017, many of the itemized expenses fell within the realm of normal and reasonable. At the same time, this relatively small water agency often sends very large delegations to these conferences, at significant cost. Furthermore, there is also a pattern of seeking meal reimbursements in contrary to established district policy.

Mesa Water officials never miss Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA) conferences, which the organization describes as “the premier destination for water industry professionals to learn and connect.” From 2014 through 2016, a minimum of seven Mesa Water officials attended these conference, which typically last three days.

In May of 2014, six Mesa Water officials (Schoenberger, Directors Fred Bockmiller, Ethan Temianka, Jim Atkinson, Communications Director Stacy Taylor and District Engineer Phil Lauri) attended the ACWA Spring Conference in the picturesque coastal town of Monterey.

The cost to ratepayers? $11,094.88.

Mesa Water officials stayed at the Portola Hotel & Spa at Monterey Bay, a 4-Diamond hotel. Some officials stayed for just two nights, while others enjoyed the accommodations longer: Director Fred Bockmiller stayed for five nights, and his bill upon checkout totaled $1,013.16.

On his expense report, Director Jim Atkinson billed the district for $417.76 for driving to and from Monterey, on top of the $928.16 he expensed for mileage. Presumably the $417.16 was for a rental car, but no receipt is attached to his expense report. If it was a rental car, then why would he claim mileage, which is supposed to compensate for wear-and-tear when using your personal vehicle?

In June 2014, Atkinson and Lauri attended the American Water Works Association National Conference in Boston, at a cost of $6,315.84.

In December 2014, the same party of Mesa Water officials who attended the ACWA Spring Conference (with the addition of Director Shawn Dewane) traveled to San Diego for the three-day ACWA Fall Conference. Total cost?: $9,371.40.

In May of 2015, the same Mesa Water officials who went to the ACWA Spring Conference in 2014 returned to 2015 Spring Conference. The three-day water industry confab took place in Sacramento, and the tab for ratepayers came out to $13,517.74.

The same year, a contingent of eight Mesa Water officials attended ACWA’s Fall Conference in desert resort town of Indian Wells. The party included General Manager Schoenberger; Assistant General Manager Coleen Monteleone; Directors Jim Atkinson, Jim Fisler, Shawn Dewane and Fred Bockmiller; District Engineer Phil Lauri and Communications Director Stacy Taylor. They stayed at the Renaissance Indian Wells Resort & Spa (except Dewane, who stayed at the Ritz Carlton in Rancho Mirage and paid half the hotel room tab out of his own pocket).

Total cost: $10,442.13.

The ACWA Spring Conference was back in lovely seaside Monterey in 2016, as were Mesa Water GM Schoenberger, Directors Ethan Temianka, Fred Bockmiller, Jim Atkinson, Shawn Dewane and Jim Atkinson; and District Engineer Phil Lauri and Communications Director Stacy Taylor.

Cost to ratepayers: $11,152.10.

ACWA’s Fall Conference this year is in Anaheim; presumably it won’t cost to ratepayers for Mesa Water officials to attend won’t be so high.

Altogether, a handful of the same Mesa Water District officials have attended at least 30 water industry conference in various parts of the state and country, at a cost of $103,970.67.

First Class Instead Of Coach

When air travel is required to attend conferences, Mesa Water officials typically fly Business Select class on Southwest, which is the most expensive type of seat the airline sells. Business Select flyers are entitled to guaranteed A1-15 boarding, the ability to “breeze through ticket counters and security checkpoint lines faster,” and extra Rapid Reward points. Business Select flyers are also treated to a free premium drink.

Business Select also costs about $500 round trip, which is significantly more than the normal coach airfare. Southwest accepts flight reservations up to eight months in advance, and the dates of these conferences are published months ahead of time. Why not book coach airfare in advance and save ratepayers hundreds of dollars each time Mesa Water officials get airborne?

For example, each year Mesa Water District External Affairs Manager Stacy Taylor attends the California Special Districts Association “Legislative Days,” a two-day conference typically held in Sacramento in the spring. Mesa Water spends $500 for Business Select round-trip airfare, when it could instead book a normal coach fare ahead of time for about $120.

When asked for response, External Affairs Manager Stacy Taylor commented:

“With respect to airfares, most of this cost is for Mesa Water’s External Affairs work in Sacramento to advocate on behalf of the District to ensure our customers continue to receive abundant, accessible, and affordable water services. The travel expenses you are referring to is for Southwest Airlines travel between Orange County and Sacramento, often within a single day. Mesa Water’s expenditures policy provides for the purchase of the lowest-cost refundable airfare for business travel…in the long run, the “Business Select” fares are the most efficient and cost-effective for airfare travel.”

If decisions to participate in long-planned and advertised conferences that Mesa Water officials routinely attend are made in a single day at the last minute, it suggests paying too much for airfare isn’t the only issue.

Your Limousine Is Ready, Sir

Mesa Water officials’ taste for comfortable travel isn’t limited to flying business class. Director Jim Atkinson attended an ACWA conference in Washington DC from February 28 to March 2, 2017. Keep in mind he had already attended the CalDesal conference in Sand Diego and an Urban Water Institute conference in Palm Springs earlier that month.

Atkinson’s roundtrip plane ticket from LAX to Reagan National Airport in Washington DC was $594.40. That’s a reasonable cross-country airfare. But is it reasonable that Atkinson spent more on being chauffeured to and from the airport than he did on actually flying?

CoolRide Chauffered Transportation picked up Atkinson at his home on February 28 and drove him to LAX for his flight to DC., at a cost of $158.73.  The chauffeured limo from Reagan Nation Airport to The W Hotel in Washington DC was another $152.

When Atkinson checked out on March 2, CoolRide Chauffered Transportation charged $137 to drive him from the hotel back to Reagan National Airport. After he landed at LAX, CoolRide charged another $173.73 to deposit him at house house in Costa Mesa.

Altogether, Atkinson spent $621.46 on chauffeured limousine to and from airports – more than his round-trip airfare. If Atkinson had used SuperShuttle, the total would have been $114.  If he preferred having the car to himself, it would have cost between $120 and $156 using UberX.

This isn’t a new thing for Atkinson: the OC Register reported in June 2013:

“Atkinson spent $2,491 on chauffeured town cars over the two years, making his way to five conferences.”

This would appear to violate the district’s policy on rental vehicle transportation:

“Vehicles may be rented for transportation at the destination point when a Mesa Water Traveler travels to the destination via commercial common carrier and the cost of the rental will be less than the charge for taxi service (or other reasonable and available modes of transportation) to and from the carrier termination point to the function or hotel accommodations.”

Less expensive, reasonable modes of transportation were and are very much available. So why are Mesa Water ratepayers paying hundreds of dollars for chauffeured town cars for a director?

The policy also states:

“A Mesa Water Traveler shall choose based upon the most efficient, direct, and economical mode of transportation required by the occasion. Rental expenses for luxury vehicles, motorcycles and recreational vehicles may not be claimed.

As noted, CoolRide Chauffeured Transportation wasn’t the most “efficient, direct and economical mode of transportation” and using it appears to violate the prohibition against “rental expenses for luxury vehicles.”

When asked for comment, External Affairs Manager Stacy Taylor responded:

“Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We shall notify Mesa Water’s Board of this so that they may review the District’s expenditures policy and discuss possible changes to such.”

As noted, Atkinson has been charging ratepayers for chauffeured driving services since at least 2011. The Board presumably had already reviewed this matter when it forbade the use of paid car services that cost more than a taxi.

Director Jim Fisler received $390.96 in mileage reimbursement for driving to the ACWA Spring Conference in Monterey in May of 2016. His fellow Director Fred Bockmiller drove there in a rental car instead, costing the district only $200 by comparison.

Posh Nosh

As noted earlier, Mesa Water responded to the prospect of negative OC Register stories by adopting a guideline limiting meal expense to $30 per person.

A review of Mesa Water expense reports from 2014 through 2016 indicates the guideline may be more advisory in nature.

Atkinson and Temianka and then-Public and Government Affairs Manager Stacy Taylor attended the Urban Water Institute’s (UWI) Annual Water Conference on August 24-26 of 2016, held at the Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa on Mission Bay. On August 24, the three had dinner together at the hotel and hosted three additional dinner guests:  John Bakker, a principal of Meyers Nave, a law firm that specializes in providing contract legal counsel services to cities and special districts; water industry consultant John Thornton; and Vista Irrigation District Director Richard Vasquez. They dined on yellowfin tuna tartare, scallops and shrimp, swordfish, soy glazed salmon and three orders of mushroom crusted halibut – plus assorted cookies, flourless chocolate terrine, a bread board, side veggies and a nice lemon gelato. Yum!

The bill for this dinner for three? $384.64 (excluding tax and gratuity, which aren’t eligible for reimbursement per Mesa Water District guidelines).

The next evening, Atkinson and Taylor took Vista Irrigation District Director Jo MacKenzie at Acqua California Bistro. The three dined on three orders of scallops and shrimp, two orders of yellowfin tuna tartare and one order of griddle crab cakes.

Cost to Mesa Water District ratepayers? $176.60 ($142.00 for the meal plus tax and gratuity). Contrary to district policy against reimbursement for tax and gratuity, Atkinson applied for reimbursement for the entire amount.

The evening before the conference started, on August 23, Atkinson dined alone and applied for reimbursement for the total bill of $41.79 (including tax and gratuity). Indeed, Atkinson applied for reimbursement for the full cost of every meal during that conference.

Taylor stated that “The policy states limits for meal subtotals. That said, the purchaser is entitled to reimbursement of the full cost, including tip and tax, of the expenditure.”

That begs the question of why adopt a policy limiting what is reimbursable if the limits have no teeth?

February 2-3 of this year, District Engineer Phil Lauri was at the annual CalDesal Conference in San Diego, along with General Manager Schoenberger and Directors Jim Atkinson and Ethan Temianka. Lauri and Atkinson took CalDesal Executive Director Ron Davis and SPI President Gerry Filteau to dinner at upscale Brazilian steakhouse Fogo De Chao (SPI is a Carlsbad-based consulting engineering firm).

Mesa Water District ratepayers paid the dinner bill, which came to $250.84.

In each case, Mesa Water External Affairs Manager Stacy Taylor  responded that the per-person cost was within the $80 per-person guideline established by the district in 2015. A cynic could argue Mesa Water solved the policy/perception issue by boosting the per-person limit until even sumptuous, expensive dinner comply with that aspect of the reimbursement and expense policy.

However, there was no response to the question of whether these meals are consistent with Mesa Water’s prohibition against reimbursement for “lavish or extravagant” meals.

Are These Expenses Justified?

Stacy Taylor, who is now Mesa Water’s External Affairs Manager, was contacted via e-mail regarding these expenses and asked for comment on whether it is fair to ask district ratepayers to bear the cost of thousands of dollars for directors and staff to enjoy expensive dinners while traveling on district business? Or to pay more than $600 for chauffeured airport limousine service for a director?

Taylor had this to say:

“Your recent request for Mesa Water’s conference and travel expenses generated over 800 receipt records (814 to be exact) that we provided to you. Of the 800+ records, only the one expense (for car service) is potentially outside of the District’s expenditures policy. Furthermore, 1 out of 800 receipts represents less than 0.1% of the total. We appreciate your diligence in bringing these receipts to our attention, showing that over 99.9% of Mesa Water’s travel and business expenses are within our 2015 expenditures policy. That said, we recognize that we may not be fully perfect yet and we are striving for achieving the added 0.1% to be 100%.”

Taylor stated further that “Mesa Water Board and staff members travel to attend industry conferences” in order to lean more about “regulatory, environmental and legal compliance requirements, policy issues, and industry trends” and “received mandated training and function-specific professional development. “ She also said attending these conferences leads to introductions to “innovative products and services,” noting that at “a recent conference, Mesa Water discovered the Solar Bee Power Mixers technology that saved approximately $500,000 in construction costs upon installation and continues to save the District $20,000 annually in operational costs.”

Be that as it may, is it necessary to send platoons of Mesa Water officials? Or to pick-up the tab for consultants and other public officials and charge the ratepayers? Or failing to enforce the district’s own policies requiring officials to use the most efficient and economical modes available?

It appears old habits die hard, and too many Mesa Water District officials are too often flying high and eating well at ratepayers’ expense. The consultants and other water officials who dined on Mesa Water’s dime doubtless appreciate the generosity. This Friday, the Mesa Water District Board of Directors will be interviewing candidates to fill the vacancy created by Director Temianka’s resignation. In light of these persistent habits, an appropriate interview topic should be applicants’ views on whether these kinds of expenses are appropriate or excessive.

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