Mesa Water District Spends Millions on PR, Pennies on Transparency

Last week, OC Daily published an article on the disturbing lack of transparency at one of Anaheim’s elementary school districts, which made it virtually impossible for parents and constituents to find out what the members of Board of Education said or did at their meetings. The district didn’t undertake even rudimentary transparency measures, such as archiving board meeting video or audio online.

This isn’t an isolated example in Orange County. Even districts with ample resources to implement robust transparency measures haven’t done so. The Mesa Water District in Costa Mesa is an example.

In a previous article,  I compared the Mesa Water District and the Costa Mesa Sanitary District in terms of administrative top-heaviness. The comparison is relevant since Mesa would like to merge with the CMSD. But the feeling isn’t reciprocated. Mesa contends there are numerous advantages for residents, but another comparison illustrates that transparency isn’t one of those.

To be sure we’re comparing transparency apples-to-apples, let’s start with guidelines laid down by the Orange County Grand Jury in its June 2011 report on special district compensation. I am an admitted public critic of the OC Grand Jury, but let’s use what we have.

The elements of this transparency baseline focus on compensation and finance and call for special districts to include the following on their websites:

  • A clearly labeled link or links on the website’s home page to all financial and compensation information.
  • Compensation data should be provided for the board of directors and general manager listing all types of compensation (salary and other benefits) in a clear, understandable manner.
  • If the general manager operates under a contract, then a copy of the current contract should be posted on the district’s website.
  • The current and previous fiscal year budgets should be posted. If available, the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) should be included.
  • Public meeting information, including dates, times, location, agendas and minutes should be listed and rigorously updated.

These criteria were published six years ago. How have the CMSD and Mesa Water responded in the intervening years:

A clearly labeled link or links on the website’s home page to all financial and compensation information.
While both districts meet the minimum standard, CMSD goes above and beyond.

Both districts have “Transparency” hyperlink in the generic pull-down menu leads to a collection of transparency links, including financial and compensation information. Generally speaking, Mesa Water checks the boxes while CMSD goes above-and-beyond in terms of depth and breadth. For example, both districts provide job classifications and accompanying salary ranges, but CMSD prominently features detailed employee compensation reports (such as cell phone allowance for each job classification) and the state Controller’s Compensation Report.

Compensation data should be provided for the board of directors and general manager listing all types of compensation (salary and other benefits) in a clear, understandable manner.
Again, both districts meet the basic standard but CMSD goes beyond it.  Mesa Water’s Transparency page features a link to the ordinance spelling out rules of director compensation, but how much they actually did earn is buried at the end of a different and separately accessible (but otherwise useful) compensation and benefit summary.

CMSD has a dedicated, highly visible button to annual compensation disclosure reports, starting with the Board of Directors and listing all types of compensation. An “Annual Reimbursement Expenses” button lists detailed annual expense summaries for each CMSD director and staff member. Mesa Water posts a link to its expense reimbursement policy, but not to expense reimbursement reports.

If the general manager operates under a contract, then a copy of the current contract should be posted on the district’s website.
The Costa Mesa Sanitary District has a stand-alone hyperlinked icon labeled “General Manager’s Contract” listing GM Scott Carroll’s contracts going back to 2009.

Mesa Water doesn’t include GM Paul Shoenberger’s contract. Shoenberger is the highest paid local government CEO in Orange County, with a salary more than 40% higher than Carroll’s.

The current and previous fiscal year budgets should be posted. If available, the district’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR) should be included.
Again, Mesa checks the boxes while CMSD goes above-and-beyond.

Mesa Water posts the current but not preceding fiscal year budget, as well as its most recent CAFR.

CMSD posts the current FY budget and two preceding budgets; the most recent CAFR and the four preceding CAFRs.

Plus, CMSD also published a PAFR: Popular Annual Financial Reports.  CAFR’s are dense, dry documents that cause the average person’s eyes to glaze over.  PAFR’s present the information in a much more accessible, digestible form, and more fully meet the spirit of government transparency.

Public meeting information, including dates, times, location, agendas and minutes should be listed and rigorously updated.
Here again we see a mismatch in level of commitment. The Costa Mesa Water District posts agendas for Board of Directors meetings, meetings of the operations, recycling and sewer system committees; study session meetings; and not only current agendas, but agendas stretching back to 1992.

The meeting minutes going back to February 18, 1944 are electronically archived on the website, as are every resolution the CMSD Board has adopted.

Until several months ago, Mesa Water only posted board minutes from 2012 and earlier. Now, it only posts board minutes from 2013 through 2017.

There are additional transparency measures not included in the OC Grand Jury criteria but of arguably greater importance. Chief among these is the publishing of video recordings of Board of Director meetings. The Costa Mesa Sanitary District video records its Board of Directors meetings and posts the video the next day. Website visitors can click on hyperlinked agenda items and the video will advance to that segment of the meeting.

This is standard stuff for cities and counties, but CMSD is one of only two special districts in Orange County to do this. The other special district is NOT Mesa Water.

This is important stuff. Few members of the public attend special district board meetings, which are often held during the work day. Official board minutes are in bureaucratic shorthand and don’t really convey the flavor of a public hearing, or a verbatim transcript. Easily and immediately accessible board meeting videos are indispensable to genuine transparency.

This is also easy stuff. The integrated video broadcasting systems used by municipal governments cost several thousand dollars a year. But the state of technology allows even the most resource-challenged special district to use a smartphone to video broadcast and archive public hearings. Mesa Water reportedly will spend more than $3 million over the prior and current fiscal years on public communications, which makes its failure to broadcast and record its Board meetings even more remarkable.

CMSD Board President Mike Scheafer noted the dichotomy during his State of the District presentation in September of last year. During the transparency section of his PowerPoint, Scheafer noted Mesa Water had sent someone to video his speech, which was unnecessary since CMSD was already recording it for publishing on the Web.

“We have a representative here from Mesa Water who’s videotaping our meeting tonight,” said Scheafer. “They don’t videotape their meetings, but they’re videotaping me.”

Additional Transparency Measurements
During that presentation, in addition to transparency gaps already noted in this article, Scheafer contrasted CMSD’s transparency efforts with a lack thereof from Mesa:

  • CMSD posts all contracts with private vendors and public entities on its website, while Mesa Water does not.
  • CMSD directors publish their Form 700 Conflict of Interest Disclosures on the district website; Mesa Water directors do not.
  • CMSD discloses $100-plus reimbursements to directors and/or employees on the website, per Section 53065.5 of CA Government Code. Mesa Water does not.
  • CMSD does link to employee compensation from State Controller’s office; Mesa Water does not.

It’s unmistakably clear from surveying their respective transparency initiatives that the Costa Mesa Sanitary District’s commitment to transparency is deeper, broader and more effective than that of Mesa Water. It’s also clear the CMSD took the OC Grand Jury’s sensible recommendations more seriously than Mesa Water did. It’s all the more remarkable given the disparity in resources each devotes to its larger public communications efforts: CMSD spends much less and yet is significantly more transparent to the public.

Given Mesa Water’s unrequited pursuit of a merger with the CMSD, this raises an important question for residents of their overlapping jurisdictions to ask themselves: if these two agencies consolidated, would the result be greater or less transparency? Would it be simpler and easier, or more difficult, for me to know what the district is up to?

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