Riverside County water agency fronting public relations campaign for MWD

Public records show a Riverside County water agency is funding a $15,000-per-month public relations campaign in San Diego County on behalf of the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The full scope and objectives of the public relations effort are unknown because Eastern’s officials are refusing to comply with state public records law and turn over all unedited relevant documents.  The  San Diego County Water Authority  filed a lawsuit on January 22 seeking a court order compelling Eastern to release the records.

The Water Authority and Eastern both buy water from MWD, a wholesale water supplier for Southern California.  In 2010 and 2012, the Water Authority sued MWD, claiming that its water rates and charges illegally overcharge ratepayers in San Diego County to the benefit of ratepayers in other parts of MWD’s service area.  The cases are pending in San Francisco Superior Court.

“Eastern’s elected officials and staff can’t legally hide the true intent of a public relations contract just because Eastern is involved in litigation with the Water Authority,” said attorney Kelly A. Aviles, who specializes in California Public Records Act law and represents the Water Authority in its lawsuit against Eastern. “The California Constitution and state law require public agencies to promptly provide complete copies of documents, emails, calendars and other records relating to the conduct of the public’s business.”

Aviles also is vice president of open government compliance for Californians Aware, a nonprofit organization established to help state residents understand how to hold government agencies and other public institutions accountable.

On Nov. 2, 2012, the Water Authority sent a public records request to Eastern for a copy of a public relations contract the agency had issued.

Eastern initially gave the Water Authority a copy of the contract but didn’t include a June 1, 2012, letter that included details on the nature of the public relations campaign in San Diego County. The Water Authority pressed Eastern to comply with state law.  Eastern then sent the letter, but blacked out the section that detailed the scope of the public relations campaign.  The Water Authority  sent another letter, which then prompted Eastern to disclose some of the language that had been redacted.  It showed  that the public relations effort was being conducted on behalf of “…MWD and its member agencies.”   Unbeknownst to them, Eastern’s water ratepayers have spent $60,000 so far on behalf of MWD.

Further, surreptitiously funding a public relations campaign on behalf of MWD appears to be at odds with provisions of SB 60, a law passed by the Legislature in 1999 that prohibits 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.”  Passage of the legislation followed revelations of unethical behavior by MWD that played out in newspapers across the state.

To learn more about the California Public Records Act, visit: http://www.sunshinereview.org/index.php/California_Public_Records_Act#ixzz2HgZjpHmB