Groups Accuse Metropolitan Water District of Violating Brown Act, Jeopardizing Tunnels Vote

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On the eve of tomorrow’s vote on the Delta Tunnels by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, two groups today accused the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) of Southern California’s Board of Directors of “blatantly violating” the Brown Act, the state’s landmark open government law, by “making decisions behind closed doors” before a public vote on the multi-billion dollar tunnels project.

In a letter, Food & Water Watch and The First Amendment Coalition called on the Metropolitan Water District to “formally withdraw” its commitment to finance the tunnels, or risk a lawsuit to nullify the vote.

MWD is one of the key financial backers of the California WaterFix, a project that proposes the construction of two massive 35-mile long tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the largest and most significant estuary on the West Coast of the Americas.

“This letter serves as a demand to cure and correct and cease and desist the practices constituting such violations, and as a request for public records pursuant to the California Public Records Act, Government Code section 6250 et seq,” the letter states.

The groups accuse Governor Brown of colluding with Metropolitan Water District staff and directors to round up votes to assume the majority funding stake to build the twin tunnels and subsidize San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests.

They say the April 10 vote violated the Brown Act because key decisions followed “back-channel conversations between board members, with Governor Brown as an intermediary, circumventing public scrutiny of the decision-making process.”

In its meeting, the District took action via a formal vote of approval to implement the California WaterFix; authorize the General Manager to execute certain agreements and agreement amendments related to financing, pre-construction and construction activities for California WaterFix; and authorize General Manager to negotiate draft terms and conditions for one or more multi-year transfers of State Water Project water supplies, according to the letter.

“However, this vote was nothing more than a rubber stamp, and was a result of multiple serial communications between members of the Metropolitan Water District Board of Directors, both directly and with intermediaries, including Governor Brown. These communications were intended to lead to and actually resulted in a collective concurrence among a majority of the board members to approve the actions ultimately rubber stamped at the April 10th Board Meeting,” the letter stated.

Brenna Norton, senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, commented, “This is a bad idea no matter what – but transparency is ultimately what allows people to hold their government accountable. Metropolitan Water District staff and directors, working with Governor Brown, colluded to round up votes to use SoCal ratepayer and taxpayer money to subsidize Central Valley farmers.”

Norton said these secret communications have been “widely reported and even bragged about” by Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) directors.

For example, the letter cites MWDOC Director Larry Dick’s comment at their April 5th Municipal Water District of Orange County meeting that: “April 10th is Tuesday, we should be voting on this. I happen to know from the best bookmaker at MWD, that says we have a guaranteed win on the two tunnels at 51.67%

Norton said public records show multiple meetings and phone calls, including some directly from Governor Jerry Brown, to “round up votes” for a two-tunnel deal.

For example, an article in the Voice of San Diego on April 19, stated: “Brett Barbre, a Metropolitan board member from Orange County who whipped votes in favor of the project, said it had support from about 52 percent of the board going into the weekend. That was enough to pass, but barely. ‘What we were lacking was cushion and the elusive 60 percent,’ he said in an email. The governor made calls before Tuesday’s vote and helped get that number up to 61 percent.”

The letter also cites MWDOC’s April 19th Water Policy Dinner with Karla Nemeth where Brett Barbre explained how Nemeth “worked very closely with MWD and Governor Brown to make phone calls prior to the vote. “

“One of the phone calls he recounts is about the Glendale representative on the MWD board, Zareh Sinanyan, who ‘never shows up at the MWD board anyway for meetings… I had tried calling him, no response. Blois tried calling him, no response. Kightlinger, no response. The only person that was able to get a hold of him was the Governor. And I’m not going to tell you what he did to get a hold of him.”

In the same meeting, Barbre also introduced Director Stephen J. Faessel from Anaheim as the “MWD director that put them over 50% for the twin tunnels.”

The Brown Act prohibits “serial communications” to prevent government from circumventing the requirement for open and public deliberation, Norton noted.

“The Brown Act requires legislative bodies like the Metropolitan Water District to conduct their meetings, their deliberations and their decision-making in public,” said First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder. “It is clear that MWD did not do that here, and on an issue of paramount importance to both the future of California, and to MWD’s use of taxpayer funds.  As a result, the public has been unlawfully shut out of a process they are entitled under California law to take part in.”

The groups’ letter comes in the wake of questions whether the Santa Clara Valley Water District (SCVWD) made a deal with Governor Brown to back the tunnels project in exchange for state funding for a new $485 million dam, Pacheco Dam on Pacheco Creek, a tributary of the Pajaro River.

The Santa Clara Valley Water District Board is expect to vote on its support for the tunnels project at its meeting at the District offices tomorrow in San Jose at 9:30 a.m.

“Governor Brown would like to guarantee funding for the $17 billion dollar tunnels before he leaves office, and having to correct Brown Act violations would jeopardize that commitment,” Norton concluded.

MWD has 30 days to formally respond to the letter by the two organizations. I have not yet received a response to my call to the MWD press office for a comment on the letter.

To read the full letter, go here: