Judge halts release of names of DWP customers who got grants to replace lawns

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Heeding the call to conserve water, tens of thousands of Southern California residents and businesses replaced their lawns with drought-tolerant landscaping with the help of $340 million in grants from the Metropolitan Water District.

Government officials have praised those who got rid of their grass. But now, a legal battle is brewing over whether officials must reveal the names of those who got the money, which amounted to up to $2 per square foot of turf removed.

The San Diego Union-Tribune — a sister newspaper of the Los Angeles Times — requested the names and addresses of those who got the rebates, which were doled out to customers of water suppliers across Southern California.

One of the biggest water districts, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, strongly objects to making the information public and went to court Thursday to block the Metropolitan Water District from providing the information.

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The MWD had planned to release the information Friday. But Judge James C. Chalfant issued an order that temporarily prevents the water seller from giving out detailed information about DWP customers until the parties can argue the merits of the case in November.

Chalfant ruled that the names of grant recipients from other agencies could be released because no one had challenged the move. An MWD spokesman said that information would be given out "sometime next week."

Attorneys for the Union-Tribune argued that the information was necessary to analyze the effectiveness of the program and determine exactly how the public money was spent.

"All public records are important," said Kelly Aviles, an attorney for the Union-Tribune. "We're talking about … million(s) in public money and we need to know where it went and what happened to it."

She also said the DWP would need a "very high burden" to withhold the names, "and we don't think they come close."

The DWP, however, maintains it is private information that is not subject to release under the California Public Records Act.

The DWP says releasing the names would violate the California Constitution's guarantee of a right to privacy because customers were not notified that their information might be disclosed when they signed up for the rebate program.

"Customers may never have participated in the turf program if they had known their names and addresses could be published in a newspaper," the DWP's complaint said.

DWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo said the department was "pleased with the outcome" of Thursday's hearing.

"It was clear that the judge saw the importance of protecting our customers' privacy, which is what this case is all about," Ramallo said in an email.

The MWD, a water wholesaler, sells water to the DWP along with about two dozen other agencies and cities that span the region. DWP customers made up about 20% of the total participants in the MWD's turf rebate program, attorneys said.

At first, some commercial customers were able to receive more than $1 million in rebates to rip out millions of square feet of grass. But later, the MWD placed caps on the amount of money a customer could get. Now residential and commercial customers have varying limits on the amount of grant money they can receive.

So far, the DWP has been the only water supplier to object to the release of the information.

The MWD has said it is willing to release the names and addresses because it is public information.

But Aviles, the attorney for the Union-Tribune, said she believed the two water suppliers were working "behind the scenes to prevent the disclosure."

The MWD denied the charge. "Working together does not imply that we are conspiring in any way," said Bob Muir, an MWD spokesman.

"The fact we're in court today," he said, indicates that MWD wants the information to be released.

matt.stevens@latimes.com

morgan.cook@utsandeigo.com

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