Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) on Tuesday blasted the Metropolitan Water District Board of Directors for what he alleged were excessive lobbying expenditures, poor expense accounting and inappropriate contacts with other state officials.
In a sarcastic and accusatory half-hour address laden with references to "money-laundering," "sweetheart deals," and "shadow lobbying," Polanco told the board he was launching a two-part legislative program to "clean up this mess."
But MWD management and directors said Polanco's accusations are inaccurate, irresponsible and made vindictively after the agency and other water boards persuaded Gov. Pete Wilson to veto the assemblyman's crowning legislative achievement on water desalination earlier this year.
"I think that had we joined him (on the desalination bill), he would be here today congratulating us," said MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay.
MWD General Counsel Fred Vendig denied that staff or directors did anything "surreptitious or nefarious," adding that Polanco "used some very heavily charged words (and) has taken some things out of context."
The MWD board, with 47 of 51 members present, sat stoically as Polanco railed against the agency. Then, as the assemblyman was winding up his remarks, saying he wanted to extend his hand in the "spirit of friendship and goodwill," the board and audience burst into loud and sustained laughter.
"Your reaction is evidence of your arrogance," Polanco shot back, adding, "The public will win when all is said and done."
Afterward, Polanco denied that he was motivated by vengeance in launching an investigation of the MWD. Rather, he said, it was news accounts of high travel and lobbying expenses at the independent state-chartered agency that led him to look into the MWD's activities.
"I'm convinced . . . it stinks around here," he said.
Polanco said he plans to introduce legislation that would tighten lobbying expense reporting, make MWD board positions elected rather than appointed, remove the MWD's ability to tax without a vote of the general public and place the agency under state Public Utilities Commission regulation.
At the heart of Polanco's accusations is the $1.5 million the agency has spent on lobbying during the past two years.
Boronkay said the figure is bloated because, under state rules, the MWD must report expenses from the so-called Bay-Delta hearings as lobbying. The hearings are a series of administrative law sessions which will decide how Sacramento River Delta water is divided. The MWD, which provides 60% of the water consumed in a six-county region from Ventura County to the Mexican border, must be represented at the hearings, Boronkay said.
About 80% of the MWD's lobbying expenses are related to the hearings and include hiring scientists and other environmental and wildlife experts, MWD officials said.
Boronkay said he directed the MWD staff to respond to Polanco within the next several days.
But some directors said the agency should give him the cold shoulder.
"It's time to say we've had enough," said Regina Turney-Murph, a director representing Compton. "We just can't let legislators come and kick us in the rear time and time again. Let's give him the silent treatment, and let him just walk out."