Official: Vote on Poseidon permit stays

An official with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board said he knew of no plans to have the board rescind its vote on Poseidon Resources' permit to build a desalination plant, despite rumblings in the community that one member's participation amounted to a conflict of interest.

An article on the nonprofit investigative website Voice of OC noted that Fred Ameri, who joined in the Poseidon vote in February, was a senior vice president for RBF Consulting before he retired earlier this month. RBF Consulting received nearly $500,000 to create environmental impact reports for Poseidon over the last 11 years.

While some questioned Ameri's involvement in the vote, Gary Stewart, a senior engineer for the water board, said the decision appeared final for the time being.

"I'm not aware of any need for a revote," he said. "Nobody has really challenged that issue officially as far as I know, so I'm not aware of any scheduled action or reaction by the regional board."

According to Senior Planner Ricky Ramos, the city paid RBF and was reimbursed by Poseidon for the first two EIRs in 2001 and 2004. Poseidon paid RBF directly for the third report in 2010.

However, Barbara Eljenholm, a spokeswoman for RBF, said Ameri was never personally involved in any desalination projects.

"He acts as a board member in each decision-making process of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, and not on behalf of or in any official capacity of RBF Consulting," she wrote in an email. "Mr. Ameri has not been involved in RBF's desalination projects."

Ameri could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

A pair of government experts could not say whether Ameri's vote counted as a conflict of interest, at least officially.

Tracy Westen, vice president and chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, said he would have to research the law further to determine if Ameri should have declined to vote.

His relationship with Poseidon may have been too indirect to count as a conflict, Westen said.

He added, though, that the vote could still create the appearance of conflict and undermine the public's trust in the board's decision.

"In my view, it certainly didn't look good," Westen said.

Tara Stock, a spokeswoman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said her office could not comment on specific cases.

In general, she said, a public official has a conflict of interest if a decision will impact his or her economic interests and a significant portion of the official's jurisdiction does not share that impact.

Poseidon's permit passed 5-0, with one board member recusing herself. If Ameri had also declined to vote, the board would have lacked enough members to reach a decision, Stewart said. In that case, the board could have passed the matter on to the State Water Resources Control Board or waited for a new member to be appointed.

Poseidon, based in Connecticut, seeks to build a desalination plant in Huntington Beach that would convert seawater into drinking water. The permit voted on by the regional board would allow it to draw in seawater directly or through the pipes of the neighboring AES power plant.

Four environmental groups — Orange County Coastkeeper, Surfrider Foundation, Residents for Responsible Desalination and the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation — announced Wednesday that they had appealed the water board's decision, citing possible harmful effects on marine life.

Twitter: @MichaelMillerHB

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