Commentary: What is Mesa Water up to?


As a longtime resident of Costa Mesa, I have been watching with interest the activities of elected and other officials as they pursue “smaller” government. The city of Costa Mesa has had its share of memorable events, including confrontational council meetings, the handing out of pink slips to half of the city’s work force, a city worker jumping to his death, the legal battles with employee groups, and more — all being played out in the public eye.

Many articles have appeared in the Daily Pilot pertaining to those issues. The Costa Mesa Sanitation District has also had its share of press coverage with the legal issues between the sanitation board and former board member Jim Fitzpatrick. The contentious candidacy of Fitzpatrick and the question of trash hauling contracts have been regularly dissected in the press.

However, what surprises me is the lack of press coverage regarding the activities of Mesa Consolidated Water District (MCWD) — now known as Mesa Water after an extensive and expensive rebranding campaign. The district is headed by General Manager Paul Shoenberger, who used to be a MCWD board member until he applied for the GM position vacated in 2009. Many in senior management eventually left, and the good citizens of Costa Mesa did not appear to take an interest in the matter one way or the other.

On its face, this may seem to be typical “change of guard” politics. However, what makes Mesa Water interesting is that the district has been acting in a way that is very different from other public agencies. The board appears to be squarely behind the raising of water rates, getting a five-year rate increase approved in the same year that Shoenberger became general manager.

The only dissenting board member, Trudy Ohlig-Hall, was unceremoniously ousted from the board during the last election by Ethan Temianka, who was supported significantly by the Orange County Republican Party for what is typically a nonpartisan office.

The district’s behavior is even more unusual when observing how much cash it has managed to accumulate. It projects a cash balance of $22 million over the next several years and has also actively sought to increase its credit rating to a Triple A category based on the high cash reserves and increasing revenue stream.

So here is the question all ratepayers ought to be asking: Why does Mesa Water have such a large chunk of its assets in unrestricted cash compared with the much larger Irvine Ranch Water District? If one combines this fact with the district’s active campaign to raise its profile in the local community by seeking active sponsorship of various conferences and local events, it could lead one to infer that Mesa is trying to make itself look good for someone.

The question is for whom? Is Mesa looking to buy another agency, or is it looking for a suitor? But Mesa Water is a local government agency. Agencies don’t buy other agencies, nor do they sell themselves to other agencies. So what is afoot? Could it be that Mesa thinks it will be privatized? How and why could that happen?

Clearly, someone knows something about the future of the district, but nobody appears to be asking the proper questions about the highly unusual behavior of a public agency that is acting like a company beefing up its balance sheet for potential investors rather than simply putting funds away for a rainy day.

When we speak of questioning authority, we must be certain we are asking the right questions. Pay attention.

JAY B. LITVAK lives in Costa Mesa. He is married to a former water district employee.