The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is a public cooperative of 26 cities and municipalities in Southern California that supplies water to over 19 million residents in the region. On Tuesday, two-thirds of MWD's Board of Directors voted to implement policies creating a more independent and robust ethics program.
Common Cause played an integral role as the only watchdog group to take a stand for the policy. Executive Director Kathay Feng attended the meeting yesterday and I attended a committee meeting on Monday. At the committee meeting I presented a letter of support for the recommendation.
A driving force for such policies regarding MWD and its ethics program surrounds a set of requirements and duties entrusted to the entity in a 1999 statute. The Metropolitan Water District Act of 1999 (SB 60) laid out principles and guidelines for a completely independent ethics program. While MWD's Ethics Office has made significant advances since then, the role of board members in the evaluation of complaints and pursuit of investigations raised valid alarm about a conflict of interest.
The new policy gives the Ethics Office and Ethics Officer Deena Ghaly the authority to review and decide whether to investigate a complaint, rather than having senior management or the MWD directors screen first. The policy also allocated a total of $245,000 in funds to the office to help pay for an analyst and investigators.
According to AFSCME Local 1902 Executive President Alan Shanahan, several board members expressed hesitation towards the $245,000 increase. However, the position of such is ironic given the fact that on Monday the Board voted to spend a total of $184,000 a year on a Post Employment Benefits Fund even though there was a cheaper viable option available.
A Los Angeles Times Editorial on August 18th observed that, "Over the years, many of these agencies have been caught up in scandals over bribes, fraud and lavish perks for directors and staff. Many of these agencies have ethics committees that consist of several members of their own boards, meaning whistle-blowers have no one to turn to but insiders and perhaps the very same people about whom they want to lodge complaints." The real cause for disdain thus seems to be the fact that board members and member agencies would rather evade outside scrutiny.
Given the prevalence of scandals across Southern California that could have been mitigated much earlier had a more transparent and autonomous ethics procedure been in place, these policy recommendations were necessary. One especially relevant incident that comes to mind is a recent scandal involving California State Senator Ronald Calderon's curious link to the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a member agency of the Metropolitan Water District.
It is clear that MWD needed to develop an explicit and effective process through which citizens, employees, and member districts are assured that complaints are treated in a fair and objective manner and this policy establishes just that. Ultimately, the passage of this policy is a proactive step forward for a public agency that spends ratepayer money and one can only hope that MWD will hold itself accountable to its decision.
Hinnaneh Qazi, California Common Cause intern, recent UCLA Grad
Office: California Common Cause