A San Diego agency is suing the Metropolitan Water District for failing to release documents related to a $15,000-a-month consulting contract.
Eastern Municipal Water District, headquartered in Perris, has paid $60,000 to California Strategies, a Sacramento-based public affairs company hired in August to “provide government and community relations strategy” on policy issues, according to documents included in the lawsuit filed Jan. 22 in Riverside.
The San Diego County Water Authority contends Eastern is handling the contract to promote the interests of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The authority filed a public records request to get details of the California Strategies contract.
Eastern redacted some of the information related to the scope of the work, claiming it was protected by attorney-client privilege.
Kelly Aviles, the San Diego authority’s lawyer, said the privilege does not apply in this case.
“If this is a public undertaking for another public agency, the citizens and taxpayers should know,” Aviles said Thursday, Jan. 24.
She questioned why the consulting agreement was authorized in closed session, and why the public records request produced no data, notes, email or correspondence between Eastern and California Strategies.
This is the latest salvo in a long-running battle between the San Diego authority and Metropolitan. The water authority already has sued Metropolitan over the fees it charges for moving Colorado River water to San Diego. It also alleges a conspiracy among Metropolitan and its 25 member agencies, including Eastern, to secretly set rates, develop policies and discriminate against San Diego.
Metropolitan and the other agencies deny the allegations.
If San Diego is successful in its earlier lawsuit and the water transportation rate is reduced, Metropolitan’s Inland member agencies would end up paying the difference – more than $500 million over the next 60 years, local water officials said. Of that, Eastern’s 228,000 customers would pay about $180 million.
Eastern spokesman Kevin Pearson said California Strategies was hired to survey San Diego business leaders about their knowledge of the San Diego-Metropolitan lawsuit. Eastern has joined Metropolitan in defending the suit.
That information was provided to legal counsel and may be used as part of the pending litigation, which makes it protected, Pearson said.
“All we’re doing is trying to better understand the environment and dynamics in San Diego given the potential $180 million implication on our rate payers. Our goal in this process, first and foremost, is to protect our ratepayers,” he said.
Eastern’s service area spans 555 square miles from Moreno Valley south along the Interstate 215 corridor to Temecula and east to Hemet and San Jacinto.
In addressing why no correspondence was turned over, Pearson said the scope of services was given verbally by the general manager as the work evolved.
California Strategies’ four-month contract expired in December.
The consulting company’s spokesman, Jason Kinney, could not be reached for comment.
Eastern officials said they hired California Strategies independently of Metropolitan and no other agencies helped fund the work.
Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said his district did not ask Eastern to hire California Strategies.
“Once again the county water authority is making reckless and false allegations about Metropolitan,” he said.
Last year, the water authority released documents it said showed that some Southern California water agencies surreptitiously commissioned the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. to produce an economic analysis of a 2003 deal between San Diego and the Imperial Irrigation District to transfer water to San Diego. They spent $50,000 of ratepayer money to fund the study supported by Metropolitan, San Diego officials said.
That transfer deal, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement, relies on Metropolitan’s delivery system of canals, pipelines and pumping stations.
Metropolitan says the price of moving the water is fair. But San Diego officials say that in addition to the transportation – or “wheeling” – fee, Metropolitan is charging for the cost of its water supply, which violates a California law prohibiting water agencies from charging more than the actual cost of operating and maintaining the facilities used for transfers.
Metropolitan says San Diego is trying to avoid paying its share for maintaining the transportation system and funding conservation efforts.
The case is expected to go to trial late this year.