Shortly after Monterey Peninsula voters last year passed Measure J, which requires that the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District conduct a feasibility study to determine whether a public buyout of California American Water is doable, Weekly Editor Sara Rubin had a conversation with someone deeply steeped in local politics, government operations and public agency management.

This is the essence of what that source said: “Watch closely and see if they’re transparent about this process, because they’re going to try to keep everything secret.”

We at the Weekly are laughably familiar with government attempts to keep the public’s business hidden behind closed doors. Even a brief spin through my memory banks brings up a fat handful: Carmel City Council trying to keep private the documentation provided by former City Attorney Glenn Mozingo to back up the myriad fabulist claims of glory he made on his resume. In Greenfield, a bona fide lawsuit filed against the Weekly in a ham-handed attempt to keep us from publishing documents we obtained showing the council had improperly tried to muscle former City Manager Jaime Fontes into firing the economic development director. And over at the county, the ongoing refusal by County Counsel’s Office to release documents the Weekly and other outlets requested under the police transparency law SB 1421 pertaining to bad and in some cases illegal behavior at the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office. And that’s just from the past 12 months.

So it’s unsurprising to find out Rubin’s source was right. Not only is the MPWMD trying to keep the process behind the feasibility study hidden, they’re doing it in such a Machiavellian way I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around it.

Realizing the feasibility study is still in process, the Weekly wanted to find out who’s doing the work and how much they’re getting paid. Those are basic questions that would have revealed little, other than who and how much.

It turns out there’s more than one someone doing the work – there are six different someones, all under contract. But who they are is being kept secret under the guise those contracts are attorney-client work product.

Those contracts are for an investment banker; valuation specialists to determine what the system is worth; bond counsel; a cost of service modeler; eminent domain attorneys; a Prop. 218 attorney to examine rate-setting and finance; and for an investor-owned utility specialist who knows the operations side of the business. MPWMD attorney David Laredo claims because the contracts were struck with him, rather than with the district itself, they are not public records.

There’s no doubt Cal Am is already gearing up to fight a possible eminent domain proceeding. But the district should remember those contracts were executed with public funds and the public deserves to know how the funds are being spent. While there are legitimate reasons to keep records private – including attorney-client privilege and potential litigation – it seems like a flimsy firewall to claim the attorney who represents the district is not the district. Meanwhile, we have no idea who these contractors are.

“The goal is to not prejudice future negotiations and/or testimony in a legal setting,” MPWMD General Manager Dave Stoldt says. “However, we understand the discomfort over transparency because we are a public agency geared toward being as transparent as we can.”

On April 9, Rubin sent a Public Records Act request asking for the contracts. That request was denied. In closed session on May 20, the board discussed handing over those records, but declined to so.

Kelly Aviles, a First Amendment attorney who successfully represented the Weekly in its suit with Greenfield, says California courts are particularly protective of attorney-client privilege, more than in any other state, but that shining a light on the situation can’t hurt.

Stoldt expects the consultants’ work will be complete by July 26, with their written plan due on Aug. 27. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light shining on this completely untransparent process.

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