Sara Rubin here, sipping a glass of water (that would be water from the California American Water system, here in our Seaside office) thinking about how thoroughly politics have pervaded every decision related to water on the Monterey Peninsula. Every time any government agency votes on anything water-related, it’s become a proxy for support or opposition in the battle of public vs. continued private ownership of the California American Water system. Your stance on whether or not to expand a high-tech system of recycling wastewater, for example, is no longer just a stance on whether that’s a good idea (of course it’s a good idea!) but whether or not you think it will help or hurt Cal Am.
Sometimes, it’s a more literal vote for or against a public buyout of Cal Am, per Measure J, which was passed by 56 percent of voters in 2018. Three years later, we’re still deep in procedural (and political) steps and just waiting for the inevitable day that this lands in court.
And bracing for a lawsuit is exactly what’s holding up the latest incremental step in this saga. When the board of the Local Agency Formation Commission of Monterey County met on Monday night, they were scheduled to take a necessary procedural vote on whether or not the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District—a public agency—can proceed with making an offer to acquire Cal Am.
Some of the rest of the story sometimes feels like it’s preordained, if slow in unfolding. The water district, which in its own elections last year was stacked with pro-public water advocates, will vote for a takeover. Cal Am will refuse the offer. The water district then will take Cal Am to court in an eminent domain proceeding, and lawyers will battle it out in a costly courtroom drama, where ultimately a judge will decide if there is a compelling reason to condemn Cal Am to a public takeover.
But first, that pesky LAFCO vote. Staff writer Christopher Neely tuned into that meeting (you can read his story about it here), and was struck by how much staff for LAFCO invoke the phrase “legally defensible.” Their big concern at this stage is how to not lose a lawsuit, and a lawsuit feels inevitable.
This is the agency that’s supposed to be a neutral third party—LAFCO is not in the business of running water systems, but is tasked with evaluating impacts of changes to public district boundaries—but the neutral staff of LAFCO don’t vote. It’s a political board of directors, representing various interests, who decide. (If you want proof that it’s a political body, look no further than two LAFCO board members who recused themselves on Monday night for accepting campaign contributions from competing sides of the water saga: County Supervisor Luis Alejo for contributions from a law firm that represents Cal Am, and County Supervisor Wendy Root Askew from Public Water Now, the architect of Measure J.)
“Legally defensible” is a low bar, but in the highly political world of water, it’s the most neutral option out there. Here’s hoping that when the LAFCO board reconvenes to finally vote on Measure J in December, they stick to facts, because the public deserves an honest, unbiased analysis.