Error of the Dog

Dancing with the Devil over Water in Montecito

WHEN SMART PEOPLE DO DUMB THINGS: Some people give the devil his due; others dance with him. Me? I’m willing to share a cup of coffee.

The alleged “devil” in this equation is an otherwise soft-spoken, easygoing, overachieving water engineer from Ohio named Floyd Wicks, now leading the charge to take over the Montecito Water District Board on behalf of Montecito’s usual coterie of well-heeled former Captains of Industry who retired there. Droughts have a way of highlighting all kinds of stupidity, and Wicks is running with Tobe Plough as a slate engineered by Bob Hazard, a former hotel chain exec and community-minded Montecito resident who has been pulling out handfuls of hair over the district’s manifold failures in preventing the unimaginable — Lake Cachuma and Jameson Reservoir going simultaneously dry — from happening.

Angry Poodle

Wicks, Plough, and Hazard are intent on defeating incumbent water boardmember Charles Newman — appointed 15 months ago — and Tom Mosby, who is seeking to reincarnate himself as boardmember after working for the district for 25 years. Mosby and Newman happen to represent fiercely feuding factions of what otherwise might be characterized as “the incumbents,” and they are not running as a slate.

On paper, Wicks has the credentials to run the water district single-handedly; for 20 years, he served as CEO of a private water company — Golden State Water Company — that serves 75 cities, six military bases, and a million customers. Clearly, he’s more than qualified. But according to the whisper campaign unleashed by detractors, Wicks is part of a nefarious conspiracy to privatize the water district. And based on Golden State’s track record, Wicks — I was warned — should be regarded as the second coming of Noah Cross, the deliciously diabolical water manipulator out of the movie Chinatown, the 1974 masterpiece about water, power, development, and corruption in Los Angeles.

Sipping coffee across the table from Wicks, I was sorely disappointed. No horns. No cloven hooves. No mephitic odors. Instead, we talked about recycled water. Desal. Purple pipes. Plans not submitted. His son’s high school sporting events. No Noah Cross, sadly.

At a candidates’ forum last week, water boardmember Newman — backed by the Democratic Party Machine — sought to tag Wicks as the personification of corporate greed and conflicted interests, though without actually naming him as such. Wicks’s response? “I think someone’s talking about me,” he said with disarming humor.

Less disarming — and convincing — was Wick’s response to recent uprisings against the water company he used to run by the cities of Ojai and Claremont, long served by Golden State. Residents of both cities were so outraged by the high water rates charged by Golden State — three times higher than neighboring municipal water districts — that they voted to assume millions in additional debt to buy out Golden State and merge with other agencies. In Ojai, 87 percent of the voters approved $60 million in debt to do this — 87 percent! In Claremont, it was $135 million. As a private water company, Golden State is allowed to exact profits of about 9 percent the total value of its assets plus expenses. Claremont’s attorney is claiming Golden State collected far more than is allowed by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which regulates private water companies. Claremont residents are so angry with Golden State they’re willing to merge with a water company with documented problems of E. coli in the water system. Golden State is still fighting both of these efforts in court.

Wick’s response? Two districts out of 75 ain’t bad. All this, he said, happened after he retired in 2009. And Montecitians, he argued, would love to pay what Ojaians pay for their water.

In 2011, the CPUC fined Golden State $1 million for procurement irregularities among suppliers and contractors that first surfaced in 2007, when Wicks was still at the helm. More offensive to the CPUC than the violations was that Golden State failed to notify the CPUC about them. In addition to the fine, the CPUC ordered Golden State to issue its customers rate rebates and refunds totaling $12 million. By any reckoning, that’s a stiff penalty.

The irony is that Claremont and Ojai are revolting against Golden State for many of the same reasons Wicks is now leading the charge against Montecito: In times of drought, ratepayers get charged a lot more money to receive a lot less water. That’s what water districts have to do to stay financially afloat. But that doesn’t mean customers have to like it. In Montecito, former water czar Mosby abruptly put the brakes on consumption nearly three years ago, getting his board to approve a water rationing plan that effectively cut water consumption by 44 percent, jacked up rates to account for lost revenues, and imposed stiff penalties — which produce about $3 million a year in revenues — on customers who exceeded their allocations. It has been anything but pretty. But it appears Montecito might be able to squeak through the next few years thanks to supplemental water supplies the district begged, borrowed, or stole.

For all the outrage over rationing, penalties and water bills, it’s worth noting the average Montecitian still uses four times more water than the average Goletian and pays about half as much as the average Santa Barbarian for the water received.

Wicks has forgotten more about water districts than I’ll ever know. He talks some genuinely good ideas and some ideas that sound a lot more promising than they really are. But I don’t buy the boogeyman talk he’s in it to privatize the district. That’s fear-mongering. But climate change is real. The violence inflicted by this drought is unprecedented. In this context, it makes no sense at all that Wicks and his posse would campaign on the slogan “Keep Montecito Green.” Green? Now?

Some people like to dance with the devil. I drink coffee. Floyd Wicks, I can assure you, is not the devil. The devil would never post yard signs saying “Keep Montecito Green” in the middle of a drought. He’s too damn smart.


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