Getting information for my story today on San Diego’s reclaimed water subsidy was harder than it should’ve been.

For that, you can thank Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office, which kept the city from promptly disclosing readily available information. Though Sanders has pledged to run an open government, his office did just the opposite when I had questions.

I started reporting with a call to the city’s public utilities department.

That was on a Tuesday, nearly three weeks ago. I told Eric Symons, a public information officer, what I needed and when I needed it — by that Friday. I wanted to know how much reclaimed water the city had sold to other districts, how much it cost to make, and whether the city lost money selling it.

The official who oversees reclaimed water was out, he said, but back Wednesday. He did acknowledge the city lost money selling reclaimed water.

I followed up Wednesday morning. Symons said he was working to get a response by my deadline.

Then Sanders’ office got involved. Alex Roth, a spokesman, called the next day to tell me my request was an “enormously complicated and burdensome task.” It’d take a week, 10 days, maybe more, he said.

I asked what was so hard to find. Roth wouldn’t tell me. I offered to trim my request so I could get some information by deadline. Roth rebuffed my offer. I asked to talk to a water department official. He refused.

At least, I said, give me an estimate of how much it costs to make reclaimed water.

“These are complicated questions,” Roth said. “It’s going to be a while.”

Other water districts provided similar information within hours — sometimes minutes — of being asked.

So the week Roth asked for passed. Then I got a letter from the Mayor’s Office on April 2. It’d be another two or three weeks, said Denise Davidson, who was hired to promptly process public records last year after Sanders’ office was stung by a series of disclosure problems.

It was an obvious attempt to keep us from reporting accurate information about the subsidy. I spent two weeks finding other ways to answer my questions. I got the same information the city could’ve provided. It just took longer, and I had to piece it together from several sources. (This confidential city analysis was a big help.)

So I wondered: Is it really so hard to estimate how much the city spends to make reclaimed water? Does it really take five weeks to find numbers that have already been calculated?

I called Scott Tulloch, the city’s former top wastewater official, who oversaw the plants’ operations.

“We had pretty good record keeping on costs,” Tulloch told me. “Generally you have a ballpark number.”

When I asked City Councilwoman Donna Frye about the subsidy, she drew parallels to former Mayor Dick Murphy’s efforts to keep a sewer rate study — which was successfully challenged legally — from being discussed publicly.

She promised to hold a hearing about the reclaimed subsidy at the council’s natural resources committee that she leads. She said:

City staff is in a difficult bind because if they share information, their jobs could be on the line. This is a politically charged form of government right now. If there’s information that could make the management not look good, that information is held back — and then it comes out like this.
The best cure is to bring this discussion to the public.

Marco Gonzalez, an environmental attorney who represents Frye, had a simple theory for why Sanders’ office was acting cagey. He said:

You have a certain amount of people buying that water very cheaply who want to keep buying that water very cheaply. You want to make those people happy.

I’m not the only one who’s had trouble getting information out of the city about its reclaimed water rates. Michael Cowett, an attorney who represents several local water agencies, said the city treats others seeking information the same way. Other cities that pay the San Diego to treat their sewage have questioned the city’s reclaimed water costs, he said, and tried to get information for more than a year. (They think the city has inflated their expenses.)

Rita Bell, the Otay Water District’s finance manager, said she’s had trouble getting information from the city she needs for budgetary reasons.

“We have the same problem with the city,” she said. “No one will talk to us.”

— ROB DAVIS

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