Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

The San Diego County Water Authority is no stranger to conflict – virtually all of its dealings over the past decade have been shaped by its feud with the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (see Exhibits A, B, C, D, E, F … ).

Now that feud is fueling fights within the agency itself.

In the latest twist, some members called for an independent ethics officer during a full meeting of the Water Authority last month.

“Different viewpoints need to be respected and protected by this board. If you’re unable to stop these attacks, I believe the Water Authority should establish an independent ethics office,” said Kim Thorner, general manager and voting member for Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which serves places like Encinitas, Carlsbad, Solana Beach.

The Water Authority buys San Diego’s drinking water from Los Angeles, and sells it to 24 smaller water agencies in the region. Each of those agencies appoints someone to sit on the Water Authority’s governing board and vote on big decisions, like whether to build a second pipeline to the Colorado River (where the region gets most of its drinking water) instead of buying it from Los Angeles.

The whole point of that pipe, supporters say, is so San Diego doesn’t have to pay whatever Metropolitan charges for Colorado River water. But the project also wouldn’t bring a drop of new water to the region – it’s all about carving out independence from Metropolitan. But some directors feel the Water Authority is engaging in suspect tactics to pull votes one way.

A majority of directors voted against continued study of the multibillion-dollar pipeline project. But it is still alive, thanks to uniform support from the 10-vote bloc from the city of San Diego. (The Water Authority makes decisions using a weighted vote process, which is why a minority of member agencies can approve something.)

Olivenhain, the district Thorner manages, was one of 20 agencies that voted against the pipeline. Of those member agencies, some want to solidify their position against it. And that means securing as many votes as possible.

But the nitty-gritty political fight at hand really took shape over a procedural issue, the so-called proxy vote.

Each of the 24 directors can designate another member agency to vote in its stead at the Water Authority board meetings if they can’t make it.

If Oceanside’s director can’t make it, for instance, the city of Carlsbad votes on its behalf. But Oceanside and Carlsbad have different opinions on building the parallel pipeline: Oceanside doesn’t want it; Carlsbad voted to keep studying it.

Thorner, at Olivenhain, agreed with Oceanside’s water director to make a change: Allow Olivenhain to become its proxy so both teams were playing on the same side, so to speak.

But there was a hurdle: Oceanside City Council, a completely different political body, has to OK a change to the proxy vote according to the city’s rules.

Thorner said consultants hired by the Water Authority stepped in and started lobbying the Oceanside Council members against the deal in a March 15 letter addressed to the general manager of the Water Authority.

“(Water Authority), by way of its leadership and paid consultant, lobbied against and interfered with a member agency issue,” Thorner wrote.

The Water Authority has yet to produce any active consulting contracts at the request of Voice of San Diego. San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who sits on the Water Authority board, said he hasn’t seen them either, and asked for their release to the full board.

The Water Authority’s general counsel, Mark Hattam, told Voice of San Diego in an April 8 letter that it needed extra time to produce those contracts because offices are closed and staff are offsite due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Water Authority board’s leadership responded to Thorner’s letter with another letter, neither confirming nor denying Thorner’s claims. Instead it blamed the general managers (the utility wonks who run the water districts, some of whom also sit as political appointees on the board) for holding meetings without inviting the Water Authority.

That group “does not allow Water Authority staff to attend its meetings, does not make agendas available to the public and no meeting minutes are distributed for public review,” that letter alleged.

In the end, the Oceanside City Council didn’t go with Olivenhain or Carlsbad for their new proxy vote. Instead they appointed Valley Center Municipal Water District another agency that’s against the pipeline. (Gary Arant, the general manager of Valley Center’s district, didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

So far, three out of five Oceanside Council members – Kori Jensen, Ryan Keim and Peter Weiss – said they weren’t approached by Water Authority consultants.

“I didn’t get lobbied by anybody. I didn’t get any calls,” said Weiss.

Weiss said he isn’t in favor of the parallel pipeline anyway. Oceanside has its own wastewater-to-drinking water recycling project in the works as well.

“I’d question the value in pursuing something like that pipeline since it doesn’t bring any more water here,” he said.

So what’s the point of all this?

During the March meeting of the full board, other members, even the chair, Gary Croucher, alleged they’d been lobbied against by other directors or the Water Authority itself.

Fern Steiner, a voting member for city of San Diego and former Water Authority board chair, suggested the board should make a committee to focus on how people can talk to one another.

“Bad memories have come up of people who wouldn’t even talk to me when I first came on the board and turning their back and walking away,” Steiner said. “We need to learn how to talk to each other.”

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