September 30, 2011
In the midst of the conflict of interest allegations that have put the entire Regional Desalination Project at risk that have elected officials and attorneys scrambling to salvage the project, Max Gomberg is breathing a sigh of relief. A policy analyst at the state Public Utility Commission's Division of Ratepayer Advocates, Gomberg (along with DRA's commissioners) has opposed the project agreements from the beginning because the project partners—Marina Coast Water District, California American Water and the Monterey County Water Resources Agency— do not include a public entity representing peninsula ratepayers.
Part of what irked the DRA early on, and continues to through mediation is the confidentiality agreements that make the process partly inaccessible to the public. "Everything’s being done back door, hush hush, in secret negotiations," Gomberg says. "That’s concerning to us."
In the newest chapter of the desal drama, county supervisors and attorneys have been meeting in downtown San Francisco with a PUC attorney, Peter Allen, who's serving as the administrative law judge for the mediation, according to DRA. On Wednesday, Allen extended an invitation to Joe Como, acting director of the DRA, to participate in the mediation. The next scheduled meeting is Oct. 14.
But the DRA plans to decline Allen's offer—unless the mediation opens up to more stakeholders. "We would be willing to be involved if there were an open, transparent, inclusive negotiation process, but we’re not going to just accept an invitation absent the ability of anyone else who’s a stakeholder in this as well," Gomberg says.
Those stakeholders would include Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, Citizens for Public Water, Surfrider Foundation and others.
Diana Brooks, a water policy supervisor at DRA, also raises a red flag when it comes to Allen's role as a judge, saying it's "unusual" for PUC staff to be involved extra-procedurally, rather than a third party.
Parties to the mediation last met Sept. 21. Because of confidentiality agreements, county counsel Charles McKee would not confirm who was in attendance. Supervisor Simon Salinas' aides confirmed he was in the meeting.
Gomberg and Brooks plan to bring the Collins matter and the confidential mediation to the attention of the DRA commissioners, and may ask the commissioners to initiate an official investigation of its own. They could also file a petition asking the PUC to modify its approval, based on new information.