EASTSIDER-Much ado has been made over recent corruption involving the Calderon brothers and the Central Basin Water District. First, hats off to CityWatch, which covered their shennanigins in no less than three separate articles back in 2013.
For all the smoke, not much happened until last year, raising questions as to what the Feds knew and why they didn’t do anything at the time. Now of course everyone seems to be weighing in on the Calderons and the Central Basin Water District with horrified expressions of “oh my god, how can this be?” Please.
The Calderon brothers have been playing in California politics since the 80s, led by brother Charles (a former LA City Deputy City Attorney) for those who follow politics, they always played dirty and they always played hard. Real hard. For decades they have controlled much of the political life of most of southeastern Los Angeles County -- places like Cerritos, Santa Fe Springs, Norwalk, Montebello, Downey, Pico Rivera, Bell, Huntington Park, and the like. Not to mention the California State Legislature.
As all the rats desert a sinking ship, what political insiders always knew is now public -- these folks were major league crooks and the Central Basin Water District was their big time slush fund.
One of the major players in this mess is Robert “call me Bob” Apodaca, who was serving as President of the Water Board when the wheels came off their crooked deals. In one of those “only in Los Angeles” moments, Apodaca then cut a deal for himself to testify against the Calderon brothers -- but only after getting the Board to pay $670,000 to settle a sexual discrimination against himself!
Fortunately, one case that Bob couldn’t fix was the whistleblower lawsuit against him and the Central Basin Water District filed by Ron Beilke, a former Pico Rivera city councilman. When it became clear that Beilke was poking his nose into fiddled financial transactions and would not go along to get along, he was fired after less than a week on the job. Recently, a superior court judge ruled that Beilke is entitled to a jury trial. Hot damn, that should be interesting.
For those whose prurient interest in matters Calderon is piqued, the Los Angeles Times has an absolutely cool interactive graphic on the Calderon family and their web of politics. You can find it here.
Water Districts -- the Structural Story
If this was simply a story about crooked politics in Los Angeles, most people would yawn and go back to their iPhones or the internet. Maybe it’s just me, but most people I talk to seem to think that most in City Hall are a bunch of crooks, albeit smart enough to insulate themselves by using cutouts like real estate developers, billboard companies, lobbyists and lawyers, not to mention merrily violating the Brown Act public meeting statute through staff, small committee meetings and a default 15-0 Council voting system. God forbid that a Neighborhood Council should emulate them. That NC would find itself in “Exhaustive Efforts” faster than Eric Garcetti can make a deal.
So let’s take a closer look at water districts, with special emphasis on Central Basin. The graphic header to this piece is a web capture of the Elections page from the current Central Basin Municipal Water District website. Tell me if you can figure out anything about the Board of Directors from the web page. Good luck, unless you’re into the Municipal Water District Law of 1911. 1911 for goodness sake!
Anyhow, the truth is that the Central Basin Water District is a relatively recent special district, as they go, being voted into existence in 1952 to “help mitigate the over pumping of underground water resources in southeast Los Angeles County.” Sure. So the first thing they really did was join the Metropolitan Water District -- the same huge District that the DWP buys water from. And, greasing the gravy chain, Apodaca got to be on the Board of Directors of the MWD.
Too Many Special Districts
The problem is that there are way too many special districts, especially water districts, in California. In 2001, after the state’s Little Hoover Commission issued a pretty rough report, AB 38 was passed charging the Legislative Analyst’s Office with examining water special districts.
The Legislative Analyst’s report, which can be found here, revealed that there are 1286 water districts of one type or another, which is an astoundingly high number of public agencies when you think about it. They ranged from the giant Metropolitan Water District to little teeny ones with few employees. Of those districts, some 326 were controlled by county boards of supervisors, 25 were run by city councils, and some 935 were independent water districts, like the Central Basin Water District that sunk the Calderon brothers and their pals.
Think about it. Almost no one knows anything about these water districts and, as we have seen, they provide a wonderful opportunity for both graft, as in the recent case of the Central Basin Water District, and for more nuanced behavior like personal aggrandizement, warehousing money, slimy deals, secrecy in general, and all kinds of groovy stuff which could provide lots of plots for episodic television.
I know, it’s hard for normal folks to keep track of Cities, Counties and the State of California itself without having their eyes glaze over – but there’s a whole subterranean world of California public agencies. Also, buried in the regulatory labyrinth of the state is a group of public entities called “Special Districts.” Within that generic category, “Water Districts” are an even more arcane subset. And since almost no one knows about them, they are easy prey for mischief by members of their Boards.
In 2014, as the events surrounding the Central Basin Water District were starting to gain coverage, the LA County Board of Supervisors asked the State of California to conduct an audit, which they did. The report, released in 2015, was scathing. And Assembly Member Christina Garcia (D-Downey), introduced legislation to clean the mess up.
But remember, this is California, where nothing is as it seems. Back in 2013, at the same time that everyone was writing about the Central Basin mess, and the drought was coming on strong, our very own governor Jerry Brown appointed a big time water lobbyist as the chief deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources.
I can’t resist a play on words -- her name is Laura King Moon, reminding us old folks of Jerry’s former moniker, “Governor Moonbeam,” during his first term. (I know, cheap shot.) It’s clear that the governor lost his former ideological frame of mind after becoming mayor of Oakland.
Further, in 2014, Governor Brown vetoed Christina Garcia’s bill (AB 1728) that would have tightened contribution limits for water board members. Gee, I wonder if Ms. Moon had any input into the veto.
This year she authored another bill, AB 1794, which is squarely aimed at the Central Basin Water District and would establish an entirely new governance structure for the Board. As of now, I don’t know if the governor has signed it or not.
Sometime in the future, I’ll get into the overall issue of special districts in California -- their perils and pitfalls -- and what’s happening. Teaser: nothing’s been done since the Little Hoover Commission’s 2000 Report but the Little Hoover Commission is back at it and will be conducting hearings starting this month.
(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.)