The Partisan: Cal Am’s calculating charity And how many attorneys does it take to change an agenda?

OPINION | 

By Royal Calkins

If you watch much TV at all, you’ve likely seen the Cal Am commercials, feel-good productions about how the Peninsula’s water purveyor is all about conserving water, helping poor people, creating jobs and donating money to good causes. Lots of money to local good causes.

If you pay any attention to politics, you’ve likely figured out the company is tooting its horn, and advertising its generosity, because of the upcoming election in which Peninsula voters will decide whether to take the first steps toward a public takeover of the privately owned monopoly operation.

Cal Am has just begun a separate series of commercials with a harder edge about how the water utility wouldn’t pay property taxes if it was run by the government, and similar red herrings. The takeover effort is on the November ballot as Measure J and the tougher ads close with a slogan of sorts, “Measure J, No Way.” Expect the commercials to get tougher, and less rooted in reality, as we get closer to election day.

But back to the feel-good campaign. I was struck by Cal Am’s proclamation that it contributes hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to local nonprofits. Like much of what Cal Am says, there is some truth to that. According to its annual report, published in May, it gave out $538,830 in contributions last year. But, and there is always a but when Cal Am is talking, well over half of that amount wasn’t contributed anywhere near the Peninsula. By my count, the local contributions totaled just over $210,000. And, yes, that qualifies as “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” even though “hundreds of thousands of dollars” sounds like considerably more than two hundreds of thousands.

So who got the money? A lot of worthy recipients, some more worthy than others. Several of the contributions, not surprisingly, appear to have been more strategic than charitable.

The biggest recipient, with $60,000, was the Panetta Institute, headed by the Peninsula’s favorite son, Leon Panetta, the former secretary of defense and CIA director and all-around good guy. The institute does considerable good work of a political and educational bent, and only a cynical person such as yours truly might wonder if the contribution may have had a teeny bit to do with Panetta’s unsurpassed political clout locally.

The second largest contribution went to Rancho Cielo, an absolutely splendid cause. Rancho Cielo on the east side of the Salinas Valley provides tremendous vocational training opportunities to at-risk youngsters. Still, the snarky among us might wonder whether the decision to donate might have been influenced by the fact that the founder of Rancho Cielo is John Phillips, the former judge and current Monterey County supervisor. He’s no Panetta when it comes to political power locally but he’s up there.

Also among the largest recipients were the decidedly worthy Boys and Girls Club, $29,500, and the Pebble Beach Co. Foundation, $20,000.

As Cal Am tells it on the commercials aimed at Peninsula voters, it gave out lots of money to local organizations. More than half the money went elsewhere, but of course a Sacramento charity is local if you live in Sacramento.

Several Cal Am contributions went to chambers of commerce, Carmel’s and Pacific Grove’s as well as the Monterey Peninsula chamber. Of those, the PG chamber got the most, $6,000.

The truly worthy Village Project got $7,500 and the local Salvation Army got $3,500.

The Food Bank for Monterey County got $7,000 but the Monterey County Hospitality Association got slightly more. The hospitality association, a trade group for the local industry, is one of Cal Am’s most important political allies. Some will remember how the hotels and Cal Am cut a deal a few years back. The industry got a break on its water rates in support for supporting Cal Am’s desalination project. As a result, the hotel industry’s rates are lower than yours, which, by the way, are the highest in the nation.

Cal Am’s contributions include $2,000 to a memorial fund honoring the son of hospitality association muckety-muck John Narigi, one of Cal Am’s loudest cheerleaders.

The Monterey Peninsula Taxpayers Association got $500. I’m surprised it didn’t get more. Rick Heuer, a consultant to the hospitality industry and an officer of the taxpayers group, is the fellow who recently filed suit to change Measure J’s description on the November ballot. When Narigi is out there leading cheers, Heuer’s the guy handing him the pom-poms.

In its commercials, now and over the years, Cal Am makes itself out to care about the environment and diversity and other such things, but little of that comes through in its giving. Yes, the Pasadena NAACP got $2,500 but the local NAACP, nothing. The greenest contribution was $10,000 to the Carmel River Watershed Conservancy. But considering all that the Carmel River has done for Cal Am in the form of free raw material, that’s just a drop in the bucket.

Defenders of Cal Am will likely argue that the company shouldn’t be criticized for how it chooses to commit charity. But if the company truly cared about the community the way it claims, it would be giving something to organizations involved in education, civil rights, the arts, diversity and homeless and more, much more, to groups working to protect the environment, particularly the river, which Cal Am has so thoroughly mined for decades now.

Of course, if the election goes the way I think it will, we won’t have to worry about Cal Am that much longer.

BACK TO CARMEL

As of this writing, Judge Robert O’Farrell hasn’t issued a ruling on the public records lawsuit against Carmel, the litigation through which I hope to find out why the City Council determined that City Attorney Glen Mozingo was telling the truth when he said he had won a high honor from Congress even though he had not. (It’s a long story involving considerably more creative writing by Mr. Mozingo. More later.)

But the wheels of governance continue to creak in charming Carmel, and little mysteries continue to pop up like parking tickets on Ocean Avenue. The latest is the Case of the Disappearing Agenda Language.

At one point before Monday’s council meeting, the agenda said there would be a closed-session item about potential litigation involving unspecified illegal behavior by a “city councilman.” At another point, the agenda didn’t say what the potential litigation involves and didn’t mention any councilman.

I sent a message to City Administrator Chip Rerig asking why the language changed. I don’t expect an answer. Outspoken Carmel resident Georgina Armstrong showed up at Monday’s meeting to raise several questions about the agenda item and the distinct possibility that it amounts to political gamesmanship.  She expected some answers but all she got were blank stares.

Subplots abound. What is the alleged wrongdoing and, of course, who is the suspected doer of wrong? Mayor Steve Dallas told the Weekly it isn’t him, and because Bobby Richards is the only other male member of the council, everyone’s betting that it has something to do with him. For one thing, he’s the only council member who hasn’t been in lockstep behind City Attorney Mozingo, the fellow who needs two assistant attorneys to do the work long performed by a single part-timer.

Richards, known throughout the city as the nice guy of the council, isn’t talking. Which is probably wise considering the way politics is played By-The-Sea.

The plot thickened a bit at Tuesday’s council meeting when Armstrong asked another series of questions about the matter and Mozingo turned to Richards and asked the councilman for a suggested response. If Richards hadn’t been outed as the target before, he was now. Those who understand Carmel politics say it is all part of an effort by Mayor Dallas to get rid of the only person on the council who doesn’t go along with his program, whatever that might be.

By the way, former Carmel City Attorney Bill Burleigh, also a former Monterey County judge, had a great letter to the editor in the Pine Cone recently. It explained how he had handled the city job on a half-time basis all those decades ago and questioned if it was legal the way the City Council decided that it would require a 4-1 vote rather than the standard 3-2 in order to terminate Mozingo’s five-year contract.

And there Burleigh was last Friday, in the courtroom while lawyers for Voices and the city debated whether the Public Records Act is meant to serve the public or protect public officials.

In the public records lawsuit, Carmel attorney Neil L. Shapiro represents Voices and Transparency in Government. In court on Friday, the city was represented by not one, not two but three lawyers — Mozingo and assistants Gerard Rose and Jon Giffen. I sent a message to City Administrator Rerig, asking how many of them were on the clock.  He said he didn’t know. I asked if he could find out. No answer yet.

Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.

SUPPORT NONPROFIT JOURNALISM  

Royal Calkins

About Royal Calkins

Contributing writer Royal Calkins has worked for newspapers in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Fresno. For the past couple of years, he has produced a local news and commentary blog, the Monterey Bay Partisan. He can be reached at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “The Partisan: Cal Am’s calculating charity And how many attorneys does it take to change an agenda?

  1. Interesting read Royal- Roger would be proud!! When I tell folks that don’t live here, that if I move away it’s because I can’t afford the water- they look confused. And so I tell them the water mafia- Cal Am. I’m hoping that PWN wins out this time.

  2. Thank you for this. You have a new reader as of today.

    I’m a Marina resident who is frustrated by the response of our representatives regarding CPUC’s decision for the desalination plant. Reading your article, I now see why.

    Recycling water and replenishing our ground water is the fiscally and environmentally responsible way to deal with our planet’s growing water shortages. Of course, CalAm doesn’t financially benefit from this solution like it would with a plant placed on our coast. I asked Jimmy Panetta if this would be an issue if it were on Carmel’s coastline. I have yet to receive a response. Bill Monning’s response was cleverly worded so as not to sound supportive of the decision but that he can’t do anything and therefore stands by the CPUC decision to move forward with the project. Marina, or the blue collar folks on Monterey County’s coastline, will ultimately lose our fresh water so that other cities and CalAm can benefit.

    I am more disgusted with our government representatives than ever.

Leave a Reply to Kristin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *