By Royal Calkins
The first time Melodie Chrislock went to a Public Utilities Commission meeting, she wasn’t looking to rearrange the power structure on the Monterey Peninsula or start a public takeover of the privately owned water system. She was just fed up with the size of her water bill.
Chrislock and her husband live on a large Carmel lot, an acre or so. She’s proud of the garden she has built up there. In the summer she has to water it to keep it alive.
But under the Cal Am Water Co. rate structure, designed both to encourage conservation and to keep Cal Am shareholders happy, Chrislock’s monthly water bill started growing faster than her seedlings. Bills that had been a manageable $100 only a few years ago were now regularly topping $600 in the summer, and they didn’t go down enough in the winter to make up for it. Chrislock was part of a legion of Peninsula residents who saw their water bills exceeding their car payments and even rivaling their property tax bills.
Chrislock got a chance to say her piece that day and, more importantly, she also got a chance to meet George Riley, who has been the face of the public water movement on the Peninsula for more than a decade now. That is about to change, however, so meet the new face of the movement and the organization behind it, Public Water Now — Melodie Chrislock.
Surfer, folk singer, advertising woman, Chrislock was the communications director for Public Water Now during the just completed and successful Measure J campaign. In case you’ve been asleep for the past few months, Measure J requires the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District (the water district) to commission a professional feasibility study intended to determine whether a public buyout of Cal Am’s local system is feasible.
The mission, put as simply as possible, is to determine the value of the system — the actual value and the value that the courts would likely assign to the system — and then determine whether the water district could borrow that amount at rates reasonable enough to make the purchase practicable. What’s practicable? That’s a big question with an answer part financial and part political.
With the water board about to embark on the search for consultants to perform the study, Chrislock is stepping up to become the managing director of Public Water At the same time voters approved Measure J, they elected Riley to the water board, which will oversee its execution. He could legally wear both hats but opted to step down from the Public Water Now position to help deflate Cal Am’s fully predictable allegations that the water board is biased against it.
Measure J was a great victory for proponents of a Cal Am takeover, and for the even larger group of Peninsula residents upset about their high water bills and Cal Am’s cavalier attitude about the rates and customer service in general. The election wasn’t the end of anything, however. It begins a long and most likely difficult process of study and, if the study turns out the way Chrislock and Riley expect, long and difficult litigation culminating in a judge’s decision on how much Cal Am ratepayers and Peninsula taxpayers should pay for the system. Expect Cal Am to screech and squawk every step of the way but remember that it is mostly a negotiating tactic.
Chrislock, whose position is unpaid, volunteers that her role and the role of Public Water Now in what comes next isn’t entirely clear at this point.
“I don’t know exactly what will happen,” she said over lunch, but she mentioned communications, lobbying and public relations, things she’s good at.
Chrislock and her husband, Phil, operate Wellman Advertising, which handled the advertising and social media operations for the Measure J campaign. While it’s a fully professional outfit, it lacks the resources that were available to Cal Am. The company, part of a private utility conglomerate, spent $3 million in opposition to the measure, mostly on television advertising, while Measure J’s backers procured 56 percent of the vote by spending just $160,000, almost all of it from small, local donations.
Chrislock is proud that her little ad agency outperformed Cal Am and some of the largest hired guns in political advertising, Trilogy Interactive in Berkeley and Terris Barnes Walter of San Francisco.
It was Chrislock’s work that led to a revelation that proved pivotal in the campaign: the study by Food & Water Watch that determined the Peninsula water rates to be the nation’s highest. Cal Am disputes that, of course.
Chrislock grew up in Southern California, figuratively a child of the sixties and literally the child of an artist father and a musician mother. Melodie and mom moved around a lot with her mother supporting the household by pounding out standards at various piano bars. Young Melodie left home at 16, was done with her first marriage at 18 and was on to new adventures on the Peninsula in her early 20s.
For a decade, she tried to make it as a singer-songwriter but we know how that goes. Eventually it was on to the creative side of advertising and considerable advertising and graphics work for the likes of the Monterey Jazz Festival and Monterey-Salinas Transit.
She says the campaign was rewarding and invigorating as well as a testament to the potential for grassroots politics. She credits Riley and Public Water Now’s volunteers, hundreds of them, for the victory.
Riley says he is confident the organization, like her expensive garden, will thrive under Chrislock.
“She is a clear thinker. The message is her organizing tool. Once the message is defined, she is off and running,” he said.
Riley said Chrislock has earned his full respect.
“Arguments with her are productive and fun. I’d want her on my team in any campaign.”
Click here to watch Chrislock debate Cal Am executive Chris Cook on KSBW.
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