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MWD's Pricey 'Image'

August 12, 2004

Among the politicos and cronies hired as consultants by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in recent years is former state Sen. Richard Polanco, who was paid $65,000 to promote the agency's "corporate image." Even if that was a fair price, why was he hired? The MWD, a water wholesaler, is not a private corporation facing gritty competition. It's a public agency created by the Legislature and supported in part by taxpayer funds. Given California's water situation, its image has no connection to its customer base. The agency has no business acting -- and spending -- like a family corporation answerable only to itself.

A state audit in June criticized the agency for failing to follow even its own procedures in purchasing and consulting contracts, especially for hiring outside help without competitive bids or justification of the need. This freewheeling consultant spree -- including 27 former elected officials, community leaders and relatives of officeholders -- was documented Monday by The Times' Jason Felch. The MWD spent $4.5 million on 44 public relations contracts over the last five years, providing monthly retainers of as much as $40,000. The spending has echoes of the bloated contracts between Los Angeles' own Department of Water and Power and the PR firm of Fleishmann Hillard. The MWD isn't alone in tossing public funds to wolves.

The MWD has a lobbying and public relations staff of 60, including a Sacramento office augmented by private lobbying firms. Adan Ortega, the agency's external affairs chief, told Felch the politicians and "friends-of" are hired for "who they know." Ortega told a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune that the MWD needed help to offset critical editorials in the Union-Tribune. "We didn't feel we could get a fair hearing," he said.

One reason for that might be a previous effort by the MWD to use outside PR help. In the late 1990s, the agency paid a public relations firm $400,000 for a clandestine effort to discredit San Diego County water leaders and to kill a water transfer deal between the city and farmers, which threatened to chip away at the MWD's control over Southern California's water supplies. The PR firm got caught, and the MWD's image still suffers from that.

The state audit of the water agency dealt dryly with policies and procedures. But the 37 members of the MWD board ought to pay even more attention to the political and ethical questions raised by a public agency's hiring of political gunslingers to help its "corporate image." The MWD never had a corporate image to protect, and its public image has been well trashed by such blatantly political outside hiring.

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