Until a few days ago, I thought I knew what I was going to say about Measure J, which relates to a public buyout of our privately owned water utility California-American Water, or Cal-Am. Based on what I had been reading about it in the local press, I thought I knew pretty much everything there was to know about it. But now that I've had a chance to read the complete text of Measure J I find it is far different from what has been advertised and much worse than I ever imagined.
The formal title of Measure J is “The Monterey Peninsula Water System Local Ownership Feasibility Study Initiative.” That's how it is being sold to Peninsula voters, as a “feasibility study.” But surprisingly, the word “study” is nowhere to be found in the body of Measure J's text.
Although the text of Measure J spans two full pages of the Monterey County Voters Guide the bulk of it is devoted to spelling out J's purpose, a list of “findings” or statements used to justify the measure, and some housekeeping legalese related to the circumstances of the ballot measure itself. The actual meat of Measure J involves just a few short paragraphs. Read them carefully:
The following Rule 19.8 shall be added to the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, Rules and Regulations, Regulation I, General Provisions:Rule 19.8. Policy of Pursuing Public Ownership of Monterey Peninsula Water SystemA. It shall be the policy of the District, if and when feasible, to secure and maintain public ownership of all water production, storage and delivery system assets and infrastructure providing services within its territory.B. The District shall acquire through negotiation, or through eminent domain if necessary, all assets of California American Water, or any successor in interest to California American Water, for the benefit of the District as a whole.C. The General Manager shall, within nine (9) months of the effective date of this Rule 19.8, complete and submit to the Board of Directors a written plan as to the means to adopt and implement the policy set forth in paragraph A, above. The plan shall address acquisition, ownership, and management of all water facilities and services within and outside the District, including water purchase agreements as appropriate. The plan may differentiate treatment of non-potable water services.
As you can see, there's no mention of a feasibility study. None! Instead, it firmly establishes a public buyout as official Water Management District policy. It also mandates that the agency immediately draw up plans to buy out Cal-Am and carry out the plan “if and when feasible,” in other words, as soon as possible. Furthermore, the word “feasible” is undefined, leaving it open to a broad range of interpretations which will no doubt lead to unnecessary political and legal squabbles.
This is no mere fact-finding study to aid us in making an informed decision on whether or not to buy out Cal-Am. No, it is an open-ended commitment to buy out Cal-Am regardless of whether it saves Peninsula ratepayers money or ends up costing us a bundle!
Just so you know where I stand, I really don't care if the water company is publicly or privately owned. I am completely neutral on the issue. If Measure J was really just a buyout feasibility study, with no obligations or strings attached, I would vote for it without hesitation. Having good data specific to local circumstances, as opposed to aggregated statistics about public water systems in general, would bring clarity to the public debate and help our community decide whether or not to pursue public ownership.
But Measure J doesn't do that. Rather it assumes that public ownership will benefit local water customers, forces the Water Management District to pursue it, and relies on the vaguely worded phrase “if and when feasible” to hopefully act as sort of an emergency brake just in case the assumption is wrong. That is bad public policy, so I urge a NO vote on Measure J.