In the end, four councilmembers — Scott Peters, Byron Wear, Toni Atkins, and Ralph Inzunza — and Mayor Murphy voted on April 30 for the inequitable proposal backed by the large users, which took effect on July 1. Voting against the proposal were Jim Madaffer, Brian Maienschein, George Stevens, and Donna Frye. Frye objected to the new rate structure since it did nothing to encourage large users to conserve. She also wondered aloud: Shouldn’t the biggest drinkers pay more if they use more?
According to the Union-Tribune, the average single-family homeowner’s water bill will be 35 percent more over five years while “big companies that are heavy water users” will pay 24 percent more. Locally, the single-family water bill averages 28 hcf (hundred cubic feet), roughly 21,000 gallons, every two months. (Customers pay a base fee for water service and a commodity charge for the amount of water used.) The water department’s July newsletter provided a telling example of how the rates will change for each of the next five years. While a high-end user’s bill that totals 50 hcf goes up only 5 percent, a low-end user’s bill that totals 4 hcf increases 9 percent.
What most San Diegans don’t know about high-end users — defined by the water department as “multi-family, commercial, and industrial customers” — is that they use 67 percent of the freshwater consumed in the city. Because of the high volume of water used by the biggest customers and because they perennially shoulder less of the burden of the rate hikes, does the department monitor their usage to see if they are using water efficiently?
Monitoring San Diego’s water customers, large or small, is something the water department does not do. Nor does the California Public Records Act allow citizens to check on how much water is used by any customer — a neighbor or the United States Navy. The act protects the privacy of all utility customers and their “utility usage data.” But according to a list of exceptions in the act, privacy is precluded for “an elected or appointed official with authority to determine the utility usage policies of the local agency.” Those elected officials are the mayor and the city council.
Before requesting the council’s water bills, I wanted to know whether other high-level “appointed” managers in city government also had “authority to determine the utility usage policies.” If so, were the water bills of utilities general manager Richard Mendes, water department director Larry Gardner, or city manager Uberuaga exceptions to the Public Records Act as well?
In the municipal code, the city manager’s authority for rationing water in the event of an emergency is clearly established: “He is hereby authorized to determine and declare that a water shortage emergency exists…to promulgate such regulations, rules and conditions relative to the time of using water…[which] will, in his opinion, relieve the water shortage.” Moreover, in the event of a “water supply shortage due to increased demand or limited supply…in the City of San Diego, the general welfare requires that the City maximize the beneficial use of its available water resources…and that the waste or unreasonable use, or unreasonable method of use of water be prevented and the conservation of such water is to be extended.…” In addition, the city manager is “authorized” to implement emergency measures based on the “recommendation of the Director of the Water Department.” “Following public notice,” water conservation provisions must be set up during a “foreseeable water emergency such as extended drought conditions.” The water department “shall monitor the projected supply and demand for water, by its customers, on a daily basis.”
Such powers during a water shortage are given primarily to the city manager, with input from the director of the water department, and the regulatory scope of those powers certainly sounds like “authority to determine utility usage policy.” When I requested water bills for Mendes, Gardner, and Uberuaga, the city attorney’s office responded that those men are not responsible for determining utility-usage policy — only the council “sets policy.” Accompanying the opinion of the city attorney’s office was an admission that the “language” of the Public Records Act, in this instance, is “ambiguous.”
City hall managers and councilmembers wrangled over the rate-hike pricing and not the scope of the water department’s capital improvements. There was next to nothing said by the city council or the water bosses about adopting water conservation measures. Projects the water department wanted to fund — including projects that had been repeatedly asked for every year by the department and denied by the council — are being funded. Mendes’s detailed presentation to the council on April 22 proved that he had the authority and expertise as utilities manager to persuade his superiors that the projects the department had chosen were worth every penny. In short, the council authorizes the pricing structure; the water department allocates its budget as it sees fit. The department makes nearly every water-related decision in San Diego except who gets “gouged” (George Stevens used the term) with the rate hike.
April’s vote on the rate increase showed that the council’s ear was ultimately pulled by the big consumers of water. Did large consumption of water by councilmembers themselves along with their investment interests in water-using companies affect the vote? The water bills of the mayor and city council, tabulated between summer 2001 and summer 2002, show that most are somewhat below, at, or above the average single-family use of 168 hcf, a bit more than 125,000 gallons per year. Water bills, of course, reflect the number of people who live in a home.
Stevens, Maienschein, and Frye voted against the proposal. Stevens uses 69 percent more than the average and Maienschein, 17 percent, while Frye uses 25 percent less than the average. Murphy, Wear, Atkins, and Inzunza voted for the rate hike. Murphy uses 68 percent more than the average, and Wear, 56 percent. Ralph Inzunza uses 26 percent less than average, and Atkins, 48 percent less.