“For that much money they could have put in a new well and brought more water to Mammoth rather than paying a PR firm in Los Angeles,” said Ted Schade, former Air Pollution Control Officer of Great Basin Air Pollution Control District.
Schade was referring to the $177,832.24 the Mammoth Community Water District (MCWD) paid the public relations firm Fiona Hutton and Associates to write press releases during a lawsuit MCWD eventually lost.
Mammoth Water also spent $194,096.25 on lawyers and litigation and another $13,356.94 on travel expenses for the suit according to documents obtained by The Sheet through the Freedom of Information Act.
The request covers the time period through the date of Judge Stan Eller’s Superior Court decision handed down in July.
This does not include rate payer’s dollars MCWD is currently spending in federal court.
MCWD sued Great Basin and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in two different suits. MCWD went to court in April over Great Basin’s approval of the Final Environmental Impact Report (FEIR) and BLM’s approval of the Final Environmental Impact Study, for Ormat Technology’s Casa Diablo IV, a 33 megawatt geothermal project. MCWD said the report violated the California Environmental Quality Act, the project would jeopardize surrounding groundwater and that mitigation measures were “woefully inadequate.”
Mono County Judge Stan Eller disagreed with MCWD on six issues in July. The US Department of the Interior, Office of Hearings and Appeals also disagreed with MCWD assertions on Aug. 31.
But it looks like Mammoth isn’t giving in without a fight. MCWD Director Pat Hayes did not return The Sheet’s calls, but the tea leaves say that the MCWD Board of Directors will agree to appealing Eller’s decision.
Attorney Jim Reed, of Liebersbach, Mohun, Carney and Reed, Ormat’s legal counsel, said that MCWD has made a request for records, a request that could indicate MCWD is seeking an appeal. But, Reed added, that does not mean they’ve come to a decision. Reed explained that in order to appeal, MCWD would have to gather all the records of the previous trial. He said the stack of documents from the trail stand at 11 feet tall.
The case was classified as “Existing Litigation” on the August 20 agenda of the MCWD’s Board of Directors meeting as a closed session item. Schade explained that to file an appeal, a record of the former case must be prepared. He said MCWD has asked Great Basin for documents that would only be requested if it were preparing an appeal.
MCWD’s Public Relations Officer Irene Yamashita told The Sheet that there has been no public announcement made by the board that an appeal will be made. She added that the deadline to file for an appeal is Sept. 28. If an appeal is made, it could take up to two years before it goes before a judge, Reed explained. He added the best MCWD could hope for would be a new environmental report.
The costs for the suits are being paid out of the operations budget according to MCWD Finance Manager Jeffrey Beatty. He explained that every MCWD budget includes a line item for legal costs. And, as when preparing any budget, figures are based on educated guesses but can be far from actual costs, he added.
Schade said the only way a water district makes money is by charging its customers.
Schade, who was at the helm of Great Basin for the FEIR and the beginning of the suit, said another lawsuit is not going to stop the project. Hayes told The Sheet in March, just before the case went before Eller, that he was sure the loser would appeal.
The proposed project would be located next to the current geothermal facility near the junction of Highways 395 and 203. Ormat needed to get approval from three different agencies for the project. The land is federal and managed by the US Forest Service (1), but the subsurface materials are controlled by the BLM (2) and any emissions from the project would have to pass muster of Great Basin (3).
Coincidentally, MCWD is also currently conducting a rate study. A rate study is procedural; the current study is in the fourth year of its five year life-span said Beatty. He explained the study is not a pretext to a rate increase and any rate change is subject to the letter of Proposition 218. The proposition states that any rate increase by a district must be reviewed and voted on by its customers before going into effect.
Why did MCWD hire the PR firm? No one interviewed for this story seemed to be able to answer that question. Great Basin’s current Air Pollution Control Officer, Phil Kiddoo told The Sheet that part of Great Basin’s job is to provide public outreach. He said Great Basin does not have a public relations person on staff or retained a PR firm, “We never felt we needed one.”
Schade said he wrote his own press releases when he was Officer at Great Basin and wondered why Hayes couldn’t or isn’t doing the same and saving customers money.
Fiona Hutton hasn’t been added by MCWD to its client list on its website.
Hutton assisted in trying to sway opinion toward MCWD. For example, the firm charged MCWD $535 to have a story placed on the PR Newswire website in July 2014. The story included quotes from Sen. Dianne Feinstein and makes claim that the “existing geothermal facilities have already had a negative impact on the region.” The story echoes what MCWD has said in editorials to The Sheet. The same MCWD check that paid for the PR Newswire story, number 49074, included the $20,000 retainer of Hutton for the month of August.
Kiddoo said that MCWD is holding its cards close to its chest and that despite all the hyperbole and requests for records, no one outside MCWD Board and director will know if the appeal will happen until the Sept. 28 deadline.