Amid recent media reports and public scrutiny over developing changes at the Mesa Water District, its board president elaborated on the state of the district in a recent public speech.

President Jim Fisler told attendees of a Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce breakfast April 18 that the district is financially strong, preparing itself for the future and, with the help of a bolstered communications department, committed to transparency and outreach.

Fisler's nearly 40-minute speech at the Costa Mesa Country Club — which was planned before the April 14 publication of an Orange County Register investigation about the district's marketing expenditures — addressed the Register's story in part, but he also commented on it in a follow-up interview with the Daily Pilot.

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Among the changes highlighted in the Register's report are significantly increased spending on branding and communications compared with other Orange County water districts, as well as a 25% rate increase implemented over five years while simultaneously boosting budget reserves in an effort to maintain the highest AAA bond rating.

The thousands spent on communications, including instituting a new logo and shortened name from Mesa Consolidated Water District to Mesa Water District, was one focal point of the Register's Watchdog report — and the subsequent target of some community criticism.

Also at the heart of the Register's story is Mesa Water's multiyear, "$500,000 branding" campaign, a rounded amount that combines the nearly $280,000 the district has spent for branding since 2008 and the forecasted $208,400 in the fiscal year 2014 budget for continuing that purpose.

The latter amount, however, has been cut from the 2014 final adopted budget, said Stacy Taylor, the district's communications manager.

"We're done with branding," she said. "Our directors have made it very clear that there will be no further funding for the Mesa Water branding account."

Still, why spend hundreds of thousands boosting name recognition for a government entity whose ratepayers don't have any other choice anyway?

"Right now, people take water for granted," Fisler told the Pilot. "They turn on their tap, and there's water, but we have to, I think, do little better job of telling them that this is a water-delivery system.

"It's not just somewhere where water comes out, that there are pipes that are being replaced, a half a billion dollars in infrastructure that's aging. All water districts face it."

Other monopolized government agencies — such as Southern California Edison and Southern California Gas Co. — have communications departments and spend money on PR campaigns, added Paul Shoenberger, Mesa Water's general manager.

It was his decision in August 2010, partially spurred by a 2008 survey that indicated ratepayers didn't know who provides their water, for Mesa Water to establish a communications department.

"You've heard of 'Flex your power,' " Shoenberger said. "It's important for three reasons: health and safety; water-use efficiency or conservation; and connecting the ratepayers for the value that they're getting for their rates."

That department, newly renamed the Public & Government Affairs Department, is comprised of two full-time employees and two temporary, part-time interns, with $1.3 million budgeted this fiscal year. The amount makes it Mesa Water's smallest department, taking up about 3% of the district's nearly $37-million annual budget.

Fisler contends, however, that he isn't hearing from constituents about Mesa Water's communications spending. Such concerns, rather, are coming from "a small circle," he contends, "half of which aren't in our district … this storm is going to run out of rain."


'Water boarding'

One such vocal critic is John Earl. The Huntington Beach resident is the founder and main writer for Surf City Voice, a blog whose "water boarding" commentary and stories include some on Mesa Water. Earl said while he may not be a Mesa Water ratepayer, he feels concerned about what's happening in all water districts.

"All these water districts are intertwined here in Southern California and also, to a certain extent, throughout the state," he said.