Posted from the Carmel Pine Cone, April 19, 2019
The problem with preordained conclusions
IN TEXAS, they have a joke about frontier justice that goes like this:
First we’re going to give you a fair trial,
And then we’re going to hang you.
A character in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” made the same point when he sang,
We like to get the trial over with quickly,
Because it’s the sentence that’s really the fun.
Yes, it can be quite satisfying to make your mind up beforehand what you want the outcome of this or that process to be, and then invent the rules and manipulate the evidence until you get there. And if the audience you’re playing for is a bunch of suckers, you can even be declared a hero for doing so.
But letting the ends justify the means can also backfire, and nowhere is that more true than with the water management district’s proposed takeover of Cal Am water.
In one corner is the Public Water Now crowd, which campaigned with false promises of cheaper water if only the government owned the local water supply. They also promised that having the taxpayers buy Cal Am wouldn’t even be at-tempted if a study by “experts” concluded that doing so wouldn’t be “feasible.”
In the other corner is a state law that allows such a takeover to happen only if doing so is actually in the public interest — a conclusion that can’t just be made by experts tossing around highly malleable terms like “feasible.” It has to be proven in a court of law — and that, it turns out, may not be very easy to do.
This problem wasn’t even mentioned during the campaign for the takeover ballot measure. Back in those innocent days, it was just assumed that the law permit-ted a takeover if the public was willing to pay for it. Eminent domain isn’t called “eminent” for nothing.
But not so fast. In the Southern California town of Claremont, the public voted several years ago to seize its privately owned local water company and turn it into an agency of the city government. Supposedly, doing that would result in lower prices, better service, more transparency, etc., etc. — just like the people of the Monterey Peninsula were promised would happen if they became the owners of Cal Am.
But in Claremont, the water company went before a judge and showed that lower prices, better service and more transparency were a fiction. There was no reason, the judge ruled, to believe that eliminating the profit motive from the water production and delivery process would mean lower prices. He also said the city wasn’t more competent to run the water service than the private company was. And he concluded that local government wasn’t any easier to keep an eye on than the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulated the private water company according to detailed, consumer-oriented rules and procedures established by the state Legislature.
And after concluding all that, the judge not only stopped the takeover in its tracks, he ordered the people of Claremont to pay their water company’s multimillion-dollar legal bills.
We are relieved to learn that California law doesn’t make it easy to seize private property. You need a really good reason, not just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises.
Our water shortage and the high prices we pay for it are not Cal Am’s fault — they are the fault of environmentalists who conspired to curtail our water supply to stop growth. You may agree with that goal or you may not. But either way, there is no reason to believe a government takeover of Cal Am is going to make water any cheaper, better or more plentiful, and trying it may just end up costing all of us a bunch of money.