An elected board director, lobbyists and attorneys for a regional water agency were behind a campaign that attempted to unseat three incumbent Signal Hill councilmembers in the last city election, according to public records obtained by the Signal Tribune.
Recently released campaign-finance documents list Robert Katherman, board president and a director of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California (WRD), as the principal officer of Coalition for Clean Affordable Water, a political committee that funded campaign mailers to oppose longtime Signal Hill city officials.
Reached by email, Katherman said the committee is not affiliated with WRD staff or other board directors, however, he did not respond by press time to several questions posed by the Signal Tribune, merely adding that he could not speak on behalf of the committee.
WRD General Manager Robb Whitaker confirmed in a phone interview that WRD staff members were not involved with the committee or the mailers. “WRD staff have nothing to do with that [committee],” Whitaker said. “The District couldn’t be involved in it. That would be against the law… We didn’t work on it. I don’t know who’s contributed or how much. We’re not involved in it at all.”
The committee paid for fliers that were sent to registered voters just days before the March 5 election, targeting Michael Noll, Ed Wilson and Ellen Ward, who at the time were running for re-election to the Signal Hill City Council.
The mailers contained accusations of corruption and compared Signal Hill to the City of Bell, claiming that the city manager and city attorney have wasted public funds while receiving exorbitant salaries.
Signal Hill city officials have called the mailers “hit pieces” and “smear tactics” and claim the fliers were a blatant attempt to influence the local election with outside money, connecting the campaign to retaliation for an ongoing legal battle between the City and WRD.
For more than three years, Signal Hill, Downey and Cerritos have spearheaded a lawsuit against WRD, claiming the water agency did not follow procedural requirements of a 1996 state law known as Proposition 218 when it raised its replenishment assessment rates.
Since then, the legal battle has sparked lawsuits by other cities and entities that pay WRD for replenishing water from underground aquifers, and many of these entities have continued to withhold WRD payments.
Though a judge has ruled twice in favor of the cities, no damages have been awarded in the case yet. In the meantime, WRD and the cities have doled out millions of dollars in legal fees as proceedings continue to drag on.
The Central Basin Municipal Water District (CBMWD) voted 3-2 on Aug. 26 to drop its lawsuit against WRD over Proposition 218 requirements, citing concerns over litigation costs and that the water district may have not been able to recoup past WRD charges since CBMWD doesn’t pump water like cities and other pumpers.
The political campaign, however, specifically went after longtime Signal Hill incumbents who were on the Council together for more than a decade and have long been supporters of the City’s legal action against WRD.
Signal Hill City Manager Ken Farfsing said registered voters should be concerned about outside political interests trying to influence a city election.
“I think what [Katherman] thought he could do was influence the local election and prevail politically by unseating local councilmembers,” Farfsing said. “In general, the voters should be concerned about that. It used to be that local politics was pretty much local. It’s very strange in a small city with a little more than 11,000 people to have outside influences that want to buy an election. I think it’s sad that occurred.”
In Signal Hill, a race can often come down to just a few votes. The only incumbent candidate who lost in the last election, for instance, was Ward, who had just 19 votes less than Wilson. At one point, the unofficial election results showed the spread was only by one vote.
In 2011, the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters sent out glossy mailers that criticized incumbent Councilmember Larry Forester’s environmental record, depicting a cartoon figure of the councilmember with a sign that read, “I Protect Polluters.”
Farfsing said, however, that Coalition for Clean Affordable Water was not transparent about its motives or financial supporters until it was legally required through campaign-finance laws, months after the election was over and voters had already cast their ballots.
According to the campaign-finance records, the committee spent more than $2,300 on the campaign to oppose Noll, Wilson and Ward during the period from Jan. 1 to June 30, 2013. The committee also gave $500 to support Cerritos City Council candidate Frank Yokoyama, $250 to support Compton Council candidate Isaac Galvan and $500 to a bi-partisan political group. In total, Coalition for Clean Affordable Water received $6,500 during the six-month time period, including a $2,000 loan from Katherman’s own company, known as RGM, LLC.
The committee collected money from the lead litigators representing WRD in the Proposition 218 case. Those who provided funds included: attorney Edward Casey of Alston & Bird, who gave a personal $500 contribution; his law firm, which gave another $500; and Harris & Associates, which gave $2,500 toward the committee. In addition, WRD’s political consultants also contributed, including: political consultant Michael Gagan, who gave $500; WRD’s PR consultant Kindel Gagan Public Affairs Advocacy, which gave $1,000; and WRD’s Sacramento lobbyist Reeb Government Relations, LLC, which gave $500.
Some Signal Hill city officials and attorneys agreed that the campaign raises concerns of a possible “pay to play” atmosphere since WRD’s own consultants, who receive money from the agency for services, were the main contributors.
“People basically have a right to form an organization and get their message out, but it does raise a lot of ethical questions when you have an elected official organizing a political action committee with consultants hired by that agency,” Farfsing said. “What are the motivations?”
Noll, who is now mayor, brought forward a motion in May for the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would require all political action committees to file campaign-finance records with the city clerk in an attempt to increase transparency during city election cycles.
“My concern is that people out of the area not involved in Signal Hill have to do something ugly like that,” Noll said in a phone interview this week after the disclosure of records. “Transparency is the most important thing whether it be [WRD] or anybody else, so the residents have an idea of where it’s coming from.”
Signal Hill City Attorney David Aleshire, whose law firm Aleshire & Wynder was requested by the City Council after the election to look into Coalition for Clean Affordable Water, said the City has never dealt with this kind of political tactic. “In Signal Hill, we haven’t had this kind of thing before,” he said.
Katherman said via email on Friday, Aug. 23 that the committee had met and was planning to release a statement. However, the Signal Tribune had not received it by press time on Aug. 29. Casey did not respond to emails and phone calls seeking comment.
WRD Board Director Albert Robles, who was board president at the time of the March election, said he had nothing to do with the committee or the mailers.
However, Robles said he doesn’t see any conflict of interest with leaning on WRD’s consultants, who are primarily based in Los Angeles, to form a campaign, since Katherman’s career involves working in local politics.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Robles said. “That’s what you do. You go to people you know and who are your friends, and you ask them for help… I suspect that there would be some contributors he knows from the city of Los Angeles.”
Katherman and his wife Marilyn are partners of RGM, LLC and The Katherman Companies, which are both based in Torrance. According to the company’s website, the Katherman Companies is a consulting firm that “provides clients with a wide variety of consulting services specializing in governmental relations, community outreach, project management and environmental analysis.”