| Monday, July 18, 2005
Government follies: sewage happens
Last week, Orange County Register readers were treated to
one of those small stories that says volumes about government
officials, their priorities, and the way they constantly waste
your tax dollars to promote their own well-being and their own
Often it's the small examples that tell big stories, which
is why the public yawns when the government wastes billions of
dollars, but gets outraged when, say, a city council member
names a park after himself, or when the Navy spends $1,000 for
a toilet seat.
The public appears outraged at Orange County Sanitation
District General Manager Blake Anderson after the Register
printed a front-page article titled, "O.C. has joined the
sewage of enlightenment." Reporter Teri Sforza details the
sanitation district's $570,000 expenditure in a little more
than three yearsto a management consultant who
specializes in imbuing workplaces with what can fairly be
described as New Age spirituality.
This is unusual stuff. Moneywise, the $15,000 a month is a
drop in the toilet compared to the other ways the sewer
district wastes money. The Register Editorial Page has written
extensively about the sewer agency's approval of a $270
million to $400 million project to subject all sewage to
another level of treatment, known as secondary treatment.
Advocates for secondary treatment argued it was necessary
to protect beachgoers at Huntington Beach in particular from
future beach closings. Right after the vote, scientists
largely confirmed what we and others had argued: beach
contamination was most likely the result of urban runoff, not
the sewage plume.
That colossal waste of ratepayer dollars is harder to get a
handle on than whooshing public dollars down the sewer to pay
for a management guru who helps companies find their
Anderson told me that his goal is to help sewer agency
employees remain committed and energetic. "We want to get
people lit up and working hard ... [They should]leave every
day feeling fulfilled and satisfied with the work they have
Notice Anderson's focus on them - the fulfillment of the
employees, as opposed to the quality of service provided to
us, the customers - but I digress.
Dharma Consulting is run by Eric Klein, who claims to be
"one of the few westerners to be ordained as a yoga priest in
a 5,000 year old lineage." Anderson insists there is no
religious component of the program, although Klein's Web site
says the following:
"As a consultant, professional speaker and retreat leader,
Eric is helping business leaders help companies create
workplaces of profit and spirit. He has brought his insights
from the wisdom [of]ancient spiritual teachings into the board
rooms of companies including: AT&T, Hewlett Packard
Note the words workplaces of spirit, and bringing
into the workplace ancient spiritual teachings.
Klein's main book, "Awakening Corporate Soul" drips with
such spiritual stuff. The book the sanitation district is
using, co-author Klein's "To Do or Not to Do," by contrast, is
straightforward Dilbert. It's all about "the power of letting
go," "creative conversations" and so forth. The workshop
materials offer more of the same, although they are smattered
with sayings from the gnostic gospel of Thomas, Krismnamurti,
Thoreau and Lao Tsu.
It's pretty harmless, admittedly, the equivalent of one of
those books of trite sayings that urge you to listen to your
inner you. (One saying: "Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom." That's as deep as a sewer
The main point, regardless of curriculum, is that you, the
Orange County ratepayer (the sanitation district serves Irvine
and northwards), gets to pay for this touchy-feely
The sewer agency's board of directors recently imposed
dramatic rate hikes on county residents. Rates have gone from
$115 a household to $151 in one year and will hit $217 in two
years. That's almost a doubling of fees. According to the
sanitation district's budget, the agency is not done with the
fee-raising. It intends to push rates above $300 by fiscal
year 2010-11 to pay for system upgrades. Infrastructure
spending is legitimate, but in the government the taxpayer
always gets stuck with the bill, even as the bureaucracy
wastes money hand over fist.
Assemblyman Chuck DeVore raised the obvious hypocrisy issue
in a recent column about the issue. If a government agency
hired a consultant whose management program was deeply steeped
in Christianity, "The ACLU would sue more quickly than you
could say, 'Establishment Clause.'"
The hypocrisy is hard to take, for sure. Sanitation
district board member Norm Eckenrode, who said Anderson did
not adequately present the expenditure to the full board of
directors, told me that employees have complained about having
to participate in meetings that resemble a "yoga temple."
Going back to DeVore's analogy, imagine having to endure a
program at a public agency rooted in evangelical Christianity.
That wouldn't pass the smell test, even at a sewer agency.
Again, the bigger issue is one of government, how it
behaves and evades accountability.
The above-mentioned Dharma Web site notes that AT&T and
many other corporate entities have embraced this feelgood
nonsense. But corporations are free to waste stockholders'
money because, ultimately, no one is forced to buy their
products or their stock. They must answer to the consumer. A
poorly run company can lumber along for a long time but
factories close, stock prices fall, consumers shop
It's an old cliche, but the definition of insanity - doing
the same thing in the same way over and over, yet each time
expecting a different result - is the perfect definition of
Every day, as I write about public policy as it affects any
number of areas from land use to education, from
transportation to law enforcement, I find the same old story
The government agencies charged with their particular task
a) fail to perform that task competently; b) demand more money
from the public so that they can perform said tasks; c)
promptly spend the money on increased pensions, salaries,
consulting fees, building new administration buildings and in
ways that advance the bureaucracy.
Yet public officials think that the latest reform or new
infusion of cash or new leadership will change things. The
agencies get more money, but nothing much ever really
Anderson argued that it's necessary for the Orange County
public to understand the importance of investing in
infrastructure, as population grows and the old infrastructure
crumbles. He wants to create the expectation in the public
that such spending is needed, and to give politicians the
necessary cover to vote for higher fees.
But the public does not always embrace that idea because it
sees what government agencies do with the money they already
have. This is true even for agencies such as the Orange County
Sanitation District, which is the rare agency that actually
provides services that cannot easily be replicated in the
Government agencies cannot be reformed because there is no
bottom line, there is no going out of business, there is no
competition, but there is plenty of political influence. By
all means, be outraged at the never-ending list of waste,
fraud and abuse that emanates from government. But don't be
incredulous when guys like Anderson raise your rates to help
pay for gurus.
It would be crazy to expect otherwise.
CONTACT US: [email protected]
or (714) 796-7823