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Editorial: On the water-fund front


“Government of the people, by the people and for the people,” to borrow from Abraham Lincoln, did a bit of not-perishing from this earth, Sonoma-style, this month.

That’s because the sharp whistle of a local government watchdog was finally heard by the local government being watched – and as a consequence, the city water district will benefit from changes to the city’s internal funding structure.

It all started last spring when Community Services and Environment Commission member – and typically soft-spoken City Council gadfly – Chris Petlock disputed in a story by Index-Tribune reporter Christian Kallen (“City of Sonoma Water Rates Questioned,” April 4) the City’s transferring of revenues from the city Water Fund to the General Fund – a practice known as “cost allocation” – in the form of an annual transfer conducted on the rationale that everyday services, such as staff salaries and other administrative costs, which are paid out of the general fund, also benefit the water district.

Hence, the water fund should chip in its fair share for the work being done by city staff on its behalf.

But Petlock cried foul over the transfers which, albeit similar to cost allocations in other cities, had in the case of SanJuan Capistrano, occasionally led to pricey lawsuits.

But Sonoma city officials interviewed by the I-T, none of whom had been with the city when the transfer policy was initiated, said such cost allocations were relatively common, perfectly reasonable and legal.

Well, “reasonable” is open to debate. But legal? That isn’t. Because it’s not.

At least, not anymore.

State law changed in 2014 rendering such transfers a firm no-no, but the memo apparently never reached Sonoma which has transferred more than $3.5 million from the Water Fund to the General Fund over the last six years at an annual rate of about 17 percent – with the last two, possibly three, of those years in violation of state law.

But this isn’t a story about an error in accounting, or the bureaucratic disconnect between state and local authorities.

This is about Qui tam pro domino, or “qui tam,” for short. That’s the truncated version of the Latin expression, “Qui tam pro domino rege quam pro se ipso in hac parte sequitur” – which translates to, “He who prosecutes for himself as well as for the King.”

Qui tam is a fancy legal term about whistleblowers – it makes the point that any fight against government malfeasance is a fight to protect government itself. It certainly doesn’t suggest all whistleblowing serves the public good, is honest, or is done without a self-seeking agenda. That said, sometimes it’s pretty cool.

The first legally recorded case of whistleblowing in American history took place during the Revolutionary War, when Commodore Esek Hopkins was earning a reputation once described by the New England Historical Society as the “Rodney Dangerfield of the American Revolution.” Hopkins’ promising career seemed almost inexorable – he was even named the first Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy – and all eight ships in its fleet. But after a series of military blunders – one highlight found Hopkins marooning himself on a Rhode Island beachhead – members of his own crew in 1778 reported incidents of mistreatment of British prisoners, to go along with the commodore’s general embodiment of ineptitude, to the Continental Congress, which ultimately relieved him of his command.

Of course, correcting a cost allocation accounting snafu for the Water District may seem like small potatoes in comparison to grander whistleblowing episodes – this is no “Watergate,” as it were – but there’s no denying that Petlock’s red flag – and city staff’s willingness to recognize the error and correct it – is not only a win for water district ratepayers (not all of whom live within the city limits and therefor don’t benefit from the General Fund), but for an overall trust in government which, from the local level to Washington D.C., is arguably at an all-time low.

Sonoma City Manager Cathy Capriola says the city plans to initiate a new water-rate study and, pending those findings, update the cost-allocation plan. She says the General Fund will be paying back some of the money to the Water Fund; even more will be “sequestered” and re-allocated to their proper fund following the results of the rate study. We look forward to a full report on the fate of the misapplied water funds when the study is completed.

Until then, Sonoma can assured rest knowing it’s joined the ranks of such whistleblowing episodes from the Esek Hopkins saga through those of such better-known figures as Mark Felt (Deep Throat), Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon Papers), Frank Serpico (NYPD corruption), Karen Silkwood (worker safety), Jeffrey Wigand (tobacco industry) and Sherron Watkins (Enron).

For his part, Petlock said Sonomans should be “thrilled” the city is stopping the illegal transfers and staff should be commended for taking action.

“Now that there is acknowledgement and movement we can move onto some of the other issues regarding the (city),” Petlock said.

Qui tam pro domino, indeed.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.