Governor presided over birth of Latino Water Coalition

The California Latino Water Coalition, often described as a grassroots group representing the Latino community, was born in a closed-door meeting of Gov. Schwarzenegger and local officials at Selma City Hall on March 21, 2007—and was “suggested” by the governor himself, according to a coalition brochure.

Orange Cove Mayor Victor Lopez said the Coalition was his own idea. He acknowledged that city funds were used to help people travel to the Coalition launch event at the state Capitol on April 23, 2007.

“When we went to Sacramento, we went as citizens of the community,” Lopez said. “The city of Orange Cove provided a bus to take our citizens who wanted to speak.”

The origins and financing of the Coalition are important because the group has become an influential voice in water development during the past two years. Generally, it supports the construction of dams, reservoirs and a potential Delta canal –  projects sought by the governor, many members of the Legislature, powerful agribusiness interests and numerous public water agencies.

The Coalition produced a four-page promotional brochure this summer, “California Latino Water Coalition: A New Voice in California’s Water Wars,” that detailed the group’s role.

During the last two and half years since the Selma meeting, the Coalition has become one of the most visible players in the battles over California’s water resources. The group has pushed the issue into headlines with rallies and marches featuring thousands of Latino farm workers. Its critics have called it an “astroturf” group that tries to put a working-class Latino face on the demands of rich farmers.

The brochure tells the story of “How We Began,” and shows a picture of the governor meeting that day with two men who became major players in the Coalition: Lopez and Mario Santoyo, assistant general manager of the Friant Water Authority. It goes on to say how they joined other Central Valley mayors and local officials and “brought these concerns before Governor Schwarzenegger.”
“It was Mr. Schwarzenegger who suggested that the Coalition be formed,” notes the Coalition brochure.

Jessica Szalay, at the time a reporter at the Selma Enterprise, remembers getting a cell phone call as she drove to work that morning.

“We didn’t even know he was coming into town until about a half hour before he showed up,” Szalay recalled.

Szalay said she got to work, walked a block down the street to City Hall, then waited from about 11 a.m. to 12:30 pm while the governor held the private meeting in the City Council chambers. A couple of camera crews showed up from local television stations.

During the brief press conference after the meeting, she said, the governor and local officials “lumped together” several local concerns, not just water but pollution, upgrades to Highway 99 and relief for orange farmers who had lost much of their crop during a freeze the previous winter. Szalay posted a 500-word story about the governor’s visit later that day.

“He came out, said a couple words, got back in into his car and drove off,” Szalay said.

A month later, the governor was present when the Coalition announced its launch with a rally outside the Capitol on April 23. Comedian Paul Rodriguez was also there as the chairman of the newly-minted group.

Lopez said that he started meeting with local officials in late 2006 with the idea of the Coalition. He also said it was he who asked Rodriguez to join the effort. He said he first met Rodriguez when the comedian raised $250,000 in relief funds around 1989 when a freeze decimated the local Orange crop. Rodriguez’s elderly mother still lives on a farm near Orange Cove.

Cash disbursement records from Orange Cove appear to show city funds used on several Coalition activities. For instance, records show a charge of $130 for an April 13, 2007 meeting in Los Angeles between Lopez, Rodriguez, Santoyo and Brenda Quintana, Schwarzenegger’s director of local government and community relations. Lopez said Quintana advised them on how to arrange and make the most of meetings with legislators and other officials. There are also entries showing several hundred dollars in charges for Lopez to travel to a meeting with Rodriguez and others.

The reports also show that $1,564 in city funds were used to charter a bus to the 2007 launch rally in Sacramento, along with three separate $55 charges for “signs for the SB 59 hearing in Sacramento.” SB 59 was the Reliable Water Supply Bond Act of 2008 put forth by local Sen. Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno. It failed on a party-line vote in the Senate Natural Resources Committee the day after the launch rally and never moved again.

“It’s not on behalf of the Coalition, I advocated on behalf of Orange Cove,” Lopez said of the charges.

He added that neither he nor anyone else is paid by the Coalition, including Rodriguez.

“We don’t pay Paul nothing,” Lopez said. “Paul has lost a lot by being involved with us.”

The administration has also had numerous contacts with in-house lobbyists for Friant, Santoyo’s employer. State records show several small “gifts” to administration officials — often the indication of a meal or other meeting. Quintana shows up on these reports in 2007 on April 23rd, May 1st and 10th, July 16th, 23rd, and 26th, Oct. 23rd and Nov. 30th, and in 2008 on Feb. 1st and 7th.

Schwarzenegger’s legislative secretary John Moffatt appears on May 10, 2007, and Feb. 1, 2008. Amanda Fulkerson, then the governor’s deputy communications director, appears on July 23rd and 26th and Nov. 30th. Lindsay Barsamian, a district director for Schwarzenegger is listed on March 17, 2008.

When asked about these meetings, the governor’s deputy press secretary Jeff Macedo noted that administration officials constantly meet with various groups and lobbyist from all over the state. He added that Schwarzenegger has also been very upfront about his desire for more water storage and greater water supplies to agriculture.

“When he meets with groups, there are a lot of times he might suggest getting together a coalition,” Macedo said. “He wants to make sure anybody gets a voice in Sacramento, whether it is someone he does agree with or doesn’t.”

Macedo added: “He believes the basic tenets of what they are working towards match with his. He does like the work they have done so far. He does support the group. That’s why you’ve seen him at so many events.”

Schwarzenegger’s support of the group includes a large photo montage promoting the Coalition that has been displayed outside his office for most of the last month. It shows photos from the group’s 10,000-strong “March for Water” from Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir between April 14 and 17 this year. Schwarzenegger spoke to the crowd when the marches arrived, the reservoir visible behind him, as shown in a photo on the cover of the “New Voice” brochure.

The Capitol hallway display led Democratic political consultant Steve Maviglio to charge on the Majority Report blog that the governor was “renting” space to “a classic ‘greenwash’ scheme.”

“I think the governor has been more straightforward on his position than a lot of people,” countered Jeff Weir. Weir, a private consultant, is the former publics affairs director for the Contra Costa Water District, which sometimes clashed with Frian
t, the Westlands Water District and other lower Central Valley water interests over Delta water.

“I don’t attach any negativity or conspiratorial activity to the fact that the governor may have been with these people three years ago,” Weir said. “Meeting with big agricultural interests in the Central Valley would be business as usual. He’s a Republican. It doesn’t mean they get whatever they want.”

The governor himself can’t directly do much about the water situation. The Delta flows to the Valley are controlled under federal water projects. This is why Rodriguez, Lopez and Santoyo were in Washington last week, meeting with Interior secretary Ken Salazar and other officials. Rodriguez was hospitalized with stomach problems during the visit, but is reportedly back in California.  

The governor has been trying to get the federal government to increase flows from the Delta to agriculture, though contrary to calls on Fox News and elsewhere to “turn on the pumps,” Friant users have received most of their allotment this year. Efforts to release even more water have been met with successful federal lawsuits by environmentalists.

George Soares, outside lobbyist for Friant, is also listed on Friant’s lobbying reports, on April 23, 2007. His firm, Kahn, Soares, & Conway LLP, represents about three dozen large agribusiness clients in Sacramento. It was Soares who filed the papers to officially incorporate the Coalition with the state. Jim Cunningham of Kahn Soares said they are not being paid by the group, but have filled paperwork with the IRS and the state Franchise Tax Board to help the group attain 501(c)4 status.

Soares has worked pro bono for the alliance, according to Ron Jacobsma, general manager at Friant.

“George is a big believer in the cause and graciously provided some of his time to get them going,” Jacobsma said.

He’s not the only one. Patrick George, an employee of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, has been fielding press calls for the group for over two years, but said Burson has no formal relationship with the Coalition and that he works for them on his own.

Mike Wade and Mike Henry of the California Farm Water Coalition posted material for the Coalition at, for about two years, during which time it was the main website for the group. About two weeks ago, Wade said, the Coalition posted their own website at, without notifying them of the change. Wade said when they found out, they changed gotwater to send visitors to the new site.

“It was an offer we made at the time as the Latino Water Coalition was organizing and getting on their feet,” said Wade, executive director with the Farm Water Coalition. “They lacked the resources for doing this kind of work.”

Friant’s Jacobsma said the they have not directly given any money to the Coalition. Santoyo, a full-time Friant employee, has spoken for the Coalition in numerous news stories, something Jacobsma said is not a conflict.

“He participates with that group while he’s an employee of Friant, comparable to when I go to an ACWA meeting,” he said. ACWA is the Association of California Water Agencies, a 99 year-old group representing numerous water authorities in both state and federal matters.

The Coalition has not released a donor list. One of Soares ag lobbying clients confirmed that they donated around “between $500 and $1,000” to help pay for food, transportation and other costs associated with one of the Coalition’s rallies. Kahn Soares’ Cunningham said that it was his understanding that it was improper to disclose donors without their permission; the total donations received by the group will be disclosed when it files its first tax returns later this year.

Weir said that he thinks it would be in the Coalition’s best interest to be more transparent.

“There’s no way you can get 4,000 people to show up for a spontaneous event unless someone is organizing that,” Weir said. “You have to have money, you have to have people with experience.”

He added:  “I’m not against the rallies, I think it’s legitimate for them to hold as many as they want. But to pretend they can do it without disclosure is naive.”

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