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Official: Vote on Poseidon permit stays

Investigative website raises questions that member's participation could amount to a conflict of interest with consulting firm.

March 14, 2012|By Michael Miller

An official with the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board said he knew of no plans to have the board rescind its vote on Poseidon Resources' permit to build a desalination plant, despite rumblings in the community that one member's participation amounted to a conflict of interest.

An article on the nonprofit investigative website Voice of OC noted that Fred Ameri, who joined in the Poseidon vote in February, was a senior vice president for RBF Consulting before he retired earlier this month. RBF Consulting received nearly $500,000 to create environmental impact reports for Poseidon over the last 11 years.

While some questioned Ameri's involvement in the vote, Gary Stewart, a senior engineer for the water board, said the decision appeared final for the time being.

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"I'm not aware of any need for a revote," he said. "Nobody has really challenged that issue officially as far as I know, so I'm not aware of any scheduled action or reaction by the regional board."

According to Senior Planner Ricky Ramos, the city paid RBF and was reimbursed by Poseidon for the first two EIRs in 2001 and 2004. Poseidon paid RBF directly for the third report in 2010.

However, Barbara Eljenholm, a spokeswoman for RBF, said Ameri was never personally involved in any desalination projects.

"He acts as a board member in each decision-making process of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, and not on behalf of or in any official capacity of RBF Consulting," she wrote in an email. "Mr. Ameri has not been involved in RBF's desalination projects."

Ameri could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

A pair of government experts could not say whether Ameri's vote counted as a conflict of interest, at least officially.

Tracy Westen, vice president and chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, said he would have to research the law further to determine if Ameri should have declined to vote.

His relationship with Poseidon may have been too indirect to count as a conflict, Westen said.

He added, though, that the vote could still create the appearance of conflict and undermine the public's trust in the board's decision.

"In my view, it certainly didn't look good," Westen said.

Tara Stock, a spokeswoman for the state Fair Political Practices Commission, said her office could not comment on specific cases.

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