|Mama always said ...|
Of course, like most things involving the law, there are two sides to all of this. There is the cheerful news that you are an empowered citizen with the power to know all, and then there is the fuzzy gray reality. Government officials will tell you as little as they possibly without actually getting into any trouble, and whatever documents you do get will likely be about as useful as worm boots.
Or at least that has been my experience here in Sierra Madre.
But that doesn't mean the process (so-called) isn't completely useless or a waste of time. Sometimes what you get back is revealing in an insightful kind of way, and other times it is just flat out hilarious. And certainly it is a better experience than going down to a City Council meeting and asking questions from the "3 minute podium." Even if they do deign to reply to your earnest efforts, what you'll get for your troubles is rarely much more than a patronizing pat on the head.
I sent in a PRA to Sierra Madre City Manager Elaine Aguilar earlier this week requesting information about our Moody's water bond credit ratings. Certainly a topic everyone is just dying to know about these days. These ratings tanked badly in 2011, and I wanted to know how things were going today. Especially since a Pasadena News article from October of 2011 (link) quoted Elaine as saying that Moody's could have our water bonds back up to AAA by now. Something that'd allow the City to refinance our bond mess at the more favorable current rates and save we the taxpayers a lot of dough. Something that obviously has not happened.
Here is how I asked my questions Tuesday morning:
Good morning Elaine.
I would like to request all information regarding the current state of our Moody's water bond rating. The jumping off point for your search should be this passage from an October 6, 2011 article in the Pasadena Star News titled "Moody's drops Sierra Madre water bond rating." It is linked to today's post on my blog.
"Credit rating agency Moody's downgraded the city of Sierra Madre's Water Enterprise bonds from AAA to an A bond rating due to insufficient water rate revenues, according to a report by the credit agency.
The downgrade does not affect current indebtedness or bond payments and Sierra Madre officials said Thursday the second year of an incremental rate hike approved in early 2011 will serve as the remedy.
"The bonds will be re-evaluated in another year, and assuming the revenue estimates and the revenues that rate payers are paying, we will regain our triple A rating," said Elaine Aguilar, Sierra Madre city manager."
The results of the Moody's evaluation you refer to in this article would be great. Also I would like to hear your reasoning for the optimism expressed to Star News reporter Brian Charles when he was preparing this piece. Certainly the steep drop in our Moody's bond rating was not good news that week, so why did you believe that the problems would be remedied so quickly? I would like to compare his notes with yours.
Thanks for looking into this. I know these are hectic times.
Elaine Aguilar's reply arrived in my email box yesterday afternoon around 6:00. Like much of what Elaine sends out, there are a lot of words involved. Not that I should ever be one to complain about that.
I am responding to your request for public records (your initial email request is at the bottom). The purpose of this email is to notify you that the City does not have any records responsive to your request. I don’t have any notes, emails, or documents relating to my comments to the newspaper, or relating to the “current state of our Moody’s bond rating”. I don’t have any notes, emails, or documents relating to my comments to the newspaper, so I can’t confirm that the newspaper has even quoted me accurately, given the length of time since the article was published.
The item that I can provide is the current link to the City’s water bond rating analysis (link).
While I don’t have records responsive to your request, please know that I am available to meet with you if you would like to discuss the water bonds, or any other matters pertaining to the City. I also wanted to respond to what I think is your basic question - The newspaper quote did not infer that I thought the issue would be “remedied quickly”, nor do I believe that I was expressing any “optimism” to the reporter in that regard. Logically speaking, bonds are rated periodically, and in the case of our water bonds, the decreased rating, as stated by Moody’s was due to “debt service coverage levels which were just sum-sufficient in 2010 and 2011, city officials' slow implementation of increased rates in response to weak coverage, the enterprise's strong cash position, and a stable, affluent customer base within the City.”
The Star News article was written in October 2011, only three months after the implementation of the first rate increase (July 2011) and nine months before the second rate increase (July 2012). So I think my comment was probably primarily based upon the “known fact” of the water rate increases and the information that the “slow implementation of increased rates” was a factor Moody’s considered as indicated in their summary.
Thank you for contacting me and giving me the opportunity to respond. Please let me know if I can be of any further assistance.
Certainly this did contradict the statement Elaine reportedly made to the Pasadena Star News. That being Moody's would once again review our precarious rating situation in regards to our water bonds, and then they would reevaluate our predicament. Something that Elaine, in the article, at least implied would work out in our favor. Which, of course, it has not.
I then asked this further question: Did our bond rating change between the time of the PSN article and now?
Elaine answered me thusly: Hi John – the link I included in my earlier email is the link to the current Moody’s report – the same “September 30, 2011” rating remains. “New York, September 30, 2011 -- Moody's Investors Service has downgraded to A3 from A1 the rating on the City of Sierra Madre Water Enterprise (CA)”
Being a stubborn fellow, I tried once again to get Elaine to tell me something I didn't already know. So the bonds were never reevaluated?
Elaine again: Not that I can see from their website.
I tried one more time. Any idea why Brian Charles of the Pasadena Star News quoted you as saying that the bonds in question would be reevaluated by Moody's within the year?
Elaine: Now, if I had the ability to know what other people were thinking ---I’d have my own Vegas show!! Seriously John – no idea what Brain was thinking or how he chose to interpret whatever it was I said.
And that is how this PRA ends. Not with a bang, but with a "he said, she said" situation instead. My pen pal apparently was determined to not acknowledge that she had said anything at all like what Brian Charles of the Star News quoted her as having said. And wouldn't you? Unless the Star News has an actual tape recording of that conversation, there really won't be much in the way of any happening content that I will have to share with you.
However, I did tell you earlier that occasionally there is something insightful that you can pick up from these exchanges, and I believe we have one of those right here. City Hall is on a total clampdown on the water bond question. Nobody there is talking about our massive debt or the possibly dire effects it is having on our rapidly collapsing water enterprise. Which really is the black hole at the center of Sierra Madre's financial debacle, and why every possible rate, fee, and tax is now being pushed up as high and quickly as possible.
You have to wonder why this is being kept from us.
The public is not reacting well to the news of water restrictions
Our City Manager puts out an occasional report to the City Council that allows the reader an inside look into what is going down at City Hall. Fortunately for this blogger you can find this report on the City's website if you poke around a little. Or you can check it out here (link). And the news Elaine has to share on the upcoming water restrictions is probably not what our Mayor and Councilmembers are looking for.
We have been receiving phone calls about the recent action to implement mandatory water conservation. So, the good news is the word is getting out - but the bad news is the calls we've received are primarily from individuals who are not pleased about the need to conserve water. There was one call from an individual who was in the process of changing out his front lawn to low-water landscaping and he wanted to know if the city was offering any rebates.
I'm not completely sure, but I think many of us are about to take part in a great adventure.