Critics who say state water policy tilts too far toward Southern California got additional ammunition last week, when Gov. Jerry Brown named a new director to run his Department of Water Resources.
New DWR Director Karla Nemeth is married to Tom Philp, an executive strategist with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Nemeth’s duties include overseeing the State Water Project, which delivers water from Northern California to the southern half of the state, and forging ahead with Brown’s controversial Delta tunnels project.
Metropolitan, which serves 19 million people, is the State Water Project’s largest customer. It’s also a key backer of the $17.1 billion tunnels proposal, which is fiercely opposed by many elected officials in Northern California as well as Delta farmers and environmentalists.
“Putting someone who is in charge of DWR who you might say is married to the Metropolitan Water District in more ways than one sort of makes sense if you look at it from the governor’s standpoint,” said George Hartmann, a Stockton attorney who represents Delta farmers. “But is it ethical? I don’t think so. Is it proper? I don’t think so.”
Ethics specialists say the situation is complicated. Robert Stern, co-author of California’s Political Reform Act, an anti-government corruption law, said there’s nothing illegal about Nemeth running DWR while being married to a Metropolitan employee. And so long as her decision-making is limited to issues affecting statewide water policy, there is no ethical violation, either.
The relationship could be problematic, however, if Nemeth has to make a decision that specifically affects Metropolitan, he said.
Hana Callaghan, a government ethics expert at Santa Clara University, said the relationship creates the perception of a conflict of interest, and she agreed that Nemeth should shy away from decisions involving Metropolitan directly. “It does raise some red flags,” she said.
State officials said they see no problem.
Nemeth and Philp’s relationship breaks no rules and “poses no conflict,” DWR spokeswoman Erin Mellon said in an email. “Karla’s marriage has long been public knowledge and has no bearing on her work for the state,” Mellon said. “Whether at the Resources Agency or now at the Department of Water Resources, her focus remains on doing what’s best for all of California, and her experience speaks for itself.”
Nemeth had been deputy secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency, a role that already put her on the front lines of the debate over the tunnels and other state water policy issues. Her new salary is $194,600.
Philp, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial writer for The Sacramento Bee, is an executive strategist who works on communications for Metropolitan, including its advocacy of the tunnels. His salary is $211,723, according to the public employee salary website Transparent California.
Philp declined to comment through a Metropolitan spokesman, but executives at the Southern California agency said the marriage doesn’t raise ethical concerns.
“I don’t believe there’s any conflict there at all,” said Roger Patterson, Metropolitan’s assistant general manager.
Nemeth’s appointment comes as the DWR has been criticized for its handling of the Oroville Dam spillway crisis last winter. An independent forensic team the state hired to determine what caused the spillway to fail said the crisis was caused in part because DWR was too focused on the “water delivery needs” of its customers to the south, and gave dam safety less of a priority.