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Group against water takeover has unclear motives

Claremont officials are calling into question the motives behind a movement opposing the city’s water acquisition.

Marko Mlikotin, president of the California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights (CAPPPR), entered the city’s water discussion with the recent initiation of a campaign titled “Stop the Claremont Water Grab.” A similar campaign, “Stop the Ojai Water Grab,” has surfaced in the Ventura County city, also in the process of water acquisition.

City Manager Tony Ramos warned residents Tuesday about Mr. Mlikotin’s efforts, alleging that River City Communications, the PR firm that Mr. Mlikotin heads, is posing as a local group dissuading the city from purchasing its water system. Mr. Ramos asserts that Golden State Water has hired Mr. Mlikotin “in an effort to mislead our residents about the city council offer to purchase the water system.

“Since our offer [to the water company] was presented, Golden State Water has initiated a public affairs effort aimed at those living and working here in Claremont,” Mr. Ramos announced during Tuesday’s city council meeting. “They hired several Sacramento-based firms who are now distributing press releases, have established a website and begun contacting media outlets in an effort to mislead our residents about the city council offer to purchase the water system.”

“A firm that specializes in this type of PR campaign, River City Communications, is leading Golden State’s water efforts,” Mr. Ramos continued. “The owner of River City Communications, Marko Mlikotin, recently began sending out press releases and emails claiming to be the president of a group established to protect property rights in Claremont.”

Mr. Mlikotin’s River City Communications is a public affairs and government relations firm that turns business interests into public interests, according to the company’s description on the Sacramento Metro Chamber’s website. The company specializes in crisis communications, or crisis management, “protecting and defending an individual, company, or organization facing a public challenge to its reputation.” Among the company’s expertise is issue management.

“If your business interests require the support of increasingly skeptical public and elected leaders, River City Communications can provide you with the strategies and communication tools to effectively communicate the benefits of your business interests,” the River City Communication’s website states, further listing bullet points of expertise including, developing “grassroots, political and public education programs to build awareness and support for public policy and client issues” and developing “earned media opportunities and communication tools that include editorial board meetings, op-ed placements, brochures and websites.”

In a phone interview and in written communication with Mr. Mlikotin earlier this week, he says it is not uncommon for associations like the CAPPPR to hire public affair firms to manage their campaign and ensure its purpose.

“My firm provides association management and communications support for the Alliance, which is common and which we have clearly disclosed,” Mr. Mlikotin said. “There are many association management firms that represent multiple organizations.”

In response to allegations that CAPPPR is part of an astroturf effort—the creation of a grassroots group funded and planned by a political, advertising or public relations campaign—Mr. Mlikotin maintains that this is not the case.

“That term would imply we came from nowhere and had no established records,” Mr. Mlikotin said. “We are a 501(c)(4) (nonprofit) with over 7 years experience and an established record.”

“We have been following this issue for a long, long time,” he continued. “We are not new to this issue or these battles.”

The California Alliance to Protect Private Property Rights—a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Howard Jarvis pro-Prop. 13 group—began in 2005 in response to an eminent domain battle in Yolo County, located in northern California. Since that time, CAPPPR has been involved with efforts across the country, and has become involved in numerous eminent domain cases involving water, including those in Felton, and most recently, in Ojai and Claremont.

CAPPPR was founded by Assemblyman Jim Nielsen-R, elected to office in 2008. One of his top 5 donors in his electoral campaign, contributing about $7200, was Golden State Water, according to records.

Golden State Water spokesperson Mitch Zak—partner and co-owner of Randle Communications in Sacramento—admits that the water company was indeed contacted by CAPPPR over the summer, but contends that it has not funded Mr. Mlikotin’s CAPPPR campaign efforts as of yet. That does not mean they will not give CAPPPR money in the future, he added.

“We have not given them any money as of right now, but it is my assumption that we probably would,” said Mr. Zak, stating that Golden State Water gives out monetary contributions to organizations or individuals it supports like CAPPPR.

Denise Kruger, Golden State Water’s senior vice president of regulatory affairs, concurred that while the CAPPPR made an “independent decision to oppose the city of Claremont’s takeover,” but that doesn’t mean money won’t be contributed to their case at a future date.

“It is our understanding that the CAPPPR is funded by contributions from organizations and individuals that support their mission,” Ms. Kruger said. “Golden State Water Company has not contributed to the Alliance, however we are considering doing so to support their ongoing statewide efforts to oppose the use of eminent domain by cities for financially risky endeavors. River City Communications does not represent Golden State Water Company.”

As the CAPPPR’s efforts to “Stop the Claremont Water Grab” campaign, Mr. Mlikotin says, “Claremont officials have chosen to attack our organization instead of answering simple questions.”

“Our fundamental question remains: How can a water system worth millions of dollars be purchased without passing on the costs to residents in the form of higher water bills and/or property taxes?”

While CAPPPR is less tolerant of the city’s refusal to grant requests to view the city’s water feasibility study, Hal Hargrave and Randy Scott of Claremonters Against Outrageous Water Rates are willing to wait.

“The city is negotiating to purchase a water system whose price will be hotly contested,” the pair wrote in an op-ed piece. “Why would you make public how you reached your offer amount?”

As to whether or not they are willing to front the costs for the city’s water system, “only time will tell,” they say. “If it’s financially feasible for the city to make the purchase, they will be supportive, if not then they admit that they will not vote for the acquisition.”

“At any rate, the whole point of purchasing the water system was to stop double digit rate increases, to slow the rate of water price increases,” they continued. “All we’ve ever wanted are fair and reasonable water rates.”

—Beth Hartnett

news@claremont-courier.com

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