Conflict-of-interest concern trips up recycled-water project

Palo Alto discussion halted Wednesday because of perceived conflict, lack of quorum

Nearly three decades after Palo Alto began using recycled water to irrigate the golf course and a portion of Mountain View, the city is considering expanding the practice to the lush corporate campuses of Stanford Research Park.

The new project is a revival of an old one that was shelved in 2008 after an analysis found the $33.5 million to be cost-prohibitive. Now, with the state mired in the fourth year of a severe drought, the cost of potable water on a rapid rise, and new pools of grant funding available for recycled-water projects, the calculations have changed. City staff have recently completed an environmental analysis for the project and the Utilities Advisory Commission was preparing to discuss and possibly approve the project on Wednesday night.

Yet hopes of a swift endorsement ebbed early in the discussion, after a citizen watchdog raised the prospect of a conflict of interest for one commissioner, who works at Stanford. In an unusual twist, Commissioner Steve Eglash, agreed to step down from the discussion shortly after Public Works staff concluded its presentation and the citizen, Herb Borock, made his comment.

The issue was particularly pertinent because the seven-member commission had only four members present. Eglash's recusal reduced the roster to three, leaving it one short of a quorum (Commissioners James Cook and Garth Hall were both absent, while recently appointed commissioner Lisa Van Dusen has resigned). Under the Brown Act, which governs how meetings are run, a meeting is required to have a "majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place."

"If you have a conflict of interest, you only have three commissioners here and you don't have a quorum and you can't do business," Borock told the commission.

Borock's comment, and the city attorney's advice that the meeting be postponed to a later date, touched off an testy exchange between the commissioners and staff.

Eglash, a technologist and former venture capitalist with expertise in renewable energy, currently manages several programs at Stanford, including the Stanford Data Science Initiative and the Artificial Intelligence Lab. After Borock made his comment, Eglash immediately agreed to step down, citing Borock's concern and saying that he has no wish to "contaminate the discussion with my presence, comments and vote."

He also said that he had considered the issue before the meeting and had reached an opinion that the conflict in his case was "minimal."

"I'm one employee who is not associated directly in any way with Stanford's use of water or the Research Park's use of water," Eglash said during the meeting after hearing Borock's comment. "I'm one employee in an organization."

Cara Silver, senior assistant city attorney, concurred with Borock that the city's decision on the recycled-water project would have a "pretty significant economic impact on Stanford," which owns the Research Park where the new pipelines would be installed.

"They will be one of the users of this project," Silver said.

While Eglash opted to recuse rather than argue with the city attorney, his commission colleagues were less than pleased. Before Silver could finish elaborating, she was interrupted by shaking heads and interjections from Commission Chair Jonathan Foster and Commissioner Michael Danaher, each of whom argued against Eglash's recusal.

"I think it is absurd," Foster said.

Danaher was even more vehement in his dissent and urged Silver not to "reach your conclusion yet." The attorney's opinion, he said, was issued "without a lot of explanation or a lot of factual background." He also called the attorney's advice that the meeting be continued at a later date "unduly conservative" and wondered aloud whether there is really anyone on the commission who is truly without any conflicts.

"Do I have an economic interest because the pipeline might go by my house?" Danaher asked.

After that discussion was halted by staff because of a lack of quorum, Foster requested that he and Danaher be provided a written explanation of why Eglash had to recuse himself.

The issue of Stanford-related conflicts is far from new in Palo Alto. Earlier this year, City Councilman Tom DuBois had to recuse himself from a discussion of an annual cap on new office development around downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real because his wife is employed by Stanford.

With his absence, the council split 4-4 on several key components of the proposed ordinance, which remains unadopted. In June, the council directed staff and the city's Sacramento lobbyists to look for opportunities to change the conflict-of-interest rules governed by the Political Reform Act so that they would only apply to situations where a city official would see a material benefit from the policy change.

Past council members, including former mayors Larry Klein and Yiaway Yeh, likewise left the Council Chambers anytime a subject involving Stanford popped up because their wives were affiliated with the university.

Once staff determined that the Wednesday meeting cannot continue, a clearly flustered commission spent a few minutes debating its next move. Utilities Director Valerie Fong noted that the commission's September meeting is already full of complex items, including the proposed fiber-to-the-premise network and the city's new master plan for sustainability and climate protection. She said she will consult with Public Works and consider the most suitable meeting for continuing the discussion.

Fong also made a request of the commission: "Wouldn't it be nice if there's discipline, and we made it through items in efficient fashion without grandstanding?"

"We do not do any grandstanding here and all commissioner comments are of value," Foster replied.

The abrupt ending to Wednesday's discussion of the recycled-water project belied staff's growing optimism about the proposed expansion. Karin North, watershed protection manager with the Public Works Department, said staff's goal is to get the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) approved as soon as possible so that it can then pursue possible grant funding for the new components of the recycled-water system.

The city began using recycled water from its Wastewater Treatment Plant for irrigation in the early 1980s, when it delivered the water to the municipal golf course. In the second phase, the pipelines were extended to Mountain View.

By expanding the use of recycled water even more, the city looks to conserve more drinking water, secure a drought-proof water supply and reduce the city's reliance on imported water, according to North. It would also be nice, she said, to reduce the amount of recycled water that the city dumps into the Bay.

The city's supply of recycled water greatly exceeds what it's used for at this point in time, North said.

The project is focused on Stanford Research Park because the area includes the largest concentration of customers with irrigation needs. The proposal initially faced some resistance from Stanford and the local nonprofit Canopy because of concerns that the high salt level in the recycled water would harm trees, particularly redwoods.

The new EIR, which the city revived earlier this year, proposes several measures to address these concerns. These include exempting redwood trees from new recycled-water requirements; blending recycled water with water that has lower salinity; and using a purification process such as reverse or forward osmosis to reduce salt levels. North said staff had talked to Canopy staff and Stanford about these proposals, and everyone generally agreed that these solutions would work well.

Before Borock's comment changed the direction of the discussion, Commissioner Judith Schwartz said she is "very excited" about this project. People in the community, she said, want to see the city be creative in this arena.

"The time is now," Schwartz said. "People want to see the investment because it's important."

Mark Harris, a former director of utilities for the City of Mountain View, said he has been talking with Palo Alto officials nearly two decades ago about expanding the use of recycled water. He said he "can't support the project enough."

"I wish it happened earlier. I understand why it hasn't," Harris said. "I think the new technologies, some of the new financial issues around it, and the clear and obvious drought cycle that we have have finally brought this to a critical mass."

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9 people like this
Posted by Norman Beamer
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:03 am

The Brown Act is being applied too conservatively. It should be amended to call for recusal only if there is a significant, actual conflict. Theoretical conflicts, or so-called "appearances" of conflict, should be disclosed, but not require mandatory recusal.

6 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of University South
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:11 am

At this point, you have to wonder whether the Brown Act is succeeding in its purpose of fostering public dialogue and preventing back room deals, or whether it's used mostly to silence public discussion for the most tenuous of reasons.

It was a good idea, but it needs some common sense reforms.

6 people like this
Posted by Dad of two
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:11 am

Why was my comment from 3 hours ago not posted?

Why are we considering wasting taxpayer money with this project? Many grants are still taxpayer funded. Why use funds for the benefit of few people that work in that area instead of using funds for residents? Why not convert to drought resistant vegetation rather than promote lush gardens at these sites?

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:29 am

@Dad, your comment is there on the old thread, before this title was changed from "gray water" to "recycled water". -- Web Link

1 person likes this
Posted by Rate Payer
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:51 am

[Post removed.]

Like this comment
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 9:24 am

Thanks for the article Gennady, I believe however that this is not a Brown Act issue but rather a violation of
"Conflict of Interest " or "Political Reform Act".
Any violation of these laws should be submitted to the FPPC for evaluation

4 people like this
Posted by gsheyner
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2015 at 9:38 am

gsheyner is a registered user.


Thanks for your comment.

I agree that the perceived conflict-of-interest issue is related to the Political Reform Act. The issue of whether the commission could discuss this perceived conflict on Wednesday (the attorney ruled they cannot because of a lack of quorum; some commissioners disagreed) seemed more related to the Brown Act.


13 people like this
Posted by Citizen
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 10:47 am

The attorney's opinion seems reasonable, and Foster's reaction not so much. The question is not whether Eglash is "one employee" (everybody is), but whether the proposed action would have a material impact on his employer's finances. If so, then the public is entitled to wonder whether Egash's opinion will be colored by that financial impact, which is the essence of a conflict of interest.

The fact that the law is inconvenient doesn't mean that it's silly. The commissioners should keep that in mind.

9 people like this
Posted by Deb
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 6, 2015 at 11:04 am

Why don't they use the water to water the trees on Palo Alto streets? That would be a benefit to all residents and with this drought, the trees are suffering. I also agree that a business shouldn't be the one who benefits.

1 person likes this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 11:35 am

SteveU is a registered user.

If a specific user is the primary beneficiary . They should fund it.
The City should EXPEDITE the (permitting) process without their usual onerous fees or hearing processes.

If this is to be a shared system. Stanford could finance the system, and all consumption charges (meter fees, less the cost of reading) would be credited to them until the project has been repaid (without interest).
Potable water conservation, the system get expedited and built soonest.

11 people like this
Posted by Thanks to Borock
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 11:42 am

I nominate Herb Borock to be on the City Attorney's staff.

He seems to be one of the very few citizens to point out legal issues in the city's actions. He researches the law and reports to the public.
Sometimes the City Council even pays attention to him. The Commissions with their business connections, not so much.

12 people like this
Posted by Careful with Trees
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 6, 2015 at 12:01 pm

We have had problems with recycled water and gray water used for watering plants.

Both have killed our tomato and eggplants. Gray water fouled the flavored of peas, carrots, radishes, apples, apricots and oranges.
The gray water killed our bushes and young trees. Flowers at first seemed to flourish, but after a second watering, wilted and died.
Now I have read that even recycled water will harm mature trees and woody shrubs, killing the immature ones.
I suspect that only lawn and grassy plants ang certain types of groundcover can survive recycled water.
Be CAREFUL where you use that stuff!

3 people like this
Posted by John
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 12:03 pm

Maybe we ought to put the pressure on the absent Commission members either to attend meetings or resign from the Commission.

9 people like this
Posted by maurice Druzin
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 12:14 pm

The "perceived conflict "standard is too restrictive, and essentially denies anyone with a relative at Stanford the civil right to participate in our public discourse.Many decisions made at Palo Alto City Council meetings have some effect on Stanford.
When will common sense be used in these endless discussions?

1 person likes this
Posted by Leslie
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 6, 2015 at 1:01 pm

This recycled water should be used to water all the parks in Palo Alto not just the golf course and portions of Mountain View. Hey, it's our water first, give it back for the benefit of Palo Alto residents.

4 people like this
Posted by Chance
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 2:03 pm

The real problem with these meetings is that not enough of the commission or committee or council members are attending, causing quorum problems. If you serve on these bodies, then, dammit, serve!

2 people like this
Posted by Brian Schmidt
a resident of another community
on Aug 6, 2015 at 7:20 pm

Careful With Trees - you discuss two different water sources, recycled and gray water. Recycled water can sometimes be problematic for some plants. Some of that is being fixed, because brackish groundwater has been leaking into the wastewater system and making it too salty, and they're in the process of fixing that. In addition, proposals for reverse osmosis systems could significantly reduce saltiness of recycled water - it's already happening with the system in San Jose. I don't think that's the best use of reverse osmosis - it's good enough to make water drinkable - but it's an additional option.

Regarding graywater, that's typically used water coming from your washing machine, maybe from your shower. You should use the right kind of detergent. If you're still having trouble, you can redirect the wash water to go down the regular sewer line, and only use the rinse water for your plants.

1 person likes this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 8:27 pm


Palo Alto has a water truck that waters trees near the sidewalk. That truck has a four foot pipe that swings down just to water these city trees .

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 6, 2015 at 9:01 pm

Come one,you guys know the rules for having a quorum , with regards to the Brown act, especially for a project this immense. Don't blame Herb Borock for your screw up. Thanks Herb, for putting them in check again.

Here is the EIR for our viewers reading pleasure.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 7, 2015 at 6:21 pm

"Once staff determined that the Wednesday meeting cannot continue, a clearly flustered commission spent a few minutes debating its next move."

So what's the problem? Take up the issue again when the absent commissioners return, like every other organization does.

Like this comment
Posted by Wholly Cow
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 9, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Only Palo Alto's Utilities Department and its Avisory Commission would dedicate a ton of process and a truckload of money to slowly kill a bunch of trees, bushes, and flowers with salty water. Why can't they just chainsaw and weed-whacker them?

Like this comment
Posted by Celina
a resident of Woodland Ave. area (East Palo Alto)
on Aug 13, 2015 at 3:11 pm

I hope California can update its plumbing codes to make it easier to install a grey water recycling system. I’m definitely jumping on this grey water craze, I mean who wouldn't? You save water, you save the environment and (best of all) you save money.

I'm looking into buying a new house with the greywater system already put in rather than a laundry to landscape

Something along the lines of this company:

Web Link

It’s a lot more affordable than the other greywater systems out there… Also I like how the maintenance is simple so even a newbie like me can diagnose and fix a problem.

Anyone else have any experience with another greywater system out there?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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