It’s been more than a year since the Long Beach Water Department staked out its position in favor of merging with the city’s Gas and Oil Department — and water commissioners still have their eye on just such a consolidation.

But only Long Beach voters can make that decision, and at least one commissioner is worried that a vote scheduled for the board’s Thursday, May 16, meeting — on whether to hire a pollster to measure voters’ opinions on the issue — could push the department into a legal gray zone.

Commissioner Robert Shannon first sounded the alarm last month, when John Fairbank, a partner at the polling company FM3 Research, gave a presentation about his services to the panel.

During his speech, Fairbank touted work he’s done on other campaigns in Long Beach, including last year’s successful Measure M, which allowed the city to transfer revenue from the water and gas utilities to the general fund. Fairbank noted that all of the campaigns he worked on ultimately received voter approval.

“I’ve had the pleasure of increasing all your taxes locally here,” Fairbank said. “We’ve helped bring legalized marijuana here for you, increasing your sales tax.”

Fairbank said the work his firm would do under a contract with the Water Department would be “to really see what moves voters, in more detail, about the positive aspects of this consolidation.”

Shannon said during the meeting that he felt Fairbank had described an effort to sway voters, rather than simply learn about them. The California Political Reform Act allows governments to use public funds to inform voters about campaigns, but it does not allow them to try to influence voters.

“If this falls into the area of advocacy, we’re placing ourselves at risk — at legal risk for crossing a line and acting illegally,” Shannon said. “I think that’s a very dangerous, a very dangerous step to take.”

Fairbank did not respond to multiple requests for comment..

But later on in the April meeting, Fairbank said his firm would not seek to influence voters.

“This is not trying to advocate,” he said. “There’s no measure on the ballot. There’s no reference to any kind of measure. It’s all about the issue: Here are the pros and cons, and how do the voters feel about it?”

Shannon said he would like to get a legal opinion from City Attorney Charles Parkin’s office before the board moved ahead one way or another.

Because there is currently no ballot measure on which to influence opinions in either direction, the Water Board is on solid legal footing to conduct whatever type of research it chooses, Parkin and one of his deputies, Richard Anthony, said in an interview Monday, May 13.

“Could the Water Department possibly be at some legal risk?” Anthony said. “The answer is yes, but it’s something we thought we could comfortably manage.”

Parkin said his office would review any questions that FM3 might ask to make sure they were legally OK, and those questions could be tweaked if there were any concerns.

The debate over the contract continued at the commission’s meeting two weeks ago.

Board President Gloria Cordero said she was torn. She heard from residents, she added, that they wanted more of a say in whether a merger would be put on a 2020 ballot — something Long Beach had previously considered adding to the November 2018 ballot.

“We don’t know everything,” Cordero said. “We’re trying to do the best job that we can, and we’re trying to get public input. I believe the role of public opinion is crucial.”

Cordero, though, also said she was unsure whether it’s appropriate to conduct research on voters’ opinions before the Water Department seeks to inform them on the issue.

Shannon, meanwhile, held firm.

“We need to be very, very careful,” he said. “I think there are a lot more pitfalls here than we realize.”

The next Water Commission meeting is at 9 a.m. Thursday, May 16, at the Long Beach Water Department Administration Building, 1800 E. Wardlow Road For more information, call 562-570-2300.

NOTE: Grunion Gazette Executive Editor Harry Saltzgaver is a member of the Water Commission.

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