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Anti Measure Z poll is as slippery as freshly fracked oil

Aged Oil Pump on Colorado Prairie with Mountain Hills in the Background. Oil Industry Theme.Opponents of Measure Z, the anti-fracking ballot initiative, are sponsoring a “push poll” that is almost refreshing in how little it tries to hide its purpose, to persuade rather than measure.

In case you’re not familiar with the term, the Google definition of “push poll” is clear and straightforward: “An ostensible opinion poll in which the true objective is to sway voters using loaded or manipulative questions.”

Sometimes when you receive a phone call from a push poll survey taker, it takes a while to detect the spin. Not this time.

My call came just at the end of the Chicago-Dallas football contest Sunday night. The young man on the other end of the line got right to the point. Are you a registered voter? Do you plan to vote in November? Yes and yes.

That was followed by a series of questions about Measure Z, which would prohibit fracking in the oil fields of Monterey County and prevent the drilling of new wells that rely on suspect production methods.

Have you heard or seen Measure Z ads on the radio, TV, Facebook, campaign websites, etc.? Yes, yes, yes, yes, etc.

If you knew the measure would end all oil production in Monterey County and cost the county millions of dollars in taxes and force the layoff of more than a thousand workers, would you oppose it?

Hmm.

I couldn’t exactly answer no because if that was so, I might actually oppose the measure. Couldn’t answer yes because it isn’t so.

There were more questions like that, several of them. One was about exporting foreign oil and one about how Measure Z is deceptive. There might have been one about coal. I didn’t take good enough notes to be able to reconstruct them here, but they were all in the same format. If you knew that Measure Z supporters are a bunch of crazy hippies, how vigorously would you oppose Measure Z? OK, that one’s not real, but you get the idea.

Then the form of the question changed. The “if” was eliminated.

The caller declared that the hospitality industry on the Monterey Peninsula opposes Measure Z because it would end oil production and cause the layoff of a thousand people. Then he asked, “Do you support or oppose that statement?”

Do I support that statement? Do I believe that the Monterey Peninsula hospitality industry opposes Measure Z. Probably so. The Monterey Peninsula hospitality industry and I often find ourselves on different sides of issues. Monterey PR man David Armanasco represents the hospitality industry and he’s working against Measure Z. When he’s against something, I’m usually for it.

Do I believe that the hospitality industry opposes Measure Z for the stated reasons? Well, not really. The people who speak for the hospitality industry of the Monterey Peninsula tend to go where the money is and the underlying rationale is likely an afterthought. For all I know, the industry might oppose it because Exxon promised to hold a convention here. The Deputy Sheriff’s Association opposes Measure Z because it got a big contribution from Chevron and because the sheriff’s biggest campaign contributor owns a big hunk of the oil fields.

Do I oppose that statement, the one about the hospitality industry’s position on Measure Z? I guess that depends on what you mean by oppose. Do I disagree with the position? See above. Do I oppose? The hospitality industry is free to believe anything it wants to believe. No opposition here.

At that point, I stopped answering the questions because I was starting to ask my own questions of the survey taker and he wasn’t in any position to answer them and I think he was getting upset.

The one thing I do know after participating in this poll is that if the oil industry tries to tell us that it conducted a poll and that some percentage of voters oppose Measure Z, I’m not entirely sure I will accept the findings as gospel.

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This photo of Dave Potter comes from Mary Adams’ website, potterfacts.com

I’ve always greatly enjoyed Mary Duan’s columns in the Monterey County Weekly, and I enjoyed most of her farewell column this week. With her husband’s lottery winnings tucked into a mattress, she has stepped down as editor after a productive and sometimes grueling six years.

Thursday’s column was about politics and Mary’s decision to enjoy life for a while. The part I didn’t love was the little section where she sort of lost her way  while writing about Monterey County Supervisor Dave Potter and his effort to fight off a challenge by a strong candidate, Mary Adams.

She wrote about how the Weekly had endorsed Potter, setting off some serious groaning from the left side of the political divide, which constitutes a good share of the paper’s readership. I have it on good authority that Duan argued mightily for an Adams endorsement but was outmuscled by her bosses, who got on the Potter train long ago and stayed onboard while others departed. (I’ve always suspected it has something to do with Potter being a good source, especially when he needs to divert the attention of journalists looking too closely at his affairs.) The result of the internal debate at the Weekly was an endorsement editorial that made note of Potter’s “integrity” issues. You won’t find that part quoted in Potter’s campaign mailers.

Here’s the portion of Duan column that I found, well, exasperating.

“There’s a heated level of vitriol being thrown our way because of the Potter endorsement – progressives, it turns out, can be a hostile bunch,” Duan wrote. “I don’t think we’ve been called stupid, but we have been called inept and corrupt.

“Potter gets called corrupt a lot, by the way. He’s done some dumb stuff, but in terms of outright corruption, I haven’t been able to prove it (and boy have I tried) and neither has anyone else. My message to the angry progressives is this: Prove it. Prove what you think you know.”

I would be surprised if I didn’t enter Duan’s thoughts at least fleetingly while she wrote that last paragraph. And here’s why. While I don’t have a file of documents that a prosecutor could take to a grand jury and get Potter thrown in jail, I have been involved in covering Potter for 16 years now and I believe it has been proved several times now that if not outright, damnably corrupt, he is ethically challenged to the point that he should not be in office. Corrupt is a pretty big word. One of the Merriam-Webster definitions is a good one, “Doing things that are dishonest or illegal in order to make money or to gain or keep power.” Ms. Duan, I think it has been proved that the definition applies to the fellow your former employer endorsed. (It should be noted that my former employer, the Herald, has endorsed him as well.)

The publisher of another weekly paper in the area, the Carmel Pine Cone, has accused me over the years of being out to get Potter, though he has never explained why. The truth is that, like most people who know Potter, I like the guy. He can be a real charmer and he knows more than anyone else about two of my favorite topics, local politics and governance. Even when he has been beyond irritated at something I had written about him, he and I have managed to have pleasant and even constructive conversations. For instance, he was the one who explained to me why former Supervisor Lou Calcagno is endorsing Supervisor Jane Parker instead of her challenger, Dennis Donohue. It’s because Donohue has signed onto a plan to let the city of Salinas spill over onto some of the wonderful farmland south and west of town.

So, back to the point. What has been proven about Potter, his method of operations and his integrity? I can only tell you what I know, which is a fair amount.

Two examples make my point about Potter’s integrity, and I’ll go into some detail about those. For now, let’s not worry about the house he bought from the land-use lawyer’s family, the building and coastal permits his construction company forgot to obtain before starting projects, the time he was using campaign money to pay his construction company rent, the time he bought a car from a dealer who was seeking a coastal permit while Potter was on the Coastal Commission or the time he tried to arrange free property at Fort Ord so his company could build a hockey rink there. The list of troubling but not indictable acts goes on.

Let’s focus instead on the Nader Agha campaign contribution and the forgery allegation.

Agha, of course, is the local developer and antique dealer who has been pursuing a desalination plant in competition with Cal Am’s. He is well known for his generosity, both to charities and to politicians.

You can read a Monterey Herald article about the issue here and get the details but I’ll summarize the key points.

In January 2004, Potter asked Agha for a $10,000 campaign contribution. But rather than have him make the check out to his campaign fund as legally required, he asked Agha to make the check out to a business associate, Russ Carter, one of a group of San Jose investors who have repeatedly lent money to Potter over the years.

Much later, then-county Supervisor Lou Calcagno told Agha that the money had gone toward a vacation rather than campaign expenses. To make a long story short, Agha then sued Potter for return of the money and – and this is key here – included a copy of the canceled check to Carter along with the legal filing.

Potter denied everything and insisted that he had been exonerated through an investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission. It’s true that the FPPC didn’t take any action. It seldom does. But Potter was never able to explain why Agha had written a $10,000 check out to a close Potter associate with whom he had no connection of his own.

Agha at one point said he would pursue the lawsuit vigorously to prove that Potter was lying. Unfortunately for those of us who care about facts, Potter did everything he could to keep the matter out of public scrutiny. Monterey public relations man David Armanasco went to Agha on Potter’s behalf and arranged a settlement. Rather than pursue the litigation, Agha agreed to settle out of court for an unreported amount and agreed with Potter’s request to have the settlement details sealed.

“I’m kicking myself,” Agha said later.

It is true that Agha’s assertions were never proved in court and that the FPPC didn’t charge Potter. But in the court of public opinion, the one in which Potter and Mary Duan and the Partisan reside, the canceled check to Carter is both persuasive and damning.

The forgery matter also made it into the courthouse but, like the Agha matter, was not resolved there. Still, in the court of common sense, Potter loses.

Again, there is a long Monterey Herald story that spells it all out, so we’ll only summarize here.

In 2012, Potter’s ex-wife, Patricia, said in court papers that Potter had forged her name on home loan documents after their estrangement so he could take out another mortgage on their Monterey home.

(The home, by the way, was one Potter had bought from the mother of land-use lawyer Tony Lombardo, with partial financing from the mother, but that’s another tale.)

Anyway, in court papers, Patricia Potter alleged that her former husband surreptitiously signed her name to the paperwork so he could obtain a second mortgage of $193,000. She said that $168,000 of that went to pay off loans that Potter had received from three San Jose investors, including Russ Carter (the fellow who had earlier cashed the $10,000 check from Agha.)

The paperwork was processed in San Jose, at a meeting Patricia Potter did not attend, and the signatures were notarized by a Silicon Valley real estate agent who is a business partner of the investors who received the $168,000.  Patricia Potter alleged that her ex-husband then recorded the documents without her knowledge, something that her ex-husband’s lawyer actually verified in court papers.

The allegations went away without landing Potter in any real trouble. That’s because Herald reporter Jim Johnson, who wrote the story on the allegations, called Dave and Patricia Potter for comment and they got their heads together before returning his calls.  By then, before the story came out, they had come to terms about disputed spousal support and agreed to say that the forgery allegation was the result of a simple misunderstanding.

The headline on the resulting Herald article said Patricia Potter had retracted the allegation. The last time I checked the court record, she had not done so in court papers.

To my way of thinking, Potter could have been prosecuted but the Monterey County District Attorney’s Office concluded that there was no case since Patricia Potter had changed her story. Some tough questioning of the real estate agent who notarized the signature might have produced a different result, but who knows.

Does this prove Potter is corrupt? His supporters won’t think so but many of those supporting Mary Adams will argue that the case has been made. That’s how it goes in politics. Those folks over at the other local weekly, the Pine Cone, are so blind to Potter’s failings that they may try to hold Adams accountable for the words on these pages. The ferocity of the Pine Cone’s repeated attacks on Adams, combined with its historic unwillingness to examine Potter’s record, suggests another form of misfeasance.

As I wrote above, Potter is an exceedingly knowledgeable politician. His understanding of the ins and outs of local governance is without parallel. He has done some good things and I do not believe that, deep down, he is an evil fellow. I believe that he has struggled financially at times, for reasons I do not understand, and that he has routinely cut corners and done worse to get by. Corrupt? You be the judge.

The Potter strategy in the current campaign is to portray Adams as inexperienced, incapable of stepping in to deal with the difficult realities of county government. My counter is that she is highly experienced in the equally complicated world of non-profit social services, that she is smart and quick, and that she carries absolutely none of the type of ethical baggage that causes even neutral observers of Dave Potter to question his sincerity in almost everything he does.

The election is June 7.

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Potter, right, enjoys the support of fellow Supervisor and former Judge John Phillips

Dave Potter’s transformation is nearly complete. About all that’s left for him to do is change his registration.

Throughout his political career, Potter, the 5th District Monterey County supervisor, has been a Democrat and has enjoyed considerable support from the party and its spinoffs. This year, however, the best he could do endorsement-wise was a co-endorsement from the local party, which also endorsed his opponent in the June election, Mary Adams.

Adams, meanwhile, also received the endorsements of party-related groups that used to endorse Potter, such as the Democratic Women of Monterey County. Adams also picked up endorsements from the Monterey County chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America and the Salinas Valley Democratic Club.

Demonstrating how far Potter has drifted away from the progressive crowd that once supported him, one of his latest mailers (SEE BELOW) includes lengthy endorsement messages from one of the GOP’s most outspoken local activists, Paul Bruno, and longtime Republican bigwig Jeff Davi.

Davi was California’s real estate commissioner under Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarznegger (though the mailer makes him out to be the current commissioner.) He is perhaps best known for his agency’s nearly complete failure to prosecute any real estate interests during the height of the mortgage crisis. Some will also remember that Davi was Potter’s opponent in his first campaign for a seat on the Board of Supervisors.

Bruno would have been a Ted Cruz delegate if his favored candidate had stayed in the presidential race. He says in the mailer that he is a fan of Potter’s as well because “for me, it is all about good government.” He goes on to say that Potter has “an impressive record on issues of importance to us – jobs, the economy and fiscal responsibility.” Look for specifics in the next mailer, perhaps.

Bruno, some will recall, is the fellow who dragged a chain out to a political demonstration on Highway 1. He was going to haul the protesters away until the CHP made him stop. He’s also the fellow whose company, Monterey Peninsula Engineering, seems to have a lock on Cal Am pipeline work.

Also pictured in the same flyer is Potter endorser Steve Bernal, the young sheriff of Monterey County, also a proud Republican.

In his campaigns of old, Potter touted endorsements from the Sierra Club, Democratic legislators Bill Monning and Mark Stone. Not this time. His flyers of old included kind words from LandWatch activists. Not this time.

Clearly the mailer featuring Bruno, Davi and Bernal was tailored to Republican households in the district – Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove, Carmel Valley, Big Sur and the Highway 68 corridor – so it makes sense that he emphasizes the economy and public safety rather than the environment and social issues. The big headline on the mailer, featuring a photo of Bixby Bridge, is “Bridging the divide,” but the mailer never goes on to explain what divide he means.

There is another mailer, of course, for Democratic households. In it, Potter is still in favor of attracting jobs and economic growth, but in this version he wants to do that “without threatening the quality of life that makes us unique.” (By omitting that caution from the GOP version, is he telling his Republican constituents that he’s OK with threatening the quality of life?)

In the GOP version, he’s all about growth and jobs. In the Democratic version, “He’s said no to bad development projects that poorly impact our water supply and traffic.” In the GOP version, he doesn’t mention the environment. Not at all.

In both versions, he lists a number of organizations endorsing him this time around. They include:

That last one is particularly interesting. Not unexpected, but interesting. The Salinas Valley Leadership Group was formed primarily by contractor Don Chapin. Its board of directors includes Brian Finegan, the Salinas lawyer who specializes in representing real estate developers; architect Peter Kasavan, who helped design the proposed Salinas general plan element that calls for Salinas to expand onto prime farmland; and accountant Warren Wayland, who handles campaign reporting duties for most Republican candidates in the area.

Dues-paying members of the SVLG include Monterey Downs racetrack principals Brian Boudreau and Beth Palmer, Salinas promoter and bar owner David Drew, Monterey PR man David Armanasco, the head of the deeply troubled Alco Water System, and the builder and developer of the Ferrini Ranch development that Potter voted against after it became clear that it would win county approval regardless of his vote.

Potter’s mailer to both Democrat and GOP households mentions his endorsements from law enforcement unions. Oddly enough, the mailers to Democratic homes includes blurbs from his endorsements by the Monterey County Weekly and the Herald, but those aren’t mentioned in the mailers sent to Republicans.

In the mailers to the Dems, Potter touts his endorsement by a group called Evolve California, which also endorsed Adams. He doesn’t mention Evolve in the GOP version, however. Perhaps that’s because in order to get the Evolve nod, he said he favored increasing taxes on the wealthy and increasing property taxes for businesses. Potter’s making a big deal in this campaign about being the experienced candidate. What he’s demonstrating with his mailers is that he has plenty of experience tailoring his message to his audience, no matter what he really thinks.

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Illustration depicting a large number of directional roadsigns in a chaotic arrangement. White  background.After careful contemplation and the expenditure of countless hours of staff time and other resources, I have come to the conclusion that the two biggest problems facing the Monterey Peninsula are quite closely related.

Problem No. 1, of course, is the declining water supply, which should have been addressed decades ago before we decided that strawberries and grapes were good choices for desert cultivation. The leading proposed solution at the moment involves a possible desalination plant near Marina and an assortment of smaller efforts involving conservation and recycling.

Problem No. 2, almost as obviously, is that just about every element of Problem No. 1 seems so complicated, complex and confounding that there are only a handful of people who understand any of it. On top of that, most of those who do understand it don’t care that you don’t. In fact, some are glad you don’t and there are even those who are being paid to make sure you don’t.

Why so complicated?

First, complexity makes things more expensive,  and when you’re on the receiving side of “cost plus,” there’s a lot to be said for expensive. Second, with all of that cost plus to be spread around, there are many players willing to participate in the search for solutions. Too many.

That starts with the misleadingly named California American Water Co., which has as much to do with California as the autobahn. It is supposed to be playing a lead role in solving Problem 1 but it spends most of its time wading around in the swamps of Problem 2, creating complications and looking for trouble. The company likes to portray itself as a helpful fellow in boots going out into the community, patching leaks and coaching Little League teams when the truth is that the bean counters in the home office depend on those very leaks in order to keep the bottom line above water. Way above water.

Then there’s the Public Utilities Commission, which technically is in charge of solving Problem No. 1 even though it has absolutely no experience in problem solving and even less in desalination. The Public Utilities Commission apparently was put in charge of this process because our state legislators wanted to keep it away from all aspects of gas pipeline safety. You might say that the PUC is Problem No. 3.

A key concern of those involved in the effort locally is that if the PUC ever approves a timeline and a production schedule, it might as a matter of routine order them confidential and put them under seal, effectively killing the venture.

Then there are the local agencies. For instance, the mayors’ authority, a quasi-government agency made up of the mayors of the Peninsula cities. It was set up because the first local agency given an oversight role, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors, couldn’t figure out how to convert desalination progress into campaign contributions. The supervisors are hoping to get involved again when construction seems imminent and quite a few construction contracts will need to be awarded.

The mayors’ committee was hoping to jumpstart the process because the hospitality industry pretty much decides who gets to be mayor in these parts and it needs water for hotel rooms occupied by tourists who won’t have to pay for the project. The mayors have gotten off to a slow start, however, because the Del Rey Oaks mayor is busy building ammunition bunkers throughout his community and the Sand City mayor is napping.

A water district in Marina has some role in all of this, but for now its leadership seems to be in a sort of bureaucratic penalty box and won’t be allowed back into the game until the second overtime period. It is a shame because some of the district’s leadership has demonstrated to interested members of the public that you don’t have to have a clue to get involved.

Part of the problem has to do with the news coverage but it isn’t what you might expect. In this age of shrinking newspapers, it hasn’t been a lack of coverage. Just the opposite. In the last decade, the Herald has published nearly 173,500 articles mentioning Cal Am, 62,600 articles containing acronyms for non-existent water agencies, the same number of articles in which Cal Am spokeswoman Catherine Steadman says, “We’ll get back to you about that,” and some 20,000 articles in which County Counsel Charles McKee says documents are being sealed in the interest of full disclosure.

Some of the confusion is, of course, the public’s owned damned fault. For instance, believe it or not, there are those in the community who can’t seem to grasp why   a desalination plant designed to take water from the ocean and convert it into drinkable fresh water needs to drill a series of inland wells in order to take already fresh water from Salinas farmers and, through a process invented by the Coastal Commission, convert it into cash to be used to pay consultants to declare the existing water supply more than adequate as an effective hedge against the 180-foot aquatard. Do the math, people. Sheesh.

Cal Am isn’t the only game in town, of course, which makes things that much more complicated.

Peninsula wheeler-dealer Nader Agha has the property and the plans to build a better and cheaper desalination plant in Moss Landing but Cal Am keeps telling people that Agha and former county Supervisor Marc del Piero are the same person, which violates a county ordinance requiring desalination operators to front only for seated supervisors.

Then there’s Deepwater Desal, a creation of Monterey PR man David Armanasco, who has been sidelined because his core clients have hired him to paint murals of wharf pilings to installed over the actual pilings at Fisherman’s Wharf.

And speaking of the wharf, let’s not forget the lawyers. Every lawyer in California who ever lived in a house with a low-flow shower has been declared a water expert for purposes of this feeding frenzy. For convenience and efficiency, each seems to have brought on Tony Lombardo as local counsel. Those who have been around a while will remember him. He wrote the previous general plan while representing most of the supervisors and many of the businesses at Fisherman’s Wharf, including the two warring fish houses that both claim to have invented cioppino Monterey, which consists of a handful of saltwater taffy, samples of five kinds of clam chowder, a couple of restaurant pagers, Sal Cerrito’s will, a half loaf of Armenian pita bread and a half pound of Bubba Gump shrimp but, alas, no sardines.

And let’s not forget the environmentalists, the “no-growthers” who, we are constantly told, are busily working against the interests of the community to reverse all the  progress on the desal front.

Next: Sheriff Bernal’s plan to patrol the waterfront.

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Sheriff badgeIt took no time at all for Sheriff Steve Bernal’s fledgling administration to provide the Scott Miller camp with its first “I told you so” moment. In fact, Bernal hadn’t actually started when he declared that he would reverse six promotions that Miller had approved in his final week as Monterey County sheriff.

It turned out, as most knew it would, that the promotions of six deputies to sergeant had been handled appropriately and that Bernal had no authority to simply declare the six unpromoted. The are rules governing such things. It was a small victory for Miller and his supporters who had argued vigorously but vainly that Bernal simply doesn’t have the experience needed to lead a department of 400-plus law enforcement professionals.

But rather than hope for additional opportunities to be proved right, the Partisan is hoping that Bernal has learned some important lessons here and that this humbling experience has put in a new frame of mind. We’re hoping that he realizes soon that the people who got him where he is today will now be seeking their rewards, to the benefit of themselves and not the sheriff or his department.

Bernal’s decision to declare the promotions invalid was encouraged by the Deputy Sheriffs Association, the union that had worked tirelessly in support of his candidacy. If it did not occur to the new sheriff that leaders of the DSA wanted some of those promotions for themselves, let us hope that a lightbulb went off when the county personnel experts told Bernal he couldn’t do what he tried to do.

From within the department and without, Bernal surely is being peppered with suggestions and advice, and some of it is probably worthwhile. But he needs to know that most of the advice will come with a price and the suggestions will, for the most part, be self-serving. Because he had never been a manager before, he might not know that many subordinates who smile at the boss are not as kindly when the boss isn’t around. He may not know that all those invitations he receives these days are not a sign that he has suddenly become cool or popular.

Bernal will have the opportunity to appoint community members to advisory committees and such things as search and rescue squads, both real and honorary. He would be ill-advised to simply hand out appointments to those who contributed to his campaign. There are highly qualified people in the large group that did not contribute. He will be asked again and again to put his thumb on the process of approving concealed weapons. It is safe to say that a significant percentage of the South County ag types who supported his campaign would love to have licenses to carry the handguns they keep in their glove compartments. He will be told that the company that supplies linens or whatever to the jail supported Miller and needs to be replaced by a company headed by Republicans. The input will be voluminous and might seem helpful initially.

Bernal isn’t likely to see this article on his own. He isn’t yet a subscriber to the Partisan and we are not Facebook friends. But perhaps a mutual friend somewhere in the community will bring it to his attention. If so, we’ll capsulize the message here because we know he’s busy.  Steve: Don’t do anything without talking to the county personnel office first. Also, tell the County Counsel’s Office that you want the sharpest attorney there to be your legal adviser.

Bernal’s successful campaign against Sheriff Scott Miller was quite a scrap and there are many of us who remain irritated, or worse, by  the campaign techniques executed on Bernal’s behalf by his campaign management and the local Republican Party cabal. But the losing camp cannot claim any higher ground if we spend the next several months or longer simply sitting back and enjoying the gaffes. The Sheriff’s Department is a huge part of the local law enforcement establishment and bad or overly political decisions at the top can be dangerous for the community and everyone under Bernal’s command. If he listens too often to those whose goal is simply to get Republicans in office or who want to pass out get-out-of-jail cards to their friends, disasters loom.

Immediately upon Bernal’s victory, Monterey’s leading public relations practitioner, David Armanasco, volunteered his services to help the new sheriff with the transition. It may have been a nice thing to do but Bernal shouldn’t keep that relationship going any longer than necessary. The public information function for law enforcement agencies needs to be in-house and should be handled by sworn officers, the higher the rank the better. Having an outside consultant handle information or interview requests makes the process far too political.

Bernal quickly made several key appointments to his upper ranks and, to his credit, some of the chosen came from outside the department. That could prove wise because the appointees have significant experience. But if Bernal had appointed from within the department, he would have created several additional opportunities for promotion. Grumbling over that has already begun within the ranks and Bernal will learn soon that those who were quick to support his candidacy will be just as quick to turn on him when they feel they have been unfairly denied a chance to move up. He will learn soon, if he hasn’t already, that he can’t depend on political connections and friendships to help him sort out his complicated task. He has a big job to do and he needs the best help he can get.

The new sheriff in town also will have to break some of his campaign promises because if he doesn’t, the Sheriff’s Department will all but disintegrate. He promised deputies that there would be no change in overall scheduling practices without unanimous consent. In almost any organization, unanimity is an impossibility. He said deputies would be asked to volunteer for training opportunities but would not be forced into any. What if there are not enough volunteers for a specialized task. Will the task simply be abandoned?

Bernal has a big job. A week or so in, he may have some idea of just how big. Those who supported him during the race, and those who did not, should do what they can to help him succeed. The energy that people might have been put into undermining him would be put to better use wishing him well and working to convert the sheriff’s job into an appointive rather than an elected position.

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Transparency Word Magnifying Glass Sincerity Openness ClarityQuestion of the day:

What do the following have in common?

The Cannery Row Co. Pebble Beach Co. Granite Construction. Monterey County Business Council. Fort Ord Reuse Authority. FORA contractor EMC Planning Groupu.

First Tee. Granite Construction.Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. California Fisheries Association.

Monterey Convention and Business Bureau.  Carmel Mission Inn. Highlands Inn.

Several local law firms. Several local restaurants. A bank or two. Diocese of Monterey.

Give up?

Why, it’s David Armanasco. And the list of local companies and entities that are represented by his public relations firm goes on and on from there.

Now, add to the list the name of Sheriff-elect Steve Bernal.

As the vote count continued last week and it became increasingly clear that Deputy Bernal is going to upset Sheriff Scott Miller, Bernal announced that Armanasco will be handling his media calls and other public relations matters during the transition. No, strike that. Armanasco made the announcement.

It is a natural pairing. Bernal was backed heavily by the Republican Party locally and was backed by many key business figures, and those are Armanasco’s people. And Bernal apparently plans to keep up with his South County patrol duties for the time being, making it difficult for him to “interface” with community leaders, so he needs someone to serve as his proxy.

Armanasco is expert at dealing with the press and equally expert at ducking questions from the press. For instance, I asked him by email last week about the financial arrangements. Who’s paying him?

He responded quickly and pleasantly.

“We are helping through transition for Bernal.  He will not have any announcements until next week.  Since the incumbent has not conceded, Bernal has decided to wait for the latest vote count to be made public late Friday and the voter trend confirmed. Next week he will announce his transition adviser team.  He is still working on patrol so it helps him that we can field calls and make arrangements for him to respond to inquiries when he is off duty.”

Thanks, David, But who’s paying you?

Over the weekend, KSBW interviewed Bernal and asked if Armanasco was being paid out of campaign money. The answer was no. It apparently was a short interview and it wasn’t clear whether the reporter got a chance to ask a follow-up question.

Why does it matter who is paying Armanasco? Good question. Armanasco’s firm does all the things that most public relations firms do. It prepares news release and plans public relations strategies. It writes speeches for clients and helps craft their messages.But Armanasco goes a step farther. In addition to the other chores, he specializes in introducing clients to the right people, who, in many cases, are other clients.

If one was to draw a link chart showing connections between Monterey Peninsula businesses, governments and non-profits, Armanasco would be right in the middle like the hub of a wheel. He isn’t a powerful figure in his own right—though he did once serve on the Coastal Commission—but he’s friendly with the powerful people hereabouts and he’s not a bit shy about marketing his connections

Armanasco’s reach extends beyond the Peninsula as well. He is also a principal in a statewide lobbying and consulting company called California Strategies, which is made up of several former legislators and aides to high-ranking politicians. He joined the firm in October 2013, coincidentally the same month that it became the first company to be fined for lobbying without registering as a lobbyist or filing disclosure documents. Three principals, including former Central Coast legislator Rusty Areias, were ordered to pay $40,500 for lobbying the Legislature and the Air Resources Board on behalf of Boeing. One of the three ordered to pay the fine, Winston Hickox, is a former secretary of the state Environmental Protection Agency. His efforts helped Boeing avoid responsibility for cleaning up a toxic site near Los Angeles.

Look for Armanasco to spend many of his billable hours introducing Bernal to the powers that be on the Peninsula and beyond. Until his dark horse campaign, Bernal was an unknown on the Peninsula and in Sacramento, where he will need to focus much of his attention because of state funding issues. His 15 years in the Sheriff’s Department have been spent in South County and he lived much of that time in San Luis Obispo County. His kids go to school in Templeton.

During the campaign, GOP bigwigs introduced him to some of the right people on the Peninsula, those who could commit money and their good names to his campaign, but he still has some catching up to do. He still needs to meet construction company leaders. There are new jail facilities to be built. He needs to meet the bankers and architects and the lawyers and others on the Peninsula who have a growing interest in public safety in the unincorporated reaches of Monterey County.

Whether campaign contributions can be used for post-election PR isn’t entirely clear. Maybe Bernal’s family will pay Armanasco’s fees. Bernal’s brother, Mike, is a cattle rancher and his mother-in-law, Margaret Duflock is a rich cattle rancher. She contributed around half of the half million dollars he spent on the campaign. But if she pays, Bernal would eventually have to fill out a form reporting the gift.

There is a good chance then that Armanasco is working for free. Donating his time. He does that. He has worked pro bono numerous entities over the years.

One example comes to mind. Ten years ago, when the city of Salinas was struggling to find the money to keep its libraries open, city officials proposed several potential tax increases but was mostly focused on a sales tax increase. Along came the business community with an alternative. How about a utility tax on businesses?

It sounded so generous, so community-minded, and on top of that, David Armanasco would volunteer to help the city get the measure passed. For free.

Never mind that it was a virtual secret that there would be a cap on the utility tax, making it so that the maximum impact on any one business would be minimal. The utility tax would essentially cost businesses less than the alternatives. Never mind that some of the affected businesses were Armanasco clients.

Anything wrong with that? No. Anything illegal? Not a thing. It’s smart business, and many clients have found it smart business to hire Armanasco.

A couple years back, Supervisor Dave Potter was in some trouble because he had solicited and accepted a $10,000 campaign contribution from developer Nader Agha and had asked Agha to make the check out to another fellow. Later, Agha found out that Potter had used the money for something other than his campaign, so he sued.

Armanasco, a longtime friend of Potter’s, went to work. He worked tirelessly to get Agha to accept an out-of-court cash settlement from Potter and to agree to make the amount and details confidential.Anything wrong with that? No, unless you think things like that ought to be worked out in public. Anything illegal? Well, yes, but not Armanasco’s part. And if it helped him get Potter’s support for his Deep Water desalination project, what’s so wrong about friends helping friends?

Armanasco is often quick to offer assistance. When I was editor of the Monterey Herald, I hired a business reporter. Armanasco quickly volunteered to hold a reception for the reporter and introduce him to the business community. My boss thought it was a great idea. I thought it was a horrible idea. The reporter was perfectly capable of meeting the business community on his own and I wasn’t interested in setting Armanasco up as a conduit to the Herald’s business page. I got my way but barely.

The point here is that Armanasco is part PR man, part schmoozer, part political fixer. Bernal can’t be blamed for wanting someone like that on his transition team. He doesn’t move in the same circles as Armanasco, and Armanasco certainly can help steer him in the right direction, even if it happens to be the direction that serves Armanasco and his clientele, the cream of the Peninsula.

But during the campaign, Bernal was quick to criticize Sheriff Miller for supposedly hiding things. Bernal says often that the public wants transparency, which means it wants access to information about how things work. If he meant a word of it, he needs to start by explaining his relationship with Armanasco and spelling out the financial arrangement. And if he doesn’t feel up to the task just yet, he could have Armanasco do it for him.

(Finally, though my prediction on the outcome of the sheriff’s race was a giant miss, allow me a couple more prognostications. I’m guessing that Bernal is going to name an old friend, Galen Bohner, from Southern California to the undersheriff spot or another top position and former sheriff’s Commander Mike Richards as a chief deputy. Some of his supporters won’t like the appointment of an outsider, though, because one promotion from inside the department leads naturally to two or three additional promotions from inside. So if Bernal changes his mind on that one, don’t hold it against me. Richards was terminated by Miller and later ran against him unsuccessfully. Bohner is a former Monterey County sheriff’s deputy who is now a lieutenant in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department. For several years, he headed a regional gang task force in the high desert. Also said to be a serious contender for undersheriff or another top spot is Tracy Brown, a former sheriff’s commander who left the department when Miller was elected four years ago.)

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500_F_29758468_l9QixsSx8YdGJXteaQQYqGL70OmarU0SIt’s a good idea to have Monterey County represented on the mayors’ water authority. The agency’s main role is to push for a desalination plant to help ease the water shortage and to help oversee its construction and operation. Without county representation, residents of unincorporated areas of the Peninsula would have almost no say in the process.

It would not be a good idea, however, to have county Supervisor Dave Potter represent the county as planned. As ideas go, that’s a bad one, a very bad one, a no-good, rotten, horrible, what-are-they-thinking type of idea. It’s like using the wrong tool, painting your house the wrong color, or hiring a plumber to fix your car.

Even under considerable pressure from the state, getting a desalination plant built is proving to be a huge challenge for local officialdom. It’s complicated, controversial and costly. It doesn’t help that the leading players in the process are California American Water and the California Public Utilities Commission, two entities with public approval ratings about on par with the Kardashians.

Among the problems with Potter is that he could have been the public official who led the Peninsula toward a water solution years ago but never really tried. He was in the perfect position. He has been on the Board of Supervisors for more than a decade. He simultaneously served on both the California Coastal Commission and the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, two key players in the water world. Instead, Potter played a low-key but important role in actually derailing the previous effort to build a desal plant. Cal Am’s initial effort was getting nowhere fast when it completely crashed and burned after it was discovered that Monterey County’s official delegate to the process, Steve Collins, was being paid under the table by the project engineer. Collins says Potter and Supervisor Lou Calcagno engineered and approved his actions. They deny that, of course, but there’s little doubt in the public’s mind that neither of the supervisors has been forthcoming about what they did and when they did it.

In the court of public opinion, Potter has pleaded ignorance. Many students of local governance don’t buy it. Potter gets deeply involved in most issues of importance. If he was as uninvolved as he claims to have been in round one of the desalination process, he was derelict. If he was as involved as he should have been, he knew what Collins was up to.

Potter is a remarkably intelligent and crafty politician who has flirted with serious financial and legal issues throughout his career. He has been on the wrong end of several personal lawsuits, and he needed to turn to rather mysterious financing to avoid bankruptcy. His former wife once alleged he had forged her name to paperwork for a second mortgage on a house he had purchased from the family of a development lawyer. He brought us the hugely controversial Monterey Downs racetrack proposal. That he has remained in good standing with voters is testimony to his considerable political skills or the public’s forgetfulness.

It is true that of the five county supervisors, Potter is the most knowledgeable about desalination. That is not necessarily a good thing, however.

One of the biggest obstacles to successful completion of Cal Am’s current desalination plan is public skepticism, both about Cal Am’s ability to carry it off and about the price tag. The failed process previously and the current one have been start-and-stop affairs. Some of that is natural because the list of regulatory agencies involved is monumental, but the constant delays also have raised questions about Cal Am’s ability and even its commitment. While the process stretches on, Cal Am merrily collects considerable profits from the Carmel River water it sells to Peninsula residents, and it is virtually guaranteed to be repaid for every expense attributed to the desalination effort, every expense plus a 10-percent profit.

Potter’s appointment to the authority board would not reduce the skepticism one ounce. In fact, it would add considerable unnecessary weight. His motives and allegiances would be questioned at every turn.

At the moment, county officials are awaiting an opinion from the state Attorney General’s Office on whether Potter or other county officials would have a conflict of interest. There is considerable litigation swirling around the players in the desalination arena, and the county is heavily involved in all that. But letting an AG’s opinion be the decider would be the worst kind of cop-out. Potter may not have a conflict in the narrow legal sense in that none of the participants in the process is likely to wire money directly into his bank account or stuff cash into his pockets, but he could hardly be more conflicted.

Potter’s wife is a hotel executive and the local hotel industry is Cal Am’s biggest supporter on various water issues. Potter had a highly publicized legal dispute with one of Cal Am’s potential desalination competitors, Nader Agha, after soliciting him for an unorthodox and essentially illegal campaign contribution. Another potential competitor is represented by local public relations kingpin David Armanasco, whose interests usually mesh with Potter’s. Among other things, Armanasco negotiated the out-of-court settlement that prevented details of the Potter-Agha matter from becoming public.

So what should the county do? It is considering paying its share of past expenses for the mayors’ authority and becoming a dues-paying member, complete with representation on the authority board. Potter already is a member of the authority’s governance committee, but it remains possible that he could be removed before any permanent harm occurs.

Calcagno is out as the county’s representative. He leaves office at the start of the year and one of the first questions about any property proposed for desalination purposes is whether Calcagno owns it.

Supervisors Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas are out as well. Armenta has absolutely no standing on the Peninsula, and Salinas, despite being a former state legislator, has shown no inclination to study Peninsula issues.

That leaves Jane Parker, which is a very good thing.

Now that Potter has become a full-time champion of development interests, Parker is THE environmentalist of the board. Her critics in the hospitality industry and at the chamber of commerce would violently oppose her involvement, which would represent yet another mistake on their part.

Parker is indeed close with environmental interests who fear that a large desalination plant would be growth inducing. She, therefore, could not be counted on to be a gung ho, no-questions-asked supporter of the current process. Which means that project advocates would need to convince her of the worthiness of their decisions. Which means that, unlike Potter’s assent, Parker’s approval would have meaning. If funny business were to break out as it did in the first attempt, Potter would likely be an accomplice. Parker would be the first to point out the problem.

Though there is good reason to worry about the necessity, expense and viability of desalinated water, there also is good reason for this project to continue. If there is not a confluence of additional conservation and other smaller projects that combine to ease our water woes, desalination could in fact be the key to preventing a state-ordered cutback in water usage, a cutback that could devastate the Peninsula’s economy. It is a solution with a long list of harmful side effects, but for the most part those who oppose it are those whose livelihoods are not dependent on an  adequate water supply.

Too much has gone wrong with the process and there are too many unanswered questions to warrant full support at this point. The principals need to step it up. But if the process is to proceed, if it is to have any hope of gaining the public support it needs to prove worthwhile, Potter should be on the sidelines and Parker should be in the thick of things.

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PURELY OPINION: The Monterey Herald gets one right

For many readers, a good editorial is one they agree with. As long as the conclusion or recommendation is on target, the supporting information is secondary. For good editorial writers, however, the supporting information is the most important element. After that come the usefulness of the analysis, the crafting of the piece and, finally and in a distant fourth place, the actual position taken.

An editorial is an opportunity for a writer schooled in a topic to use any number of creative tools to analyze and explain an issue of public importance. Unlike the beat reporter, largely constrained by the rules of he said/she said journalism, the newspaper editorial writer is free to use various writing devices to demystify anything from water politics to Dave Potter’s political longevity. That’s why astute readers are likely to disregard the most subjective passages while keying in on the rest of the package.

The importance of the underlying information is why I was pleased to see the announcement in Sunday’s Monterey Herald that Phyllis Meurer has been added to the Herald’s editorial board.

This means Meurer will have a place at the table when the four-person board considers its positions on various issues. Presumably, her vote will carry  as much weight as that of the other members, Publisher Gary Omernick, Editor Don Miller and editorial writer Tom Honig. (Sometimes publishers insist on veto power, which seldom works out well.)

The upside here is that Meurer brings a deep understanding of government, politics and public policy in Monterey County. She is a former Salinas city councilwoman, a onetime leader of the League of Women Voters and the wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. What she doesn’t know about public affairs in Monterey County, her husband does.

Some readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan will remember that I was editor of the Herald until February and I wrote the editorials for the past several years. I am not a fan of what has happened to the editorial page since my departure – a sharp right turn in the choice of columns and editorial cartoons and a decline in the number of local editorials and columns. Some of that is a function of the relatively short tenures and divided focus of the editorial board members.

Omernick has been publisher about six years but the realities of modern newspapering require him to concentrate on the business side of the operation, both here and at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miller has spent his entire newspaper career at the Sentinel, where he continues to serve as editor even while holding the same position in Monterey. He is counting the days to retirement. Libertarian-leaning Honig also spent his entire newspaper career in Santa Cruz before being replaced by Miller. Honig’s relatively short Peninsula experience prior to his recent Herald assignment consisted of working for the Armanasco public relations firm and the Panetta Institute. I write about their backgrounds not as criticism but to explain their challenge. It’s tough to thoughtfully editorialize on local issues when your idea of local involves a different locality. Meurer’s appointment to the editorial board can help change all that. She has a remarkable depth of local knowledge and an endless list of local contacts to help the Herald unravel the issues.

Still, there already has been grousing in some quarters—progressive quarters—about Meurer’s new role. I believe much of it is misplaced and, even if it isn’t, it really doesn’t matter all that much.

One issue on the left side of the political dial is her leadership role in the successful campaign against last year’s Measure M, which was intended to stop the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development at Fort Ord. She told me she was motivated largely by her belief that the proper government decision-making process is preferable to decision-making by referendum. I strongly disagree with her, largely because the government process in the land-use arena is easily and often corrupted. But because she probably doesn’t see the government process the same way, her position is sincere if not valid.

During that campaign, I called Meurer to ask how she defended the highly deceptive advertising her camp was using in its campaign against Measure M. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, which essentially was that the other side was being deceptive as well. But I did come away feeling that she truly believed what she was saying. Some of my environmentalist friends who were on the opposite side of the issue have suggested that she was somehow bought off. She was not.

Also from the progressives comes concern about Meurer’s husband, Fred, who ran Monterey’s City Hall for decades before retiring and taking a position with the Panetta Institute. Fred was an exceptionally capable and accomplished city manager who could balance a budget in the morning and fix the Planning Department copy machine before lunch.

In recent years, unfortunately, Fred Meurer has been vilified by some as a tool of business interests, the hotel industry, the good ol’ boys of local commerce. I understand the perception. The local economy and city government revenues are so dependent on the hotel industry and other elements of the local power structure. (Did I mention Cal Am yet?) I don’t embrace the accusation, however, because when a City Council has five members, city managers quickly learn how to count to three. Those who didn’t like Meurer’s administration should have spent less time complaining and more time getting their candidates elected or lobbying the successful candidates. Fred Meurer would have been an equally forceful and successful manager on behalf of an entirely different sort of city council.

Phyllis Meurer is an independent and highly capable woman who has nothing to apologize for as she assumes this new role. While I was at the Herald, the publisher talked often about bringing a woman from the community onto the all-male editorial board. I made a series of suggestions but never mentioned Phyllis because of Fred’s City Hall role at the time. If not for that, I certainly would have recommended her.

It doesn’t particularly concern me that she favors Monterey Downs. For reasons I never understood even though I was there, the paper editorialized early on in favor of that project. Never mind that it is seriously misplaced and doesn’t have an adequate water supply and that horse racing is the sport of scoundrels. It doesn’t concern me that her husband has been a huge figure in local politics and public policy for decades. I am won over by knowing she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about how things work around here, about who pulls the strings and even about where the bodies are buried.

One thing that does concern me is that her new role could help cement the Herald’s fear of offending Cal Am. Fred Meurer has been a consistent supporter of Cal Am, which has developed a loyal following in the business community by engineering a pricing structure that favors large commercial customers over residential water users. Phyllis Meurer will provide a valuable service if she demonstrates her independence and research skills in this area.

During the recent campaign over Measure O, the unsuccessful ballot measure in favor of public ownership of the Cal Am water system, Monterey County Weekly published an absolutely excellent editorial in favor of the proposition. Beyond the appropriate conclusion, what made it so strong was the information and analysis it presented. It was unusually long, long enough to discuss each significant issue and explain it to a population that was clearly confused. It was so well researched that it would have been instructive even to the staunchest opponent of Measure O. The Herald’s editorial opposing the initiative was little more than a rehash of Cal Am talking points.

It is my hope that with Phyllis Meurer aboard, the Herald will be reminded of the importance of research no matter which direction the paper leans on specific issus. As I said at the start here, editorials succeed not by how much they persuade but by how much they inform. I expect Meurer to provide some of the necessary information and, when she doesn’t have it, to ask that it be provided in some fashion before an editorial decision is made. If she draws from her strong League of Women Voters experience, the Herald and its readers will be well served—even when its opinions are all wet.

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