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Gary Patton’s important land-use blog needs a new home

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Gary Patton At 2007 Symposium

Patton

Gary Patton’s name is synonymous with environmentalism in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, where he founded the LandWatch organization that is often the public’s last line of defense against runaway development and zoning decisions fueled cash instead of common sense.

He is a lawyer and a former Santa Cruz County supervisor, and until just the other day when radio station KUSP went off the air, his Land Use Report blog was featured on the KUSP website.

The Partisan is proud to link here to his latest column and we are looking into ways that we could regularly and prominently disseminate and promote his valuable work. But it deserves a more permanent location, one that works equally as well in Santa Cruz  County as it does in Monterey County, so if you have ideas, please share.

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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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Retired Judge Terrance Duncan introduces Mary Adams, who hopes to knock Dave Potter off the Monterey County Board of Supervisors

The seeds of Mary Adams’ campaign for a seat on the Board of Supervisors were planted, figuratively at least, in the sugarcane fields of Cuba or perhaps during a tour of one of the country’s farming co-ops.

It was on a trip to Cuba in the spring of 2014 that a group of politically active Monterey County women started pushing the idea of an Adams campaign against seemingly entrenched Supervisor Dave Potter.

Making the trip were 15 members of the Democratic Women of Monterey County, among them Supervisor Jane Parker, Judge Susan Dauphine, former Supervisor Karin Strasser Kauffman and trip organizer Priscilla Walton. Though Potter is a longtime Democrat, he has lost most of his support from the progressive side of the political ledger, which accuses him of failing to protect his District 5 from unwanted development. He has also rankled the left by his behind-the-scenes support for the hugely controversial Monterey Downs racetrack development.

Potter beat back a strong challenge four years ago from another former county supervisor, Republican Marc Del Piero, a relatively recent convert to the slow-growth side, who received considerable support from environmentalists. To at least some degree, however, Del Piero’s campaign was hampered by lingering concerns about whether his political transformation was complete.

Del Piero, now a registered Democrat, said Wedneday that he is undecided about running against Potter in the upcoming election.

With Del Piero uncommitted, political insiders for the past couple of years have mulled over many names as Potter’s replacement. Adams said recently that she was totally surprised, but ultimately flattered, by the suggestion that she take on such a challenge.

“I hope I know what I’m doing,” she said.

Potter’s district includes most of Monterey, Pacific Grove, Pebble Beach and, of particular importance, unincorporated Carmel Valley. Dissatisfied with the county’s land-use decisions affecting Carmel Valley, valley residents mounted an ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful effort late in the last decade to form a city. Among the strongest supporters of that effort were Walton and Strasser Kauffman, who were on the Cuba trip. Also highly active were Amy Anderson and Glenn Robinson, who were present for Adams’ campaign kickoff announcement Wednesday.

Potter’s name was never mentioned during the speechifying, but many of the candidate’s comments were pointed right at him.

“As I meet with neighborhood groups, community leaders and people on the street, I have heard complaints and frustrations,” Adams said. “Frustrations about the actions, and also lack of action, by supervisors, by a tone of secrecy that seems to prevail, with the dismissal of community input and a lack of progress o pressing needs.”

Adams continued, “People are tired of being disrespected and no longer want to accept the creeping stagnation compounded by decisions that seem to cater to special interests rather than the will of the people.”

Retired Judge Terrance Duncan helped introduce Adams along with Margaret D’Arrigo Martin of Taylor Farms. Other notables in the crowd include water activists George Reilly and Ron Weitzman, LandWatch officials Amy White and Chris Fitz, philanthropist Morley Brown, and Monterey Downs opponent Bill Weigle.

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????Cal Am’s pursuit of a desalination plant in Marina will likely face a pivotal court test this week as the Ag Land Trust has joined the Marina Coast Water District in challenging the legality of the water company’s proposed test well.

Cal Am officials have said that the project timeline could be pushed back a year or more if it can’t drill by the end of the coming week, but it remains to be seen if the stated deadline is real or part of an effort to put pressure on the various agencies involved in the process. Cal Am has said it has drills and other equipment ready to roll.

The Ag Land Trust filed suit  late Friday in Monterey County Superior Court, contending that Cal Am, also known as California American Water, simply doesn’t have rights to the water it intends to pump. It also contends that the California Coastal Commission acted illegally when it ruled last month that the test well could proceed.  (Click here for copy of lawsuit.)

Marina Coast originally filed its action in Sacramento Superior Court because the Coastal Commission is a state body, but a judge in the capital ruled last week that the matter should be heard in Monterey. Ag Land Trust officials may attempt to move the case elsewhere but elected to pursue their challenge in Monterey in the meantime.

“Cal Am has no groundwater rights in the over-drafted Salinas River groundwater basin and cannot acquire any in an over-drafted basin,” said the Ag Land Trust petition. The action was filed on the Ag Land Trust’s behalf by William Parkin. He is a partner in the Santa Cruz law firm of Wittwer Parkin, where Gary Patton, the founding executive of LandWatch, was a partner until 2013. Cal Am’s lawyer, Tony Lombardo, couldn’t be reached on Saturday.

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Ag Land Trust President Aaron Johnson

For more background on the test well and related issues, see this Partisan story from last month.

The Ag Land Trust is a non-profit land conservancy that has protected some 25,000 acres of farmland in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties through conservation easements. It owns property adjoining the site of the test well, the Cemex industrial site, and has two wells in the area. The president of the Ag Land Trust is lawyer Aaron Johnson and other key board members include grower David Gill, Kellie Morgantini of Legal Services for Seniors, managing director Stewart Darlington, former county ag director Richard Nutter, and lawyer Marc del Piero, a former Monterey County supervisor and frequent critic of Cal Am. To a large degree, the trust represents the interests of both environmentalists and Salinas Valley agriculture, which is opposed to any infringement on its right to water from the Salinas Valley aquifer. Reconciling the needs of the water-short Peninsula with Salinas Valley interests has been a balancing act that Cal Am hasn’t yet accomplished.

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Cal Am lawyer Anthony Lombardo

The test well would be drilled at the Cemex property and slanted toward the ocean so it would draw in a mixture of sea water and fresh water to help determine the desalination plant’s potential impact of marine life, area groundwater and seawater intrusion. If the plant proceeds at that location, the well would become one of the main intakes.

Though a test well might seem to be a minor part of a large endeavor, the $400 million-plus desalination project, getting it approved has proved to be a major obstacle for Cal Am.

For political purposes, the location is an unfortunate one for Cal Am. While Cal Am serves most of the Monterey Peninsula, the Marina area is served by the Marina Coast Water District. Not only does Marina Coast have little to gain from a desalination plant in it jurisdiction, it was a partner with Cal Am and Monterey County in the storied failure of a previous attempt to build a desalination plant. Marina Coast is now locked in litigation with Cal Am and the county over millions in unrecovered costs from the earlier project and the responsibility for millions of dollars in unpaid bills. Trial testimony in that litigation ended earlier this month and the parties are awaiting an initial ruling. Cal Am supporters have suggested privately that Marina Coast filed the action over the test well to help pressure Cal Am to settle the financial litigation.

In pursuit of the test well, Cal Am originally sought a permit from the city of Marina but the City Council, closely allied with the Marina Coast Water District’s board of directors, turned it down on grounds that it had not been subjected to a required environmental impact study.

Cal Am appealed the denial to the Coastal Commission, which overturned the Marina council.

Friday’s filing by the Ag Land Trust contends the Coastal Commission did not perform a satisfactory environmental review and did not consider the potential impacts on the groundwater or other wells in the area.

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Perfection concept.What’s not to like abut the Ferrini Ranch project? That’s the one that goes to the Monterey County Board of Supervisors for a decision on Tuesday, and it’s about time. The project website promises a very long lost list of really bad things that won’t happen if the supervisors say yes.

For instance, there won’t be 703 acres of development like there would have been under the previous plan. Nope. Now it will only be 602 acres, so the supervisors will actually be saving 101 acres of lovely grasslands!

There won’t be 212 residential units in the lovely hills along Highway 68, or 500 or 600 units as originally envisioned. That’s because there will only be 185.

Key scenic views from Highway 68, River Road and San Benancio Road will not be ruined because most of the 185 houses will largely be hidden behind hills! One might wonder whether something much worse might have been hidden there instead if the supervisors didn’t act.

The wine facility won’t be a huge 110,000-square-foot structure like the developers. No way! It will be just 28,500 square feet, not much bigger than some of the homes!

Not all of the pretty lupine field behind San Benancio Middle School will be lost! Only some of it. Phew.

Remember the proposed access road in Toro Park? Not going to happen! And the frontage road along Highway 68. Thanks to the developers and no one else, it won’t be needed either! Which means more open space for all of us to enjoy! If they keep on creating open space, the supes might end up deserving what we’re paying them.

Finally, the project will not draw down the water table from the already overdrawn Toro Basin? That’s because it will draw down the water table from the already overdrawn Salinas Valley aquifer instead, and there’s a legal agreement already in place that says that’s no big deal!

The agreement, a byproduct of the county’s last general plan, says that if the property owners have been paying into the Salinas Valley Water Project, the property is presumed to have an adequate water supply even though everyone knows that it does not. This is what is known as a legal fiction.

(If you have a minute, take a look at the website for the Salinas Valley Water Project. You’ll find lots of detail, such as the thickness of the concrete at Nacimiento Dam and the number of gallons in an acre-foot, but you won’t find any details about any plans for the Salinas Valley Water Project to produce any more water because there aren’t any such plans. BTW, this “sentence” from the website is my favorite part: “The SVWP the Nacimiento Dam Spillway Modification Component , which includes enlargement of the spillway and installation of a rubber spillway gate at the dam and a diversion facility , which is another rubber dam on the Salinas River near Marina, to allow diversion of river water for treatment and piping to nearby farms for irrigation.” )

In other words, the only thing that could have been better than the project being approved Tuesday would have occurred if the developers, the Kelton family, had proposed a significantly larger project, because then this smaller project would be saving us from even more harm. Maybe the next time, they’ll think bigger early on and we’ll have even more to be thankful about.

It’s called land-used planning by mitigation and negotiation. Rather than build subdivisions where they belong, in cities, developers pick attractive parcels well out of town. (It’s called leapfrog development, but they avoid the term in their brochures.) Next, rather than rely on good planning principles, they propose the maximum possible number of units that could be squeezed onto the property, unimaginative design, elimination of trees, marginal replacement landscaping and suspect drainage plans. Think of it as a bluff, or, if you prefer, a threat.

Then, proving themselves to actually be great folks after all, they negotiate downward. They meet with the neighbors and decide to reduce the density, maybe even plant more trees as buffers. Over time, they give up some of this and some of that until, near the end, they’re nominating themselves for philanthropist of the year awards.

What results, of course, is a project that probably should be called It Could Have Been Much Worse Estates, Phase 1.

The Ferrini Ranch project is, in many ways, the absolute model of how planning is done these days in Monterey County, with predictable results. Years of campaign contributions set the stage, the larger plan is introduced, neighbors complain, plan is downsized before it goes to planning commission, planning commission is divided, goes to supes. Then, if it is in Dave Potter’s district, Potter votes against it but doesn’t put up any real political fight against because, after all, he was one of the recipients of the campaign contributions (see paragraph above.) He doesn’t do what politicians do and trade votes with the automatic yes votes, Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta. He just votes no along with Supervisor Jane Parker. Chairman Lou Calcagno goes back and forth, looks troubled, says this is a tough one, folks, and then votes for the development, which is approved 3-2.

But no, it doesn’t end there. Richard Rosenthal and/or Michael Stamp file a lawsuit over the inadequate environmental impact report or, in this case, the systematic overdrafting of the Salinas Valley aquifer. A couple years go by. Settlement allows for much smaller development or contribution of land to Big Sur Land Trust.

Developer takes huge tax write-off based on value of original project.

No one notices because everyone is focused on next big plan.

Years of campaign contributions set the stage . . .

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Dollar bagThe public really should support Monterey County supervisors Dave Potter and Simon Salinas in their plan to take the money out of political campaigns, but the effort should not stop at contribution limits. The larger problem is not the amount of the contributions but the impact they have on the recipients. So why not do as Pacific Grove and other jurisdictions have done and require the elected officials to abstain when their vote would benefit a contributor?

Money indeed is the root of most evil in politics and as they say at AA meetings, “half measures availed us nothing.”

As pitched by Potter and Salinas, Monterey County will soon consider adopting state limits of $4,200 from individual contributors and $8,500 from political action committees. The limits would apply to the supervisorial candidates and those running for sheriff, district attorney and county superintendent of schools.

Successful sheriff’s candidate Steve Bernal raised more than $500,000 in his recent campaign, prompting the opposition to charge that he had bought the election. Such amounts are becoming commonplace in local politics.

“There shouldn’t be the perception that the one who spends the most money is going to win, and that’s kind of the way it’s been headed,” Potter told the Monterey Herald.

True enough. But community members who are concerned about decisions by the Board of Supervisors are less concerned about the size of their campaign treasuries and more concerned about the impact of contributions of any size. Buying elections is certainly a problem, but buying votes is a bigger problem.

For example, the Ferrini Ranch subdivision proposal goes to the supervisors next month. It is a highly controversial development that features nearly 200 lots that stretch along congested Highway 68 near Toro Park. As the Partisan recently reported, the developers have been generous contributors to the current supervisors, with the exception of environmentalist Jane Parker. They even contributed to incoming supervisor John Phillips.

The biggest recipient of Ferrini Ranch money has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who received $4,750 from one of the partners in the development in 2010 and $4,500 from another.

Supervisor Fernando Armenta says he has never, ever voted against a proposed development, so the Ferrini people were able to save some of their money. In recent years, he has received only $500.

In the past four years, the Ferrini Ranch developers have contributed $2,300 to Simon Salinas, who is almost always a sure vote for development projects of any kind.

After receiving a series of contributions from the developers earlier in his career, Potter has reported receiving $1,800 from them since 2011. He’s not as much of a sure vote as Salinas is, especially when the project is in his district as the Ferrini project is. He is likely to vote against the development if it is clear that it could win approval without his vote. Consider that a prediction.

With five supervisors on the board, three votes are needed to approve. Salinas and Armenta are in. Calcagno could be swayed by the fact that the project would rely on the endangered Salinas Valley aquifer

Most of the contributions made by the Ferrini Ranch developers would have been allowed if the proposed limits had been in place. The gifts to Calcagno would have needed to have been trimmed only slightly. Will the contributions make the difference. They total not much more than $20,000 but, yes, they certainly could be the deciding factor, overriding such issues as water, traffic, urban sprawl, leapfrog development and destruction of habitat.

As stated above, there is good reason to support the contribution limits. It would make it harder for candidates to run Bernal-like campaigns featuring a barrage of negative advertising. But the limits would have no impact on supposedly independent groups doing the dirty work for the candidates and no impact on corrupting the process through well-aimed but smaller contributions.

In Potter’s last campaign, opponent Marc Del Piero received more than $100,000 from an environmental trust created by a lawsuit settlement. Only cynics or the closest observers might suspect that Potter and Salinas are motivated by that as much as anything else, but it is difficult for anyone who pays much attention to the supervisors to avoid a touch of cynicism.

When Potter and Salinas start their next campaigns, they are likely to have money in their campaign treasuries, a luxury not shared by their potential opponents. And as congressional elections have made clear, incumbency amounts to a contribution magnet.

Fixing the flawed system we labor under now would be difficult. Ordinances requiring officials to abstain from votes benefitting contributors can be hard to enforce and interpret. When does a vote benefit someone? How about indirect benefits? And what about contributions from environmental groups such as LandWatch? If LandWatch contributes to an official, must that official abstain on all land-use votes?

Those are tricky questions to be sure, but the issues they pose are not insurmountable. It is better to have discussions over the fine points than to continue the process as we know it.

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billete monedaPROPOSED CAMPAIGN SPENDING LIMITS: GOOD PUBLIC POLICY OR A POLITICAL PLOY?

A couple weeks back the Monterey County Planning Commission narrowly approved plans for a 185-home subdivision to be known as Ferrini Ranch along Highway 68 between Monterey and Salinas. Opposition from environmentalists and neighbors focused on traffic congestion and the uncertain water supply. Wells in the area near Toro Park have been dropping steadily, and a county-imposed moratorium on development remains in place.

But not to worry, said one of the favorable planning commissioners, Jose Mendez. The water basin may be overdrafted already, but the county government’s Water Resources Agency hasn’t raised alarms about the water issue. Mendez said that if county officials say it’s OK, it must be OK.

If the water agency “won’t step up and say there’s no water, then there must be water,” said Mendez.

There is a real problem with Mendez’s logic, however. He seems to think that county officials are neutral arbiters, that they are there to protect the interests of everyone. He forgets that when it comes to major land-use decisions, concerned neighbors and others are at a huge disadvantage for one simple reason: Campaign contributions. Planning commissioners don’t receive contributions but county supervisors will make  the final decision on Ferrini Ranch and they most definitely do.

While a supervisor would be unlikely to personally lobby a water resources employee to fudge in favor of a developer, a large bureaucracy such as county government presents any number of  indirect routes for persuasive messaging.

The Ferrini Ranch project has been in the works in one form or the other for decades. The Kelton family of Southern California developed the Toro Park subdivision across Highway 68 from the hilly project site. The length of their wait will be cited by supporters as one reason the Board of Supervisors should approve the venture, something the supervisors will be inclined to do anyway. The years of waiting have provided the Keltons with plenty of opportunities to make financial contributions to the supervisors.

In one case, though, time worked against the Keltons. One of their favorite contribution recipients has been Supervisor Lou Calcagno, and he’s on his way out of office.

In June 2010, while Calcagno faced a primary election challenge from Ed Mitchell, a Kelton-owned company contributed $4,750 to the Calcagno campaign. Two days after Calcagno’s victory in that election, the Keltons’ builder, Ray Harrod, contributed $4,500 more, according to county election records.

Earlier, Mark, Richard and David Kelton each contributed $500 to Calcagno’s campaign.

Though that money might be considered wasted, the Keltons were undaunted. They surveyed the political landscape and kept writing checks to other board members and to the man who will replace Calcagno.

Like Calcagno did four years ago, retired Judge John Phillips defeated Mitchell in last week’s election and will represent the north county supervisorial district, District 2.

Though the Kelton’s project is in District 5,  represented by Dave Potter, Phillips started getting Ferrini Ranch-related contributions in March, receiving $2,000 from Harrod and Harrod Construction. In May, Richard, Mark and David Kelton each contributed $350 to Phillips.

Because those contributions came in so close to the upcoming Board of Supervisors vote on the project, the Partisan emailed Phillips and his campaign manager, Plasha Will, to ask whether he would return the money. After four days, there had been no response.

The Keltons also care about representation in the other districts as well. Mark Kelton contributed $500 to District 1 Supervisor Fernando Armenta in April 2012. They were able to economize in Armenta’s case because the Salinas-based supervisor has never voted against a development project.

Early in 2010, when it appeared the Ferrini Ranch project was about to reach the supervisors, each of the three Keltons contributed $500 to District 3 Supervisor Simon Salinas, who has been nearly as pro-development as Armenta. Then, last year, David and Mark Kelton each contributed $250 to Salinas while Ray Harrod contributed $300.

They did not overlook Potter. After all, the project is in his district. The Keltons have made campaign contributions here for many years, since before they build the Toro Park subdivision, but records from before 2005 weren’t immediately available in the past week. The first available record of a payment to Potter was from October 2006 when David and Richard wrote checks for $250 and Mark coughed up $500.

Two years later, the trio gave those same amounts.

In April 2008 Potter received $500 from the David and Lenora Kelton Family Trust and $500 each from Richard and Mark Kelton. In 2011, the contributions amounted to $600 from each of the three Keltons.

Since 2006, the total obvious contributions from the Keltons amounted to $20,400, not a large amount by modern campaign standards but certainly enough to assure them of audiences with the supervisors. Most of those contributions were clearly reported as having come from the Keltons or Harrod but the $4,750 check to Calcagno in June 2010, during the primary campaign, was from a Kelton entity called Allied Farming.

One Ferrini opponent, who asked not to be named for fear of offending the supervisors, said, “Our main tool is getting large numbers out for the hearings but it’s really too late by then because the supervisors have made their decisions even before the checks have cleared the bank.”

With Supervisor Jane Parker unlikely to vote for a project with a questionable water supply and other issues, one logical scenario has the project winning approval on a 3-2 vote, with Potter able to vote with the minority so as not to ruffle feathers within his district. Another scenario makes Phillips a swing vote, putting the new supervisor to an early test.

Some of the supervisors did receive contributions from environmental interests and construction unions over the same stretch of time. Potter, for instance, received contributions from Mitchell in 2011 as well as Chris Fritz, who then headed the LandWatch organization. In 2013, Potter’s campaign opponent, Marc del Pierro, received substantial contributions from environmentalists, including more than $100,000 from an environmental trust established from the proceeds of a lawsuit aimed at preventing another major development project.

Contributions such as those to del Piero will help shape the upcoming discussion as the supervisors consider a new proposal to limit the size of contributions. Supervisors Potter and Salinas last week asked the county staff to prepare an ordinance that would mimic the limits set in state races, $4,100 from individual contributors and $8,200 from committees. County contributions here are essentially unlimited, and unlike some jurisdictions the county doesn’t bar supervisors from voting on matters affecting contributors.

Potter said he wants limits because special interests are becoming too important in county races. In the recent sheriff’s race, successful challenger Steve Bernal received at least $165,000 from a relative, helping him outspend incumbent Scott Miller more than 5 to 1.

While Potter will receive public interest points for the move, environmentalists are already questioning whether he is acting out of sincere concern for the process or merely trying to weaken potential campaign opponents. He is up for re-election in 2016 and Potter may be trying to ward off a repeat of the 2013 election when environmentalist money beefed up del Piero’s treasury.

The Monterey County Weekly speculated last week that potential Potter opponents include prosecutor Jimmy Panetta, Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett and United Way executive Mary Adams.

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