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Intended Decision

A Peninsula environmental group has prevailed in litigation challenging the Fort Ord Reuse Authority’s decision to effectively approve plans for the proposed Eastside Parkway project without first performing an environmental impact report as required by California law.

Monterey County Judge Lydia Villarreal found that FORA and its project partner, Monterey County, took numerous actions and spent considerable amounts of taxpayer money to essentially lock in the location and design of the highway that is intended to provide additional highway access to Fort Ord while linking Highway 68 to Highway 1 on a route skirting the east side of the former Army base.

The group Keep Fort Ord Wild, through attorneys Michael Stamp and Molly Erickson, has argued that the project would promote inappropriate development and that the decision-making process advanced well beyond the proposal stage without the required environmental studies and public input.

“Respondents (FORA and the county) claim their public statements promising CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) review demonstrate the project was not approved,” Villarreal wrote in her notice of intended decision. “But the issue is not necessarily whether there will be environmental review, it is whether there will be meaningful environmental review. If approval is a foregone conclusion, the CEQA process is but a formality, undermining public accountability, one of the primary purposes of CEQA.”

Villarreal provided considerable detail about engineering and route-planning work performed by various engineering firms under contract to FORA, and she cited several court rulings in support of Keep Fort Ord Wild’s position. The group was formed partly to oppose plans for the Monterey Downs horse racing development, which has collapsed of its own weight.

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Oil and gas well profiled on sunset skyMEASURE Z SUPPORTS EXISTING OIL INDUSTRY JOBS

I’m Ed Mitchell, a long-time resident of Prunedale. About eight years ago, I spoke up when the first permit for fracking came before the Board of Supervisors. Since then, I’ve worked with organizations from Aromas to Jolon to protect Monterey County’s water from being harmed by the negative impacts of fracking.

That effort has included co-founding the organization that put forward the Protect Our Water— Ban Fracking initiative that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot as Measure Z. Having recently seen and heard misleading comments about the initiative, I want to share my knowledge about the initiative’s purpose versus the high-risk contract that the fracking industry wants the public to accept. Given that I have worked on the fracking issue steadily for eight years and helped draft the initiative, I believe my comments might be informative to readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan.

The initiative to ban fracking is about protecting our water — not about oil.

It’s about preventing toxic fracking fluids from being injected and stored in local water basins, forever threatening generations to come.

It’s about allowing traditional oil jobs to continue — while protecting the economic well-being of this county’s ag, real estate and hospitality jobs from an extremely polluting and new extraction technology.

The initiative is supported by tens of thousand of voters in all parts of the county.

Please consider the following risk observations, scientific findings,and facts about local fracking:

Risk Observation 1: Fracking along the Salinas River and injecting contaminated fracking fluids into the water basin in the most seismically active oil field in America is a formula for economic disaster for the Salad Bowl of America if pollution leaks into the single source of water for the Valley.

FACT #1: Last March, the L.A. times highlighted this risk by reporting on the USGS earthquake studies in Oklahoma. From 2009 to 2015, earthquake activity directly correlated to fracking injection activity spiked from a century-long average of three magnitude 3 earthquakes to 809 quakes of magnitudes 3 to 5. Monterey County now has an average of one magnitude 6.0 or higher earthquake every 23 years. Parkfield is recognized as one of the world’s most highly seismic areas, and the major San Andreas fault runs through the county.

Fact #2: In March 2016, a scientific report verified our water can be polluted in another way. A study by scientists from Stanford University2, published in Environmental Science & Technology, found that 10 years of fracking operations near Pavillion, Wyo., “have had clear impact to underground sources of drinking water” and “other states which have shallow fracking operations, such as California… could also have contaminated water.” Is that what we want to happen to our ground water?

Risk Observation 2: The Salad Bowl of America is a national strategic asset, equal in importance to any oil field in the U.S.

Fact #3 Yet, representatives of the fracking industry talk about 732 oil jobs without recognizing risks to other industries, while wanting this type of contract: They want unlimited use of local water. They want to pump millions of gallons of contaminated water back into the water basin. And they want to shift ALL of the long-term risks to local residents. Based upon my extensive government contracting experience, that’s an incredibly unfair contract for the public. The frackers get all the profits while the public gets all the risks.

Fact #4 In June 2012, seismic thumper trucks showed up around Aromas in North County to determine the feasibility of fracking. Seeking fracking permits and conducting seismic surveys prove oil companies are actively seeking to frack in Monterey. And if allowed, fracking will stretch from South County to North County.

Fact #5 In 2014, the State Groundwater Sustainability Act was approved requiring the county to recharge local overdrafted water basins. Yet the fracking industry wants unlimited use of water from the Salinas Valley while agriculture and residents continually conserve water and many pay higher prices for water. That’s not fair— but the fracking industry doesn’t care.

Fact #6 Representatives of the fracking industry claim in that oil companies in California are subject to the strictest regulations in America. However, the quality of protection the regulations provide is only as good as the integrity of those who comply and the integrity of those who enforce. For example on Nov. 14, 2014, NBC presented its investigative report Waste Water from Oil Fracking Injected into Clean Aquifers3 revealing that the DOGGR, California’s watchdog agency over fracking operations, failed to stop fracking companies from injecting contaminated fracking water into federally protected potable water aquifers. Thirty-four such wells are in Monterey County. That’s not compliance or enforcement — and the fracking industry knows it.

Operating oil well profiled on dramatic cloudy sky

Fact #7 The Protect Our Water initiative submitted to the Registrar of Voters specifically allows current oil operations to continue4. I know that because I drafted the early versions of the initiative, and with others ensured wording was inserted so San Ardo jobs were protected. I quote from page 1:

“Section 1 Paragraph B: “This Initiative does not prohibit oil and gas operations … from using existing oil and gas wells in the County, which number over 1,500 at the time this Initiative was submitted….” To further ensure the type of work that has gone on for decades would be allowed to continue, we inserted into Section 2 the definition of current operations that are allowed to continue, including: “steam flooding, water flooding, or cyclic steaming, routine well cleanout work, routine well maintenance, routine removal of formation damage due to drilling, bottom hole pressure surveys, or routine activities that do not affect the integrity of the well or the formation.” Any claim by frackers that cyclic steam injection is not allowed is deception.

Additionally, the fracking industry misrepresents that 732 oil field jobs will be lost if a fracking ban is passed … while avoiding discussing the risk to 100,000 ag, real estate and hospitality jobs by installing fracking oil wells near or on farms or storing toxic fracking fluids in the local water basin near our irrigation water. Their 732 jobs are more important than tens of thousands of jobs in other industries in the Salinas Valley? That’s incredibly one sided. But the frackers don’t care.

If you care about local impacts, and if you care that a large earthquake could easily cause toxic fracking fluids to leak into our irrigation and drinking water; and if you care as much about the 100,000 non-oil jobs as you do aobut the 732 CONTINUING jobs in San Ardo, and if you do care about protecting your children’s future, then VOTE YES on measure Z to Ban Fracking in Monterey County. Z for Zero fracking, Zero jobs lost, and Zero impact to our water.

To read the initiative please go to:   www.protectmontereycounty.org

Substantiating sources:

1   L.A. Times, Mar 02, 2016, Yardley: Oklahoma takes action on fracking-related earthquakes — but too late, critics say http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-sej-oklahoma-quakes-fracking-20160302-story.html

2   Stanford University, March 29, 2016 Impact to Underground Sources of Drinking Water and Domestic Wells from Production Well Stimulation and Completion Practices in the Pavillion, Wyoming, Field http://news.stanford.edu/2016/03/29/pavillion-fracking-water-032916/

3 NBC TV … Nov 14, 2014: Waste Water from Oil Fracking Injected into Clean Aquifers http://www.nbcbayarea.com/investigations/Waste-Water-from-Oil-Fracking-Injected-into-Clean-Aquifers-282733051.html

4   March 2016, Monterey County PMC Initiative:Protect Our Water: Ban Fracking and Limit Risky Oil Operations Initiative http://www.protectmontereycounty.org/the_initiative

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No Vacancy sign hanging on yellow painted cedar siding.It was early evening when the phone rang. I was groggy because I had been awake off and on for much of the day, so I didn’t exactly catch the information about who was calling. It was the robotic voice of a woman and I think she just said she was calling from the 805 area code. I think that’s all she said about who who she was.

She (it) was taking a poll and I’m a sucker for those because often they give me something to write about. What I learned from this call is that we soon will be hearing that likely voters in Monterey County are overwhelmingly supportive of regulations allowing short-term rentals. One of the questions, for instance, was whether I thought short-term rentals were A. The Best Thing Ever, or B. Even Better Than That.

OK, I exaggerate, but not by all that much. I was asked in a couple of ways whether I realized that short-term rentals are really important to the economy and whether I or anyone I know had ever used a short-term rental.

It seems that there are no rules governing short-term vacation rentals in unincorporated Monterey County and that county officials, acting upon complaints, sometimes send notices to short-term landlords telling them to knock it off. So, the Association of People Who Own Things That Can Be Rented Out For Big Money on Big Event Weekends (APWOTTCBROFBGBBEW) are lobbying the Board of Supervisors to enact an ordinance that would make it pretty much useless for the neighbors to complain.

The survey taker asked me if I thought it was a good idea that there be rules for such things so the landlords would be encouraged to pay the appropriate taxes. She also wanted to know if I realized that sometimes I might want to take advantage of short-term rentals to accommodate visiting friends or relatives, and whether I truly care about my friends and relatives or was I a horrible person. Or something like that.

Either to throw this intrepid blogger off the scent or to make some money from other sponsors, the survey taker also asked a few questions on other topics.

Did I plan to vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries?

Which of the candidates for Senate would I vote for, either Kamala Harris or several people you’re never heard of?

In the race for District 5 supervisor in Monterey County, will I vote for Supervisor Dave Potter or “retired non-profit organization CEO Mary Adams?” It might just be me, but it seemed like the word I was supposed to hear was “retired” because she (it) said it more than once.

Usually in surveys like this you’re asked how you would describe yourself politically, either very conservative, kind of conservative, more conservative than not, moderate or one of those damned liberal pinheads. They didn’t ask it this time but they did have a question that stumped me. She wanted to know if I was A. “Over 65” or B. “Under 65.” The problem is that I am precisely 65. I realize that doesn’t make me “Under 65” but it sure as hell doesn’t make me “Over 65” either, OK?

By the way, if she had asked me a straightforward question about whether I think short-term rentals should be allowed, I would have said I didn’t really have a strong opinion either way.

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GOP campaign manager Brandon Gesicki

Brandon Gesicki

Four years ago, campaign manager Brandon Gesicki ran for political office himself, taking a shot at a seat on the Cypress Fire Protection District board of directors. As usual when Gesicki’s involved in a campaign, it was an exceedingly disputatious affair and, when it was over, he had not won.

Now, he’s going for a board seat again and is breaking with Gesicki tradition. This time there will be no name-calling or backbiting. This time, he will prevail. That’s because this time, there are only three seats open in the district, which operates the Rio Road and Carmel Hill fire stations, and only three candidates.

There is a twist, however. One of the other three candidates is Andrea Borchard, Gesicki’s longtime girlfriend and his sometimes partner in the business of running campaigns and creating non-existent political organizations for the purposes of producing misleading campaign mailers and hit pieces. For details, contact the Fair Political Practices Commission.

The good news is that with no opposition, Gesicki shouldn’t need to dish out any dirt, but old habits die hard. When he filed his candidacy papers with the elections office, he described himself as a “small business owner.” That he is. It would have been more accurate, however, if he had put down “campaign manager” or “political consultant,” for that is what he does.

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Andrea Borchard

Borchard listed herself as a marketing consultant. She has also been a member of the Monterey County GOP Central Committee and a member of the county fair board, an Arnold Schwarzenegger appointee.

Gesicki says there’s nothing up their sleeves, that they’re running for the best of reasons.

“We are both looking forward to giving back in the form of public service to the area we have lived in most of our lives,” he said Thursday. “Our top priorities are making sure Carmel has first class fire and ambulance services.”

When Gesicki ran for a Cypress seat four years ago, charges and counter-charges flew, most of them involving statements or misstatements from Gesicki. There was something about him graduating from college and his declaration that the district was considering cutting back on its ambulance service though it doesn’t provide ambulance service.

More of you will remember Gesicki from last year’s Monterey County sheriff’s race, in which he used every trick in the playbook to help Deputy Steve Bernal unseat Sheriff Scott Miller. He’s the one who told one group that it shouldn’t endorse the incumbent because he was about to be indicted for a sex crime. There was no truth to the assertion but it worked. The group chose not to endorse.

Gesicki’s the guy who keeps running campaigns for Abel Maldonado, who was briefly lieutenant governor. It was Gesicki who cooked up the idea to have Republican Maldonado run in both a GOP and Democratic primary and then insisted it wasn’t a strategy. He maintained that Maldonado’s mother was a Democrat and therefore had never had the chance to vote for her son in a primary election. Really. That’s what he said.

We could go on and on about Gesicki’s history, but you get the idea.

Good luck, Brandon. Good luck, Andrea. Good luck, Cypress.

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Recent actions by California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation regarding pesticide use near schools throughout the state, the subject of major research studies published in 2014-15, require response.

The heavy use of agricultural pesticide near Monterey County schools and the disproportionate exposure of Latino schoolchildren has been documented for many years in the Salinas Valley by CHAMACOS studies and most recently (2014) by the massive California Environmental Health Tracking Program “Agricultural Pesticide Use Near Public Schools.”

It is of particular concern not only for the fact that children of school age but also younger children, babies and fetuses are extraordinarily susceptible to permanent toxic damage at even low doses of these poisons. About 90 percent of the affected families are Latinos who work as farm laborers, live near the farms and send their children to schools adjacent to treated fields. The major problems of respiratory illnesses, cancers, developmental delays and neurological and endocrine disorders are documented in the above cited studies as well as numerous others. These are civil rights violations of ongoing harm perpetuated on a major segment of the population of this county. And it is environmental racism.

DPR’s statement is attractive but false.

homepage_bannerThe token, tiny adjustments in regulations in spite of major harm to humans, particularly to children, by commonly used agricultural pesticides is an outrage.

For real protection of human health and the environment, a buffer zone of 1 mile needs to be adopted to protect schools, homes and businesses; the present 100 – 400 foot buffer zones now approved in Monterey County are totally inadequate given the unpredictability and toxicity of pesticide drift.

Local air monitoring tests validate this statement but there are only two monitors, and just one at a school. That’s an unacceptable and misleading illusion of adequate drift monitoring.

In addition, schools and communities located near fields in which pesticide application is a year-round activity need to be given at least one full week notification of a permitted application for use of any pesticide. Already compromised children and their families may not be able to evacuate the area because of financial and child care problems but teachers, staff and parents can keep children indoors to avoid greater damage from repeated exposures.

DPR recently closed its reevaluation of toxic chlorpyrifos by changing its designation from an unrestricted use category to “restricted,” which has little practical effect. In 2014, some 3,100 applications were made in California for use of “restricted use” pesticides. Of those, 99.6% were approved by county agricultural commissioners.

And how did these dangerous chemicals slip through without adequate scrutiny when they first came before this regulatory agency? Because, as with most industry-developed chemicals/drugs and processes, regulatory agencies usually accept the manufacturer’s in-house scientists’ studies without independent review or careful analysis. This DPR announcement regarding chlorpyrifos came just after the long overdue U.S. Environmental Protection Agency press release about considering an outright ban on chlorpyrifos due to its presence in waterways across the country. Wouldn’t that cause a red flag for DPR? Apparently not. The public will continue to be exposed to multiple poisonous chemicals, the sterilized soil will receive tons of industrial fertilizers so plants can get some nutrients, and the food that is grown will get antifungals, weed-killers and numerous topical pesticides throughout the growing period before harvesting for our tables.

Some of us have a problem with this; it’s not the health of the earth or its inhabitants that benefits from these insane agricultural practices but the giants of commerce who are doing very well indeed.

California’s taxpayers need to tell the DPR to devote significant resources and attention to reducing the use of and phasing out of soil fumigants and other high toxicity, drift-prone pesticides and to helping farmers with resources to assist with the transition to effective and practices that have been shown to be far safer. That’s what we pay this agency to do. Right?

The priority is the health, education and welfare of all our children, their families and our earth; it should be DPR’s priority, too.

Erickson is a member of the Safe Strawberry Monterey County Working Group.

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Are the reporters all on vacation, or what?

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White wall texture with a chairLast Thursday, March 19, shortly before 10 p.m., I was channel surfing and stopped for a few minutes to watch the live broadcast of the Seaside city council meeting. I came in at the end of a presentation about the library, and after a minute or so they invited public comments. I probably would have moved on to better entertainment, but the first person to speak happened to be someone I knew, so I stuck around.

As she was speaking, someone in the council chambers began moaning very loudly. The woman stopped speaking, turned around and said “We need an EMT.” The video cut to a wide shot of the dais where I saw Councilman Dennis Alexander’s chair turned around and his right arm was moving erratically. Men in police or fire uniforms were rushing to his aid as Councilman Jason Campbell jumped out of their way. The mayor called a recess and the screen went dark. It was such a disturbing scene that I was shaking for the next 10 minutes.

I tuned into the 11 o’clock news to see what had happened. KSBW didn’t mention it all, but KION had a reporter at the meeting and she said it had been cut short because a City Council member had a medical emergency and was taken away in an ambulance. She said he looked OK, but had no further details. She didn’t even say which council member fell ill.

I fully expected to hear more about the incident on Friday when, presumably, more information would come to light. But again, KSBW had nothing. KION briefly repeated the same vague information from the night before, but only as a footnote to a story about the council’s activities. The Monterey Herald and Monterey County Weekly newspapers also missed the story entirely, especially odd for the Weekly,  which covers Seaside pretty closely and posts stories daily on its website. We have to wait a couple more days to see if the Carmel Pine Cone mentions it.

It’s a mystery to me how an elected official being hauled away from a public meeting in an ambulance, with dozens of witnesses, can almost completely escape the notice of the local news media. I certainly hope he’s OK. The news folks should be keeping us informed so we don’t have to guess.

By a strange coincidence, the reason KION was at Thursday’s council meeting was that the city is thinking of dropping out of Monterey County’s emergency 911 dispatch service and taking the city’s business elsewhere, either to a new agency of its own making or possibly to Santa Cruz County’s call center. A couple days earlier it was reported that Salinas and Pacific Grove were planning to do the same, and as of this week it looks like Del Rey Oaks will join them. What in blazes is going on?

I follow local news pretty closely, but until last week I can’t recall hearing a single complaint about emergency dispatch services. Not a peep. Now all of a sudden it’s a major problem. If reports are accurate, the cities say they’re paying a lot for the county to provide 911 service but the cities don’t have much say in how it’s run. OK, I can see why that might be a problem, but not one of sufficient severity to jump up and say, “We’re outta here.”

Perhaps this is some sort of political ploy to get the county’s attention, but I can think of less alarming ways to accomplish that. The appropriate thing for these cities to do is pass resolutions asking for greater influence on call center management, or ask to renegotiate the arrangements, and see how the county responds. Instead, four cities have abruptly said they want a divorce, and have done so with almost no public discussion. Until last week the issue wasn’t even on the public radar.

The idea that cities in Monterey County could afford to start a 911 system from scratch, or successfully move their 911 services to a neighboring county is difficult to believe in the absence of any formal studies. KSBW reported that Santa Cruz County’s facilities would require a major and costly expansion to accommodate our cities. Worse, by having separate dispatch services, local cities would isolate themselves from neighboring police and fire districts, which could hamper mutual aid calls. And what will happen to Monterey County’s emergency call center if it loses a major source of funding? It doesn’t look like local cities have thought through their position very well. So why are they so eager to bail out? That’s the second emergency mystery this week.

James Toy is a native of Carmel, currently living in Seaside, who occasionally gets involved in local political matters. He is the creator of a community-oriented website called The Monterey Peninsula Toy Box at www.montereypeninsula.info. This commentary also appears on that site.

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Saving the world, one red fence at a time

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Some readers of the Monterey Herald will glance at this column and mutter, “Oh no, not that damn fence again,” and who can blame them. The dilapidated red fence along otherwise scenic Highway 68 and the otherwise lovely Laguna Seca golf course became a rather tiresome subject in the venerable daily some three years ago, and the attention did nothing to correct its sorry state.

But that fence—let’s come right out and call it that ugly fence—deserves attention. Depending on one’s perspective, it is either an eyesore or a neglected artifact worthy of repair and preservation. I write about it here because a letter to the editor of the Herald a couple weeks back resurrected the issue, and because I have an idea, one that may satisfy both camps.

As it is, it’s a mess. In all, it amounts to a little more than a half mile of fencing, some upright but much of it toppled and tangled with the brush. There are gaps, many of them quite large. If there were a beauty contest for fences, it would be disqualified early for lack of integrity.

During the last round of attention, no one stepped up to take responsibility for the fence. As it is along Highway 68, a state highway, a case could be made that it is the state’s responsibility. Calls to state highway officials three years ago, however, resulted in nothing more than perplexity and empty promises to “look into it.” A case also could be made that it is the responsibility of the landowners along the route. A section of the Monterey County ordinances suggests strongly that county officials can and should require said landowners to remove or repair eyesores. Significant sections of the fence may reside on the golf course property, but the manager there made it clear three years ago that he had no sense of responsibility. For the fence, that is. Could the county force the issue? It could but it won’t.

After the Herald opined about the sorry state of the fence, readers responded with observations, memories and theories about its origin and purpose. The most definitive account came from Julie Work Beck, a Corral de Tierra resident, whose grandfather owned ranch land on one side. Here is a piece she wrote at the time, slightly abridged.

The red fence definitely dates from the 1930s, if not earlier. It extended from York Road past the current Laguna Seca area. It was built by Esteban (Steve) Field on property owned by him and his sister, Maria Antonia Field. The two inherited the property from their father, Tom Field, who married Maria Munras. Maria Antonia Field kept her residence across the highway in the hacienda, now a horse ranch with a watering hole close to the highway.

The entrance to Lady Field’s home was gated, as it still is, and to the left, was a box with a phone one would open to call the house to ask for admssion. I remember doing this as a child on the occasion of visits to Lady Field.

Lady Field as she was called for short, was given the title of Her Excellimentissima Maria Antonia Field in the 1930s or the 1940s by the then-pope (Pius XII?) for her work and support of the restoration of Carmel Mission and her help to Father Ramon Mestres. Lady Field and Steve Field were the children of Tom Field and Maria Munras of Spanish Rancho land grant times.

Tom Field was a clever Scot, as was my grandfather, T.A. Work, who owned the ranch lands on the other side of the road. These two Toms were known countywide for their skill and perceptiveness and had great influence in the county on land matters. My grandfather assembled the ranch on the south side of the road from different sources, but mainly from purchase from David Jacks, also a Scot. My grandfather’s ranch lands were enclosed by barbed wire ranch fencing to keep his cattle on his property. But Steve Field erected a beautiful decorative fence — the red and white fence still remaining in differing states of repair or disrepair.

My grandfather told him the fence was a huge waste of money and a frivolous piece of vanity. T.A. Work was not wrong about much in the realm of property and money, but I have to say he was wrong about this. For this fence to be still standing, even in its state of disrepair after close to 100 years, is a tribute in its own right.

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Until Beck and others weighed in about the history, I was all for tearing the fence out. But she and they have convinced me otherwise.

So here’s the idea. Unfortunately, it will require a committee, but that is not always a guarantee of failure. It also will require a work crew. Beyond that, it gets simple: We tear out the worst sections of the fence, the parts flattened against the ground, the really ugly parts. We leave the rest of it alone to be enjoyed by history buffs for at least another few decades. Unless we decide to paint it, which isn’t really all that hard.

Why not restore the fence, either all the portions that remain or the whole thing? Because that would require capital in addition to labor, and as much as I dislike the fence in its current condition, if I’m going to be involved in fundraising, I have more important fish to fry and so do you.

If the fence really is the responsibility of the state, we might be informed of that early on, and if the golf course operator accuses us of trespass, we’ll have another useful answer. Fine, we’ll say as we walk away, you fix it.

Consider it a test. There are many larger issues that need attention, of course, challenges that seem exceptionally daunting. Our water issue, for instance. Already I know that we’ll be told that it is foolish to worry about a fence when there are children starving anywhere, but the same could be said about just about any idea, couldn’t it? If we could find a measure of success with the fence, maybe it would restore our confidence in our collective ability to solve bigger problems.

So what do you think? And who wants to chair this committee? I’m tempted to nominate Julie Beck and Mike Weaver of the Highway 68 Coalition. Surely there are other potential candidates for both the talking and doing parts of the mission. I’ve got some work gloves somewhere and am prepared to stand by for assignment.

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Thief stealing from handbag of a woman.This probably will not surprise you. The people who are supposed to be in charge of solving the Monterey Peninsula’s water crisis have elected to go into some hugely important negotiations with state water regulators under the cloak of secrecy.

Apparently they have forgotten, once again, that secrecy is one of the main reasons the Peninsula is still in a water crisis. Let one lawyer find an excuse for secrecy and the people who are supposed to be representing the public interest in this big and expensive water mess will cheerfully exclude the public from the conversation and then act as though they had no choice.

One possibility is that officials of California American Water, the Peninsula mayors and others simply believe that their jobs will be easier without the muss and fuss that the public is so capable of producing.

A more ominous and more likely explanation is that they fear the results will not be heavily weighted in favor of Cal Am and others such as the hospitality industry, which speaks with a loud voice when it counsels the mayors and other officials both elected and appointed.

This time, the secrecy has been wrapped around details of a proposal that was advanced to the state last month. It advocates a relaxation of the state-imposed timeline for cutting back on the amount of water that Cal Am pumps from the Carmel River each year.

In order to force the Peninsula to stop degrading the river, the state set a series of deadlines and pumping limits that, if they go into effect, would devastate the Peninsula’s economy. The negotiations that are likely to begin this summer between local interests and the state are of utmost importance to everyone on the Peninsula – and by everyone, we’re talking about everyone, not just those who take lunch regularly with lawyers and lobbyists.

An article in the Monterey Herald on Saturday has Carmel Mayor Jason Burnett assuring us that there will be plenty of time for public involvement later, after local officialdom has hammered out a tentative agreement with the state. There will be public hearings, Burnett said, suggesting that public officials pay attention to what the public says at public hearings after the powers that be have reached consensus.

Even by the standards of Cal Am and its elected accomplices, this decision to keep the public in the dark rests on exceedingly flimsy grounds. Once upon a time there was a lawsuit challenging the state’s right to order a cutback on Carmel River pumping. The suit was suspended three years ago, but lawyers for the state determined that details of the current proposal are exempt from disclosure because of that litigation. Among the many problems with that position is a lawsuit suspended three years ago is, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Another is that lawyers for the state are not decision-makers. They are supposed to give advice. If members of the state water board want to tell the citizens of the Peninsula to pound sand, let them come out and tell us why.

As a direct result of the state’s cutback order, Cal Am has embarked on two major efforts to build a desalination plant, the most expensive solution but a solution. The first effort emerged from more than a year of secret discussions involving the state Public Utilities Commission, Cal Am, Monterey County government, UC Santa Cruz, and the Marina Coast Water District. It was to be a desalination plant operated by Cal Am and Marina Coast, a small, essentially dysfunctional water agency with no real connection to Peninsula issues. Monterey County government, which prefers to operate in smoky back rooms, brought almost nothing to the table but managed to inject secret side deals into the project, sabotaging the venture early on.

Perhaps the officials thought that secrecy would result in some efficiencies and a streamlined, feasible project. Instead, they got themselves an exploding cigar. If they had brought the public in from the start rather than waiting until the cigar was being lit, someone might have shown them that the design was flawed.

That farce cost Cal Am five or six years worth of progress toward a water solution and all-but destroyed the public’s faith in the company’s ability to get the job done. Already, Cal Am is lobbying the state to allow it to charge its customers, not its shareholders, for the cost of the huge fines that will be imposed if the deadlines are not met.

One of the biggest problems with the first desalination effort also afflicts the current one, though to a slightly lesser extent. The first time around, no one was in charge. Technically, the Public Utilities Commission was the “lead agency,” then as now. But the PUC is a regulatory bureaucracy, not a utility, not a construction company. It doesn’t employ engineers or hydrologists. Cal Am was sort of in charge, then and now, but it had no real reason to lead because it makes money no matter what. For regulated utilities, failure is just as profitable as success and sometimes more so. When state rules essentially allow it to collect all its costs plus a 10 percent profit, two failed projects are likely to be more lucrative than one successful one.

Marina Coast wasn’t in charge and Monterey County certainly wasn’t in charge. But if the structure of the first project had been presented to the public from the start rather than as an afterthought, someone might have noticed the absence of meaningful leadership. In the public arena or in private enterprise, things usually don’t get done unless someone’s career will rise or fall depending on the result. The first effort failed largely because the public was never a partner and no one was accountable. The public sector culprits got re-elected. The private sector culprits got bonuses.

The structure of the current effort is less complicated. Neither Marina Coast nor the county is involved, but a committee of Peninsula mayors has stepped forward to take their place. Burnett, the Carmel mayor, took a lead role in creating that relationship and deserves serious credit for doing so. He saw how lack of leadership and accountability helped kill the first attempt, so he stepped up, tying his own considerable political ambitions to the venture. He has been a real help, creating a financial structure that would save the public tens of millions of dollars if the project ever is completed, but he has paid a price. His efforts have alienated Cal Am critics and slow-growthers who see a desalination plant as a growth inducer.

Unfortunately, Burnett seems to be going along with the cone-of-silence plan this time. He was left to explain it in the Herald article, likely because the others involved were afraid to stick their necks out. Maybe he has simply spent too much time with the others and has been “turned,” the way hostages become dupes of their captors. Hopefully, it is not too late.

In case you’re not getting the drift, Jason, this piece is an attempt to get you to argue against this secrecy routine or to let us know who feels otherwise and why.

What is the benefit of secrecy? Simplicity is the most obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. Information is power, and you can bet that Cal Am is already sharing details of the proposal with its allies – the Hospitality Association and the Carmel River Steelhead Association for starters. That way, those groups can spend the next several months lobbying the state and working with associates in other organizations to join in. That way, those groups will have ample time to study all the charts and formulas and to bend the analysis to their liking.

Almost everyone on the Peninsula would support a relaxation of the state’s deadlines. No one wants to see our economy dry up and blow away. But how many years might be added to the timeline under this proposal? Are there concessions to be made later? Earlier? Are there provisions for cutting supplies to some classes of customers but not others. Cal Am, the PUC and even the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District took part in essentially secret talks two years ago that resulted in a preferential rate structure for area hotels.

If you’re part of an average household on the Peninsula, secrecy is not your friend. It won’t help solve the water problem but it will help Cal Am and its friends at the PUC quietly pick your pocket.

What can you do? Don’t bother calling Cal Am. It stopped paying attention to you years ago. But you can and should call your mayor or your state representatives and tell them you’ve had enough of this nonsense.

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