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The possibility of another attempt to put Cal Am Water in public hands prompts reflection over the history of major Monterey County ballot measures in which money and the big-lie technique prevailed. The first in recent history was Measure M back in 2000.

It was initiated by the Pebble Beach Co. with the aim of forcing the county and the Coastal Commission to allow it to build another golf course at the famed resort, but that’s not how it was sold to the voting public. Instead, the commercials and four-color fliers promoted the false notion that Measure M would stop development in the Del Monte Forest that surrounds the existing golf courses.

Measure M did contain a provision limiting the company’s ability to develop 425 acres that previously had been zoned for housing, but the company hardly needed a ballot measure to protect the property. The Pebble Beach Co. offered to permanently fallow the land for ballot measure purposes only after it had already shelved any plans to develop it. We hear a lot about Fake News. This was a Fake Ballot Measure. The campaign featured TV ads with popular actor Clint Eastwood, a Pebble Beach Co. principal, strolling through the trees and saying something like “if you love these woods as much as I do, you’ll vote yes on Measure M.”

The measure passed easily, helped by voters in the far reaches of the county who had no idea they were really voting only to add a golf course. Though the golf course deal was later scuttled by the Coastal Commission, Measure M demonstrated how moneyed interests could manipulate voter initiatives. Until about that time, the side attracting the most money had prevailed in every statewide ballot measure in California. Monterey County would prove to be equally fertile ground for deceptive politicking.

Other examples of dishonest but successful ballot measures include the 2016 ballot fight over the Monterey Downs horse race project and, of course, Measure 0 of 2014 in which California American Water twisted the truth to persuade voters not to move forward with a public takeover of the Monterey Peninsula’s privately held water system.

A giant anomaly, of course, was last year’s Measure Z, the anti-fracking measure approved by Monterey County voters despite a gusher of oil company money that paid for ads falsely charging that the initiative would shut down oil production in the area. But Measure Z’s success is no assurance that reality will trump money in the next big ballot showdown, which is likely to be another attempt to bring Cal Am under public ownership. If that ballot measure materializes in the coming, as expected, voters are likely to see another slick and misleading opposition campaign essentially paid for by the same ratepayers the measure would be designed to help.

Public Water Now, led by water activist George Riley, is believed to be on the verge of a decision to move ahead with a public takeover measure, which would be fueled in part by giant rate increases the company has imposed on its captive customers and the certainty that its struggling desalination project will lead to large additional increases.

The last time the issue made it to the ballot, in 2014, Cal Am prevailed by a count of 55 percent to 45 percent. But analysis of the vote showed that early, absentee voters who had been primarily exposed to Cal Am’s advertising voted against the measure while voters who waited for detailed information from the measure’s proponents voted for it. In other words, higher-information voters favored the ballot measure while those who were spun by Cal Am went the other way.

Cal Am’s anti-O campaign repeatedly described the takeover effort as a risky gamble. If O had passed, it would have required the Peninsula’s water management district to study the feasibility of a public takeover. The study wouldn’t have come cheap but it would have cost far less than Cal Am spent combating the ballot measure. Cal Am called Measure O “the risk we can’t afford.” What we can’t afford, Riley and a growing number of others believe, is Cal Am bills.

The Cal Am campaign also emphasized that negotiating a sale to the public would distract the company from developing a desalination plant – a plant that seems barely closer to reality even now, three years later. Cal Am also repeatedly mischaracterized attempts to takeover water systems elsewhere and the results of successful efforts.

A public takeover of Cal Am’s Peninsula water system would be an extremely difficult and expensive process and Cal Am can be expected to fight Public Water Now at every turn. The company has maintained through the years that the Peninsula system is barely profitable yet it has made it clear that it will fight any and all takeover efforts, which suggests the network of pumps and pipes is more profitable than the company lets on.

My own limited research  leads me to believe that in the short term, a public takeover would not result in lower water bills because a public agency would need to borrow sizable sums to complete the transaction. Dave Stoldt, manager of the water management district, once estimated that there would be no actual savings to the customers for as long as 30 years. Proponents disagree, saying savings would materialize much more quickly. Either way, I believe a takeover is worth pursuing because the savings to future customers, decades and decades of future savings, would make the effort worthwhile even if our bills didn’t immediately go down.

To me, the prospect of a takeover is an important public policy issue that should be decided by careful analysis and a considerable amount of professional cost accounting. The decision should not be based on a clever advertising campaign.

The way Cal Am conducted itself last time around was shameful but you didn’t hear a peep about it in polite Peninsula circles. As they did with the Monterey Downs ballot measures, pillars of the community knew that the side with the most money was cheating but they just looked the other way.

If Cal Am listens to anyone in public life on the Peninsula these days, those people should make it clear that the company should stick to the facts and the math and not create its own make-believe reality. The hospitality industry and other business interests have benefited in recent years from sweetheart rate arrangements with Cal Am. They should not let those short-term gains stop them from encouraging Cal Am to be the good corporate citizen it claims to be.

At the same time, Public Water Now and its supporters can and should be expected to play it straight. If buying out Cal Am is a good idea, the numbers should tell the story. If it doesn’t make financial sense, the idea probably isn’t worth pursuing no matter how much better off we would be with a water company run by an accountable local agency rather than for the benefit of distant shareholders.

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PARTISAN News Quiz 2015: No one will get all these right

110_F_66851562_fFaspr2gJRZ649D8HnBiDZyATXAzuOcPThe people of the Central Coast are an enlightened lot, but just how enlightened? To find out, we designed this quiz to test how well Partisan readers were paying attention in 2015. As always, go to the comment box at the end and let us know how you did.

A. Which of the following happened in 2015

  1. Monterey County District Attorney Dean Flippo retired
  2. The various Peninsula agencies agreed on a plan to increase groundwater storage and expand conservation efforts
  3. A sheriff’s deputy with no management experience became the head of  the county’s largest law enforcement agency
  4. The Salinas murder rate went down
  5. None of the above (hint hint)

B. Cal Am continued to make progress on

  1.  A test well
  2. Plans for a test well
  3. Plans to study a test well
  4. The hiring of consultants without conflicts of interest to study plans to study a test well

C. Which of these development projects continued to exist, at least on paper, despite demonstrably inadequate water supplies:

  1. Monterey Downs
  2. Ferrini Ranch
  3. Corral de Tierra shopping center
  4. All of the above

D. GOP political consultant Brandon Gesicki

GOP campaign manager Brandon Gesicki

GOP campaign manager Brandon Gesicki

  1. Changed his registration to Democrat
  2. Went into partnership with campaign manager Alex Hulanicki to form the Icki Group.
  3. Was elected to public office
  4. Started taking a correspondence course to become a bail bondsman

E. Which of the following comics attracted record crowds

  1. Don Rickles
  2. Don Knotts
  3. Don Trump

F. A sequel was produced for which of these movies

  1. The Graduate/The Retiree
  2. Star Wars: Luke Skywalker/Star Wars: Luke Buys a Walker
  3. The Godfather/The Great-Godfather
  4. Groundhog Day/Groundhog Day

G. The Pebble Beach Co.

  1. Announced plans for more gates with entrance fees on a sliding scale
  2. Banned American cars
  3. Bought Del Rey Oaks for employee housing

H. The Transportation Agency for Monterey County chose as its top 2016 priority

  1. Construction of a roundabout at Highway 1 and Holman Highway
  2. A study of roundabouts on Monterey-Salinas Highway because it has been free of construction delays for several weeks
  3. Approval of a sales tax measure to finance additional study into the need for an additional sales tax measure

I. The following decided to run for Sam Farr’s seat in Congress

  1. Jimmy Panetta
  2. Jimmy Panetta’s offspring
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Howard

J. Howard Gustafson of the Marina Coast Water District said 

  1. The Surfrider Foundation should “go F— yourselves.”
  2. He had once been engaged to Jane Fonda
  3. He gets all his information from the Partisan
  4. Voters would be better off replacing him randomly

K. Two homeless men apparently died of exposure in downtown Monterey, leading to 

  1. A communitywide effort to build housing for the homless
  2. An outpouring of blankets and warm clothes
  3. Pretty much nothing

L. Officials at the Monterey County Weekly disclosed that the Squid Fry column

  1. Is written by Paul Miller
  2. Is edited by Dave Potter
  3. Is a repeat of the column from exactly a year earlier

M. Sand City officials announced plans to

  1. Rezone the beachfront light industrial
  2. Annex Seaside
  3. Eliminate sales taxes throughout the shopping district
  4. Cancel municipal elections

Beach campfire on lake with sand shore. burning wood on white sand in daytimeN. The city of Carmel eliminated beach bonfires and banned

  1. The sale or marketing of necessities
  2. Any public references to Jason Stilwell or Sue McCloud
  3. Children

O. The city of Marina approved plans for

  1. A citywide no-parking zone
  2. A gluten-free, cheese-free, meat-free pizza truck
  3. Shrinking the city limits to cover two walkable square blocks

SCORING: Because we attended Christmas Eve services at a Unitarian church, we encourage you to decide for yourselves which answers are correct. If you answered all 15 questions correctly, you are a liar and a cheat and need to know that there is plenty of time to take out papers for a seat on the Board of Supervisors. If you correctly answered 10-14 questions, you are Mary Duan, editor of the Monterey County Weekly. If you got 6-9 questions right, you’re more than qualified to start your own blog or, at least, write your own editorials. Fewer than 6 right? You had help from either Howard Gustafson or Paul Bruno

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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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