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The Monterey County Board of Supervisors, on a 3-2 split, continued to press its case Tuesday for providing additional voting strength to the county and Salinas in the formation of a regional electrical power consortium.

The plan has been in the works for several years now, but with a formation deadline approaching next month, supervisors John Phillips, Luis Alejo and Simon Salinas are essentially saying that unless Monterey County gets an extra vote, they’ll pass on enabling Monterey County residents to reduce their reliance on carbon-heavy energy sources and replace them with power from renewable sources.

Here’s the Monterey Herald story on Tuesday’s action. Here’s our previous story.

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Board splits along gender lines

Monterey County’s effort to gain additional authority over a regional electrical power consortium seems to be coming up short, with most of the other 20 government partners unenthusiastic about awarding the county an extra vote on the governing body.

Monterey County staffers are scheduled Tuesday to brief a divided Board of Supervisors on their effort to persuade the other counties and cities involved to bestow additional voting rights on Monterey County. That item is on the board’s 1:30 p.m. agenda.

The proposed Monterey Bay Community Power agency is intended to be an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., an energy brokerage of sorts dedicated to increasing the Central Coast’s use of renewable energy and potentially driving down the cost of electricity. It would be the seventh such “Community Choice Energy” agency in California.

It would be operated by a joint-powers agency made up of the governments of Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties and the cities in those counties.

Five years into the process of creating the agency, most of the government agencies involved have formally approved the structure and the operating principles but three members of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors have thrown a wrench into the works by insisting that Monterey County receive an extra vote because it has the largest population of the three counties. As it stands, Monterey County and the cities in the county would have five of the 11 votes on the board, more than any other county, but supervisors Luis Alejo, Simon Salinas and John Phillips say Monterey County deserves a second vote of its own, giving the county and the cities in the county a total of six votes. As an alternative, they say they could support weighted voting,.

The issue has divided the board, with Chairwoman Mary Adams and Jane Parker supporting the original plan. Parker, in fact, is urging her constituents to attend today’s board meeting and be prepared to argue in favor of moving the venture along.

According to Parker’s office, the agency would:

  • More than double our use of renewable energy resources (from 27% renewables to 59% renewables)
  • Provide 70% greenhouse gas (GHG) emission free electricity
  • Provide annual surplus revenues of approximately $9 million dollars in funds that can will support our local regional goals
  • Help build local renewable energy projects, stimulate local economic reinvestment and support local green job creation.

Government staffers in Monterey and elsewhere say it is difficult to tell whether the Alejo-Salinas-Phillips triumvirate is simply seeking a stronger voice on the agency board or is attempting to scuttle the venture.

Alejo didn’t return a call or email requesting comment, but he reportedly has argued privately that he fears the agency could end up raising power bills for low-income residents. The person who has worked most closely with the venture says that simply isn’t true, as demonstrated by the agency’s voluminous technical studies.

That person is Virginia Johnson, an aide to Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce McPherson, the former secretary of state and legislator who has led the formation process.

Johnson said Monday that some other community power agencies have succeeded in lowering overall electrical rates and that even if that did not prove to be the case on the Central Coast, current PG&E customers would be entitled to continue their PG&E service along with any low-income discounts.

“There is no way poor people are going to pay more,” Johnson said.

San Benito County officials originally expressed similar concerns but were won over by activists working closely with the Catholic Church, which has embraced the plan.

A popular feature of the new entity is that it would allow for relatively affluent households to pay a premium for power in order to be supplied entirely by relatively clean sources such as solar or wind.

The overall plan had been scheduled for final approval by the end of 2016 but was delayed until March because of Monterey County’s reservations, which, according to Johnson and others, have received scant support elsewhere.  Johnson said the other entities would much prefer that Monterey County stay with the plan, largely because additional population creates additional buying power when purchasing electricity, but she said the others are fully prepared to move ahead with or without Monterey County.

As it stands, Monterey County and jurisdictions in the county would have five votes on an 11-member board of directors. Those votes would be assigned to the county, Salinas, the Peninsula cities as a group, Seaside/Marina/Sand City/Del Rey Oaks as a group, and the South County cities.

Santa Cruz County and its jurisdictions would control four votes and San Benito County, with the smallest population of the three counties, would control two votes.

Under the alternative weighted voting proposal, Monterey County, Santa Cruz County and Salinas, the largest city in the region, would be apportioned extra voting power on some issues.

Monterey Bay Community Power would be a government-run non-profit operating under a 2002 state law that enables communities to choose to buy power from clean sources while contracting with PG&E to maintain power lines and provide customer service.

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A Dave Potter for Supervisor sign has sprung to life at the Corral De Tierra shopping center property, either setting off or solving a political mystery

In the world of small-time journalism, Monterey County style, this might be something but then again it might be nothing at all. You decide.

It involves revisiting an old controversy about whether one large corner of the intersection of Highway 68 and Corral De Tierra Road should be made over as a fairly significant shopping center with a super market, dry cleaners, maybe a restaurant, that sort of thing, or whether it should remain as is, country funky with mostly bare grass and trees and an unused service station. Some people in the Corral De Tierra/San Benancio neighborhoods supported the plan. By my reckoning, they were mostly friends of the owners, the Phelps family, or people who would have some role in building or supplying the businesses to be built there. Most everyone I know in the neighborhood, my neighborhood, was opposed on grounds that they’d rather see the grass and trees left alone.

Couple years back, the issue went to the Board of Supervisors for a decision. The Phelps family, which owns the property, had been trying for decades to get approval for a shopping center and, finally, they got the vote they needed. It was 3-2. On the side of the Phelps family were Lou Calcagno, Simon Salinas and Fernando Armenta. On the losing side, Jane Parker and Dave Potter. Potter, not so incidentally, represents the territory involved in the dispute.

Potter’s no vote, combined with lack of any sign that he had worked behind the scene to combat the project, led to serious discussion among the political observers of Monterey County. Some, including yours truly, argued that Potter likely could have stopped the project if he had really wanted it stopped. He might have played a little politics, as politicians are wont to do, by trading something with one of the supervisors who voted yes. He might have stepped up and made some up-front arguments about what is wrong with the project. Water supply for instance. Our reasoning was that surely the hometown supervisor could have swung the vote against the project and away from his past campaign contributors if he really had wanted that result.

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Nearby, it’s the battle of the signs

Defenders of Potter said people such as myself were being unfair and seeing conspiracies where none exist. They said we were unfairly accusing Potter of trading votes with the only other potential no vote, Lou Calcacno, accusing without evidence. That position, I must admit, is not without merit. (As you might have guessed, the fate of the project is up to the courts.)

Now, fortunately for my piece of mind, another shred of evidence supporting my theory has surfaced in the form of a “Potter for Supervisor” sign that went up this week on the very property we’re talking about here. Let those who post comments at the end of Partisan pieces explain to me why the Phelps family would allow the posting of a sign for a supervisor seeking re-election if they truly believed he had attempted to foil their decades-long plan to turn their dormant land into some serious money.

To thicken the plot just a bit, signs for two other supervisorial candidates recently appeared on the neighboring property. They support Potter’s opponent, Mary Adams, and the other supervisor who opposed the Phelps project, Jane Parker. In front of those signs, on the Phelps side of the fence, a Potter sign quietly makes a recommendation of its own.

Am I reading too much into campaign signs? Probably so, but maybe not. Maybe the Phelpses are just the kind of folks who say yes to everyone wanting space for a sign. Or maybe I’m right and this is late-arriving and circumstantial evidence that I was right all along, which might be a first.

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Oil and gas well profiled on sunset skyRead this if you want, but it’s really meant for Monterey County Supervisor Simon Salinas.

Hey Simon. How are things?

Did you see the Herald today. It had a well done article about the anti-fracking initiative that local activists are working on and the oil industry-sponsored ad campaign to combat it.

The article mentioned that Monterey County is the only California county without regulations to protect critical water sources from oil production. And then it had you saying you were concerned that the initiative might wipe out the existing oil industry here and, “My position is that if current regulations are not strict enough, then people should talk to Governor Brown and state Legislature.”

So here’s the thing, Simon.

If you’re concerned about the adequacy of local regulations on the subject, and if you’re concerned that the potential ballot measure might go too far, why don’t you and your county colleagues work on shaping some local regulations that protect the water supply without wiping out existing oil production.

If you don’t see the sense in that, let us know and we’ll draft up a new job description for you and the other county supervisors. Maybe that’ll get us on the same page.

Take care.

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If you get all your local political news from the papers or TV, you can be forgiven for not knowing that Tony Barrera, a Salinas City Councilman, is running for Monterey County supervisor.

That’s because he wasn’t mentioned in one paper’s account of Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s decision to run for the District 1 supervisorial seat held by Fernando Armenta or in a TV station’s report on Alejo’s announcement. The newspaper at least mentioned Armenta. The KSBW report mentioned no one other than Alejo.

Alejo’s entry into the race likely makes Barrera even more of an underdog. Armenta, who hasn’t yet announced whether he will run again, would be able to raise far more campaign money than Barrera and so will Alejo, of course. The district takes in most of Salinas but you can expect to see most of the campaign money coming from elsewhere.

And why does this matter to you if, like most Partisan readers, you live somewhere between Salinas and the Pacific? Here’s why. Armenta is a fairly conscientious fellow when it comes to representing his district, but when it comes to important matters outside the district, especially development issues, it’s all about campaign contributions.

Armenta is a sure vote for development, good development, bad development, he doesn’t really care. His mind is made up. And if it’s a traffic-clogging project proposed for the Corral de Tierra area, a subdivision at the mouth of the valley, a model of leapfrog development in north county, his vote is just as important as that of the supervisor representing that district. If you don’t think more strip malls and cookie-cutter subdivisions would enhance the Peninsula, you want someone more thoughtful than Armenta on the board.

As it stands, the only consistent board vote for good planning is Jane Parker. She represents Seaside, Marina and a small part of Salinas. She’s up for re-election and is being challenged by former Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue. Donohue will get considerable help from the business community and development interests.

The other seat up for grabs in the coming year is held by Dave Potter, who is not quite the sure development vote that Armenta is but only because he is cagy enough to oppose developments when he knows they’ll get approved anyway. In a district that takes in Monterey, PG, Carmel, Carmel Valley and Big Sur, he is being challenged by Mary Adams, the retired United Way exec, who is receiving support from slow-growthers, progressives in general and some quarters of agriculture.

Which takes us back to Armenta’s district. If the white hats manage to re-elect Parker and elect Adams, Armenta’s re-election would mean that logic-defying developments would still have three nearly automatic votes, those of Armenta, John Phillips and Simon Salinas. Like Armenta, Salinas apparently has never met subdivision he couldn’t support.

But with Barrera or Alejo in office instead of Armenta, development proposals would be the subject of healthy examination and debate. Developments that create housing and jobs without aggravating traffic and water problems would be considered on their merits. The size of the proponents’ campaign contributions would be less likely to be the deciding factor.

In the coming months, voters countywide should study Barrera and Alejo. Barrera is the rough-and-tumble type. He has a somewhat checkered past but is trying to get people to forget it by working hard to represent everyone in his district, not just the players. Alejo is smoother, the career politician type who has wisely weighed in regularly on issues of importance in the Salinas Valley. He is moving to Salinas from Watsonville because he is being termed out of his Assembly post and needs a job. (His wife, Watsonville City Councilwoman Karina Cervantez, is running for his Assembly seat in a race that includes former Salinas Mayor Anna Caballero.)

So here’s the bottom line.

If you live on the Peninsula and prefer trees over asphalt, you can’t afford to focus only on your own backyard. You should pay attention to Parker and Adams and you also should consider getting involved in the race shaping up in Salinas.  It’s either that or watching a lot of 3-2 votes in the wrong direction.

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New House BuildingMonterey County officials did the Ferrini Ranch developers a favor by allowing them to rely on the county’s 1982 general plan rather than the stronger 2010 plan, but they managed to fumble the process anyway by allowing the project to skirt even the less stringent provisions of the old plan. That is a key contention of a lawsuit filed Friday by LandWatch Monterey County, legal action that complements a suit filed the day before by the Highway 68 Coalition.

Seeking to block the Highway 68 development, the new suit faults the county on numerous fronts, saying the environmental impact report on the project failed to properly consider impacts and mitigations on traffic, sensitive habitat, visual impact, water supply and other areas.

The EIR couldn’t properly address many of those issues because the design of the project, including the location of lots and various traffic features continued to change even after the county Planning Commission had approved the venture, according to the litigation. It was filed on LandWatch’s behalf by San Francisco environmental lawyers Mark R. Wolfe and John H. Farrow.

It challenges the county’s decision to get around the law requiring developers to present proof of a long-term water supply. Instead, county officials simply declared that the existence of the Salinas Valley Water Project constitutes such proof even though has no concrete plans in place to augment the valley’s dwindling water supply.

Supervisor Lou Calcagno, in one of his last official acts, voted for the project but only after announcing a public relations gesture. Though there had been no public discussion, Calcagno announced that the developers, the Kelton family of Southern California, had agreed to contribute money toward a possible wastewater recycling facility, which theoretically would help address the Salinas Valley groundwater shortage.

Later, in an end-of-term interview with the Monterey County Weekly, Calcagno said he took pride in how he had handled negotiations over the Ferrini venture – negotiations that the public was not privy to until they were a done deal.

The project consists of 185 lots on 870 acres along Highway 68 on both sides of the Toro Regional Park entrance. The development would run from near San Benancio Road to near River Road. It would require removal of 921 oak trees and would see construction of houses on slopes steeper than 30 degrees. Each of the supervisors who voted for the project—Calcagno, Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas—had received campaign contributions from the developers.

 A sidenote about an email, snarky but inconsequential:

After the supervisors approved the Ferrini Ranch project, the Partisan filed a public records request with the county, seeking access to any emails between the developers and the supervisors. County officials responded this week, saying they had found only a handful of emails.One of the more interesting communications, at least in the Partisan’s view, was a copy of a Partisan article about the approval along with comments from numerous Partisan readers attached.

Builder Ray Harrod of the development team had emailed the article to project spokeswoman Candy Ingram, developer Mark Kelton and project attorneys Tony Lombardo and Brian Finnegan. Harrod mentioned in the email that one of the original reader comments had been deleted. He added, “Guess Royal (Partisan proprietor Royal Calkins) does not want anyone to see what type of followers he has.”

I’m not sure, but I think I’ve been insulted, at least a little. And if you’re reading this, you might have been as well.

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Board of Supervisors approves Ferrini Project

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By a predictable vote of 3-2 Tuesday evening, the Monterey County Board of Supervisors approved the 180-lot Ferrini Ranch subdivision along Highway 68 near Toro Park.

Voting no were supervisors Jane Parker and Dave Potter, who said that two issues, traffic and water, make this project “a blatant example of bad planning.”

Supervisors Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas voted for the project, despite Armenta’s expressed concerns about near gridlock traffic conditions at rush hour.

The swing vote was lame duck Supervisor Lou Calcagno, who called for creation of a community service district that could use wastewater in the Toro Park area for recycling into potable water, helping to alleviate the project’s impact on the already overdrawn Salinas Valley aquifer.

Each of the three supervisors voting for the project had received campaign contributions from the developers, the Kelton family of Southern California. Potter also had received contributions from the Keltons but the project is in his supervisorial district, so he had the choice of alienating a contributor or his constituents.

The board majority ignored emotional pleas from area residents, including one woman who cried as she told the board that she had been in three increasingly serious traffic accidents on Highway 68 in the past three years. Representatives of the Toro Park neighborhood also called for the supervisors to eliminate a plan to widen the highway near their homes and to eliminate an additional traffic signal now planned in reaction to the Ferrini Ranch project. The supervisors ignored those requests.

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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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billete monedaFor a few moments Tuesday, it looked like those opposing the proposed Encina Hills development in San Benancio Canyon were going to prevail. The Monterey County Board of Supervisors was considering the project, yet again, when supervisors Dave Potter and Jane Parker made it clear they had run out of patience with the developers and their inability to demonstrate that the 18-lot development would have an adequate water supply.

Parker noted that they developers had delayed well testing until this week, now that rain is recharging the overburdened aquifer. She wasn’t buying their excuses for why it just wasn’t possible to meet their deadlines and to get started during the dry months: Busy season for hydrologists, other expenses, etc., etc.

As usual, supervisors Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas weren’t bothered and were ready to grant the developers every accommodation. That’s the way Armenta and Salinas are when it comes to development. No one even bothers asking them why anymore.

So that left Lou Calcagno, the lame duck chairman of the Board of Supervisors, to break the tie. And he had expressed serious exasperation with the developers in the spring after it was revealed that the test well for the project had not been tested in eight years.

It sounded at first as though Calcagno would side with Parker and Potter and vote to put an end to the project, but he punted. Calcagno, who leaves office at the end of the year, said he wanted to be extra fair to the developers and give them just one more chance to demonstrate the power of their pumps, never mind the impact on the already overdrawn groundwater. The new deadline for water testing is in March. Retired Judge John Phillips will have taken Calcagno’s place on the board and he’ll be receiving the punt.

If anyone is willing to take your bet, put some good money down on the side of the project winning approval..

In general, Phillips will be a friend to the development and construction industries. They contributed heavily to his supervisorial campaign, which resulted in an easy victory over slow-growther Ed Mitchell. The Realtors and the construction companies and development lawyers don’t make big contributions to candidates in hopes they’ll just fortuitously turn out to be friendly votes. They want some kind of assurance before they write those checks, and someone let them know that Phillips was on the team.

On this project specifically, there’s good reason to believe a little thing like a sketchy water supply isn’t going to bother Phillips all that much. First off, the project lawyer, Michael Cling, contributed $1,500 to Phillips’ campaign the day before the election. It was the last contribution Phillips reported on his disclosure forms.

Cling also contributed $200 to the judge’s campaign a couple days before the May primary.

When Cling arrived at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, he and Phillips greeted each other warmly in the lobby.

“Nice to see you,” said Phillips.

“I was hoping you’d be here,” said Cling, who did the talking for the development Tuesday.

After the session, Cling passed by Phillips on the way out and got the nod, the wink and the handshake.

Reading too much into circumstantial evidence, and flimsy circumstantial evidence at that? That certainly could be. The Partisan predicted that Sheriff Scott Miller would win re-election, so our ability to read the political tea leaves obviously is suspect at times. But one doesn’t have to be certain to make a bet, and we’re betting this one has already been decided. They’ll say it’s about property rights.

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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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Young man hiding in his jumperWhere to start?

It is a familiar feeling for most people who follow politics closely. Watching the numbers dribble in on election night, seeing a few pleasing results and then being blown away by that one decision that makes no sense at all, that makes you question the rationality and intelligence of slightly more than a majority of everyone in your community.

(New numbers expected at 2 p.m. Wednesday. Latest local results here)

I’m not talking about Howard Gustafson’s apparent re-election to the Marina Coast Water District board. I expected that one. He’s been around so long that people in that small district vote for him out of habit. Bad habit. The remarkable thing this time around is that he managed to get the endorsement of my former employer, the Monterey Herald. It is my sincere hope that some of the brighter lights in the community are letting the current Herald leadership know how wrong-headed that was.

I’m not talking about Alvin Edwards’ apparent defeat in Seaside. Excusing him from the City Council makes no sense except there is a good side, the apparent victory of Jason Campbell. Jason has a little to learn about diplomacy, but he will be a great councilman who will be of particular importance as the powers that be try to get the council to rubber stamp the ill-conceived Monterey Downs horse track development.

And I’m not talking about what happened in Monterey, where a relatively unknown and untested progressive, Timothy Barrett, apparently has displaced a known and tested progressive, Councilwoman Nancy Selfridge.

Not talking about the national results. Mitch McConnell will be his own undoing. National politics are a hopeless mess and will be until a new Supreme Court rules that passing money around in expensive briefcases does not constitute free speech.

No, not those results. I’m talking, of course, about what looks to be the outcome of the sheriff’s race, in which the experienced professional incumbent, Scott Miller, may have lost to the inexperienced, ethically challenged GOP front man, Steve Bernal. Enough absentee ballots remain uncounted to possibly turn this one around, but it’s not looking good at the moment.

As my colleague Larry Parsons tweeted earlier, the candidates at the end made this all about the media. The Bernal people say the media were out to get the young deputy, so much so that reporters were turned away from Bernal’s election night party. Miller says the media failed to focus on Bernal’s lack of qualifications and his deceptive and negative campaigning. As with many things political, there are grains of truth to both versions but this stunner wasn’t about the media.

Now that I am no longer toiling in the trenches of daily journalism, I have a different take on the definition of “the media,” but Bernal and Miller were talking about different arms of the octopus. Yes, the understaffed Herald and the Salinas Californian were highly reluctant to challenge the distortions offered up by Bernal’s handlers, Brandon Gesicki et al. Simple he said/she said journalism is easier and it plays into the hands of a campaign that decides to go with the big lie technique, a Gesicki specialty. But the Monterey County Weekly never fell for Gesicki’s schtick and this loud but undersized platform, the Partisan, was not at all shy about focusing on Bernal’s pathetic resume’ and Gesicki’s devotion to deception. KSBW did its part by reporting on Bernal losing his car to repossession during the primary campaign and losing his house to foreclosure, neither of which demonstrate enough financial prowess to help him understand how to hold a budget right-side up.

The winning strategy consisted largely of harping on the legal troubles of Miller’s son and manipulating the deputies’ union, the Deputy Sheriffs Association, into endorsing Bernal. I’m not enough of a social scientist to understand why so many sons and daughters of sheriffs and police chiefs get into trouble the way Miller’s son did. Fair game to a degree. But the Bernal/Gesicki crew managed to convince quite a few voters that Miller had countenanced the young man’s drug use and sales. The evidence of that? Not a shred. But when you say something enough times, some folks are prone to see things that aren’t there.

The Gesicki gang turned the DSA against Miller by having Bernal promise things he can’t deliver, like free lunches and veto power over deputy scheduling. The campaign also took advantage of a cultural rift between Miller and the deputies. In an era of increasing militarization of law enforcement agencies, Miller isn’t a typical gung-ho, grrr, grunt kind of sheriff. He’s a relative sophisticate, someone who grew up in Pacific Grove, went to college, learned to speak Spanish. He doesn’t wear a cowboy hat, doesn’t hunt, doesn’t go four-wheeling with the boys every weekend.

In Bernal, the younger deputies see themselves, and I suspect that many of them see the next four years as time to let it all hang out. That is not a good thing. Bernal said during his campaign that he would eliminate internal affairs investigations except in cases of likely criminal wrongdoing. What about cases of incompetence or dereliction of duty? What about sexist or racist behavior? Don’t sweat it boys, the boss has your back.

Another factor that hasn’t been discussed is that leadership of the DSA sees personal opportunities in a Bernal regime. Change at the top usually means considerable change  in the upper reaches of the department. Quite a few higher-ranking employees loyal to Miller will pull the plug on their careers, opening promotional spots for a like number of Bernal cronies. Judging from my email, the jockeying and backstabbing began on Election Night.

The media may be partly to blame for all this, but there is plenty of blame to go around. The starting point is the Republican Party as operated locally by chairman Peter Newman. This entity is so hell-bent on keeping score of the number of elected Republicans that it cynically and selfishly created Bernal as a candidate and helped finance his shameless campaign. Newman tried to get Miller to change his registration from independent to Republican, promising to support no one else if he did so. When Miller declined, Newman helped create Bernal and even supported other challengers in the primary last spring.

In other words, Newman and pals are not concerned that an extremely important public-safety agency populated by heavily armed men and women could soon be managed by a fellow who has never been a manager, a deputy who apparently couldn’t pass the sergeants’ test.

Among the passengers on Newman’s wrong-way bus are former Carmel city officials Sue McCloud and Paula Hazdovac, Republicans both, who endorsed Bernal but not because they know anything about sheriffs. I believe they were getting back at Miller’s wife, Jane, who beat Carmel City Hall in a sexual harassment case after her time as the city’s personnel director. (Former Councilman Gerard Rose was on that bus as well but I understand he got off at an early stop.)

Where were the judges and prosecutors on this one? In order to do their jobs, prosecutors need good police work. Individually, they praise Miller highly for his work within the Sheriff’s Department and previously at the Pacific Grove and Salinas police departments, saying his investigators consistently presented quality work enabling them to convict the bad guys. Bernal’s never even been a detective and hasn’t trained anyone to do anything. Why weren’t the prosecutors making commercials for Miller? Monterey County DA Dean Flippo was at Miller’s gathering Tuesday night. He told others that he can’t make endorsements in such a race because he has to work with the winner no matter who that is. The problem is that the public also has to work with the winner, no matter who that is.

How about the county supervisors, who deal with the Sheriff’s Department daily and are often left to clean up its messes. Jane Parker went with Miller but the others chickened out. Supervisor and dairyman Lou Calcagno, who is about to leave office, said he didn’t want to take sides because he had bought hay from Bernal’s family. Let me repeat that. Supervisor and dairyman Lou Calcagno, who is about to leave office, said he didn’t want to take sides because he had bought hay from Bernal’s family. Maybe they gave him a great deal or some great hay.

Supervisors Dave Potter, Fernando Armenta and Simon Salinas were silent, too, even though I don’t think they bought any hay. One explanation is that their lists of campaign contributions line up closely with Bernal’s list.

Another Bernal accomplice is the Monterey Peninsula Chamber of Commerce and its political tentacles. It didn’t endorse Miller because Gesicki told chamber officials privately that Miller would soon be charged with a crime of some sort. That’s how he works and the chamber should have known that.

Finally, some of the blame has to go to Miller, not for his work as sheriff but for his decision to essentially run his own campaign. Gesicki is one of the least principled campaign managers I have dealt with in my 40 years in journalism, but that’s what he does for a living. He has run many campaigns, a couple successfully, and he understands spin and deception as well as anyone. The GOP brought in enough money to bring in an equally ruthless group of mercenaries to work with him.

Miller, meanwhile, made an early mistake by naming an ex-DEA agent as his campaign spokesman without realizing said spokesman had made some very politically incorrect statements in the past. After they parted ways, Miller was a staff of one. While he has been a good sheriff, and a fair poker player, he is not a campaign professional. He produced relatively little campaign literature and depended on overworked reporters to pierce Bernal’s messaging. You can see how that worked out.

The bright side, if there is one, is that maybe Bernal learned something from the campaign and will realize that the people he puts around him are exceedingly important. It is my fervent hope that none of them will be anything like Gesicki but perhaps he will attempt to reward competence over loyalty. Mary Duan, editor of the Weekly, dubbed Gustafson and the Marina Coast Water District board as the “Insane Clown Posse.” Here’s hoping that the Sheriff’s Department doesn’t become even more worthy of the name.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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County supervisors in California are responsible for lots of things, from health care to jails to the potholes on your street. But few people pay much attention to the supes until a big land-use issue comes along.

Even something as relatively small as the Corral de Tierra shopping center proposal last year pulled the citizenry away from the TV and caused neighbors to argue over open space vs. private property rights. Suddenly the five supervisors were receiving the attention they should have been receiving day to day—attention of the sort that detects patterns. It turns out that when the issue is land use and the stakes are high, our supervisors are following a script written years ago.

I bring this up now because an important supervisorial contest is on the November ballot. It’s Ed Mitchell against John Phillips in District 2. It’s about who will represent the north end of the county but it should matter to you no matter where you live, because the script impacts land-used decisions countywide.

Will the script be followed when the supervisors vote on the upcoming Ferrini Ranch development along Highway 68? It depends on who wins in November.

Here’s how it goes:

For most significant development projects, the script gives the developer two votes from the start. Supervisor Fernando Armenta of District 1 and Supervisor Simon Salinas of District 4 are almost guaranteed yes votes. That’s partly because most of the larger development projects are on the Peninsula, a place that doesn’t matter to Armenta and Salinas. They represent parts of the Salinas Valley, so they have nothing to lose by voting for projects and plenty to lose when they vote against. Such as campaign contributions. Lose those and you lose cushy jobs.

Armenta once told a jarring story about how he sees development issues.

It was at a Monterey Herald editorial board meeting. I asked Armenta whether he had ever taken a stand against development interests. He chuckled and said that he had. He explained that it was during the debate over the current Monterey County general plan. Developer types and property owners who hope to develop their land some day were pushing a development-friendly version of the plan while environmentalist types were pushing a new, slower-growth version.

It had turned into a chess game, and the development forces and their buddies on the board thought they saw an opening. They decided to try to pass the development-friendly plan on a surprise vote before the opposition could figure out what was happening.

So at one Tuesday board meeting, then-Supervisor Jerry Smith introduced a surprise motion to approve the developers’ plan. Everyone then looked at Armenta.

Armenta said everyone assumed he would second the motion. Others on the board were ready to vote in favor but didn’t want to second the motion because it would become too obvious that the fix was in.

“I just sat there,” Armenta said, grinning.

I asked him why.

He said it was simply because everyone expected him to second the motion because he was such a pro-development guy. He said he needed to teach “them” a lesson about taking him for granted. In other words, he wanted people to know that if they wanted him to vote for their project, they’d better ask nicely. His support wasn’t automatic. There were conditions. By the way, Armenta did not seem at all embarrassed by what he was saying.

The script continues. Though her vote is not nearly as automatic as those of Armenta and Salinas, Supervisor Jane Parker is a good bet to vote against large development projects of the sort that create traffic and water problems and upset environmentalists. Most developments.

So it’s now 2-1. What about Dave Potter, the cagey one?

If you were to go back through his land-use votes over the years, you might not detect a pattern. Like I said, he’s cagey.

If the development is in his district—maybe in Carmel Valley, Corral de Tierra or the southern coast–and if there is considerable opposition, the script calls for Potter to vote no, but only after making a deal with his co-star, Supervisor Lou Calcagno.

Now it appears to be a 2-2 tie. But remember. Calcagno and Potter have already made a deal. The vote is actually 3-2 in favor of the project. Potter can tell the neighborhood opposition that he did his best to stop it and he can tell the developer about how he and Lou made it happen.

There can be deviations from the script, occasional ad libs. Which is OK with the players as long as the story turns out right.

So why does it matter who wins in November? Calcagno is retiring from the board.

His District 2 replacement will be either Ed Mitchell or John Phillips. If Mitchell wins, they’ll have to write a new script.

Mitchell is the feisty land-use activist, a fixture at board meetings, a longtime neighborhood organizer in Prunedale. He’s the troublemaker in the white cowboy hat. Mitchell worked for years as a contract compliance officer and he’s a detail guy. He has watched as the county for years has made empty promises about providing water to the dry parts of his district. Whenever a land-use proposal goes to the board, he wants to know where the water is coming from.

Phillips is the more polished of the two. He is a retired Superior Court judge who has won great admiration for his work developing and operating the Rancho Cielo youth ranch, which has provided vocational and educational alternatives for hundreds of at-risk youngsters. He’s also much more of a behind-the-scenes guy than Mitchell. For years now, he has played an informal but key role in helping to select local lawyers for judicial appointments.

Phillips is well known and well liked within the upper crust but no so well known to the general public. While Mitchell’s motivations are fairly clear—he wants to solve problems in his district and disrupt the script on land-use issues—Phillips’ intentions are less clear. So are his views on development and land-use issues.

Which brings us back to the point of this missive. This runoff election is important well beyond the confines of North County. While people living in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City won’t have a vote in November, they still have an important stake. That’s why they should go to campaign forums and ask questions. How would you have voted on the last general plan, Judge Phillips? Have you received campaign contributions from developers? Mr. Mitchell, can you see yourself supporting a large residential development anywhere? How about on farmland? What defines a good project?

The people of PG and Carmel and King City also should make it clear to the media that those kinds of questions need to be asked, and answered.

Voters in Pacific Grove and Carmel and King City who already know which candidate they prefer also should do one more thing. Campaigns, unfortunately, run on money. Voters with strong feelings about the future of Monterey County should be making campaign contributions now if they want a say on how this plot turns out.

If you think the 255-home Ferrini Ranch subdivision would be a good thing to add along Highway 68, you should consider sending a campaign contribution to Phillips, or volunteering to help in his campaign. If you worry about traffic along Highway 68 or other ramifications of what amounts to leap-frog development, you’d be better off helping the Mitchell campaign instead.

No matter where you live.

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