Reports & Retorts Redux

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Click Here for Part I 

October

The unsuccessful attempt to fill the open director’s seat created a few question marks for the community.  Much was made of the chaotic process used in the September 19th special meeting.  Many Cambrians felt that process was poorly thought out and unfair to the candidates.  A lot of heat was directed towards board President Amanda Rice. As the keeper of the gavel, it was assumed that she would be the person responsible for defining the process and managing the execution.  While I agree she owns the hot seat, I’m not in the camp that sees the weakness of the attempt as solely her fault. Governing is a team sport.

President Rice, to her credit, reached out to members of the community to solicit ideas on how to do a better job with the next round scheduled for October 3rd. I don’t know how much helpful input she received, but it wasn’t quite enough to fix it all before the meeting.

Post 9/19, the community was buzzing with thoughts, suspicions, complaints and the odd call for revolution. Business as usual in this crazy, awesome town.  Candidates that had submitted themselves to the Circus Minimus that took place between the hills over the skate park and the hills over the Fiscalini Ranch had time to rethink their commitment to service.  Many decided to remain in the competition, despite not quite knowing the rules.

Let Us Try Again

I was unable to attend the October 3rd meeting but did manage to catch a portion of the proceedings via the Slo-span.org live feed, and later watched the whole session via the archived recording.

The community came out in force, with different candidates having groups of supporters rooting for their success. There were a lot of the usual attendees and an increased number of citizens who came to speak in support of Aaron Wharton. Aaron is a local business owner who decided that he wanted to contribute to the community that he and his family chose as their home. He bore a different profile from most other candidates. He had acquitted himself reasonably well in the original round of interviews and was one of the six chosen for the bonus round.

Support

To the surprise of some, multiple speakers rose to vocalize their support for Wharton’s candidacy. So many that those not in his camp began to voice suspicions that the whole thing was planned, perhaps in cahoots with one or two directors. The word “puppet” made its way into the conversation. It seemed that some of the regulars, who frequently pack the meeting and regularly speak about this and that couldn’t believe that another group of folks would take advantage of the public comment period to advocate their cause!

I’ve got no strings, so I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings, but you can see
There are no strings on me

Written by Dickie Jones and performed by Pinocchio

After public comment, the meeting turned to the business at hand – fill the seat. Here’s where the whole thing went sideways again. Since no meaningful progress had been made in structuring the selection process, the previous month’s chaos came back for an encore. It was unclear – would candidates have a chance to speak? Would there be more interview questions from the board? At some point, President Rice noted that in her view any member of the community could still submit themselves for consideration. Oh boy!

Suddenly there was a cavalcade of citizen activists marching to the podium to declare their candidacy.  It was like a mashup of Bullworth, The American President, Forrest Gump and Waiting For Guffman. Yes, those are four loosely associated films with tenuous plot ties strung together to make an inconsequential point.

But seriously…

Things settled down a bit though candidate DeWayne Lee, a strong contender for the seat, was unsure if he would have an opportunity to present himself again. It was assumed he would, so he deferred his public comment slot with the expectation that he would present later in the proceedings.

Aaron Wharton made his way to the podium for a second round of grilling.  He began by referring back to some of the answers he had given in the first round. He inartfully tried to clarify that his answer to the question on how many permits should be allowed wasn’t quite right, and it had been given as an effort to “tell them what they wanted to hear.”  Not the best or most thoughtfully constructed statement; it gave the impression that he was just appeasing a few directors.

It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here…

Director Farmer picked up the oven mitts, turned up the heat and started grilling Mr. Wharton.  It was clear that he was not a fan, and was using his time to aggressively challenge Wharton’s answers.  The exchange got a bit weird, with Farmer rejecting Wharton’s answers by interrupting him and repeating his questions in an even harsher tone.  Mr. Wharton, clearly bemused, asked Mr. Farmer “what do you want my answer to be?” – turning his earlier misstep into a humorous and de-escalating jibe.

After the cross-examination ended, Director Bahringer nominated Mr. Wharton.  (note: he had also nominated him during the seven rounds at the previous meeting.)  The nomination was quickly seconded by Vice President Sanders.  Director Farmer looked quite stunned by the quickness of the nomination process, and during discussion asked for clarification on whether he could abstain.  That took a few minutes, and then the intrepid clerk called the roll.

Director Bahringer – AYE. Vice President Sanders – AYE. Director Farmer (more clarifying discussion, then…) ABSTAIN.  President Rice – AYE.

Aaron Wharton, come on down and raise your hand!

It was me against the world, I was sure that I’d win, but the world fought back, punished me for my sins.

Mike Ness, Social Distortion

Standards

How do we view the job of an elected official?  Why do we choose one candidate over another?  Positions or personality?  Values or attitudes?  Comfortable or charismatic?  Familiar or mysterious?

After we make our choices, how do we expect our chosen few to execute their duties?  How long do we stick with them, or more accurately how soon do we abandon them?


A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.”   The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?”                       Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”


  • I vote for a person with the expectation that they will do what I want them to do because they work for me.
  • I vote for a person because I believe they have the capacity and skill to make the best choices based on all the facts available, combined with their experience and discernible character traits.  I don’t expect to agree with or like every decision or position, but my vote is a sign of confidence in the person.

There is also the question of how an elected official views their responsibility once they assume office.

The proper view should always be “regardless of how many votes I garnered I am obligated to represent all the members of the community.”

What we sometimes see, however, is the view that “I represent the people who voted for me, and I will decide based on their wishes.”

Are We, We Are

During all this tumult it again became clear that Cambria is a community of many tribes. Some are very vocal, which can give the impression that their numbers are much larger than they are. Some, in their passionate zeal, ignore social norms and fall back on volume and venom to move their position forward. Some rely on quiet negotiation, using relationships and positive persuasion to advocate for their views. Some follow along, and some just ignore it all. When hard times hit, or someone needs a helping hand the community frequently drops the animus and acts with a level of unity that reminds me how great this town is. When it comes to the CCSD, and to a lesser extent the CCHD (Cambria’s Community Health District) that unity heads to Costco for a big box of “NOPE.”

Sightlines

Watching from afar and watching from the back of the room are two very different experiences.  Being “in the room where it happens” adds dimension to the experience.  You can see and hear the murmurs, sharp comments, snorts and quiet affirmations from the audience.  You can watch the body language of the crowd, see furious scribbling or iPad tapping, catch the fleeting smiles and nods as well as the darkening scowls and grimaces depending on what is being said from the dais or the speaker’s podium.  You can also catch the interaction between citizens as they comment to each other or, frequently about each other.

Occasionally, rude or disruptive outbursts or steady streams of angry chatter cause others to turn around, stare or comment, communicating the request for courtesy so everyone might hear the words of those who legitimately have the floor.  This general sense of courtesy and reasonable public behavior sadly falls apart when some citizens feel their right to “free speech” trumps the rights of others to focus on and listen to the rightfully recognized.

An Example

This story is not intended to be “gossipy,” but it is meant to shine a light on behaviors and attitudes that sometimes diminish the principle that everyone has the right to participate in the proceedings without harassment or undue disruption.

While getting feedback from people who attended the October 3rd meeting, a few  relayed an exchange that happened between two locals.  One, a noted activist and frequent disruptor, and the other a local business owner attending the meeting in support of a candidate.

As the proceedings went on, a group of folks stood in the back of the room, talking loudly and distractingly.  The business owner turned around and asked for them to quiet down so people could hear what proceedings.  The requestor was met with the following response. (stealing a masking tactic from the Megan Amram-scripted hit comedy series “The Good Place) “FORK OFF, BUB.”

Nice.

After the meeting ended, he approached the disruptor to express his dismay at being treated so rudely.  That earned a second “FORK OFF, BUB.”

Now, this type of truculence isn’t all that surprising, but I wanted to be sure what I was told was accurate.  I reached out to the recipient of this verbal assault, who after ascertaining that I wasn’t out to cause him grief, agreed to meet and fill in the blanks.  Those blanks included a third invitation to “FORK OFF.”

Still, I wanted to understand if there was more to the story, or perhaps gain an understanding of why the responder felt it was appropriate to behave in this fashion. I sent an email to the orator asking if the story was true and accurate and if there was more that could be shared that might provide a different perspective on the exchange. As of today, I’ve not gotten any response.

Next – The new guy takes a seat, just in time to do it all over again.

 

 

 

 

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Reports and Retorts

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Check The Milk Carton

I’ve taken some time away from my blog for a few reasons.  I’ve been a bit busy with “work” writing, and by the time I’m done with that, the last thing I want to do is write some more.

The larger reason, though, is a bit more personal.  As an observer of community interactions, I’ve developed some particular views on people, on positions and the intersection of both.  It would be dishonest to say I am “neutral,” but I think it would be similarly dishonest to say I am a committed member of a group that advocates one side over the other.  I lean, but I don’t believe I fall.

This has made it a bit difficult for me to keep a clear line of sight as I attend the monthly meetings, read the mountain of documentation that surround the major issues, and have conversations with friends and acquaintances around town.  So, I took a few months off from the blog but still followed along as things progressed.

And boy, have things progressed!

Structure

For those who read from afar, a quick description of how the Cambria Community Services District is structured.

We have a Board of Directors consisting of 5 elected positions. Each elected term is four years, and those terms are staggered with the thought of keeping some level of continuity as terms expire or seats otherwise become vacant.

There are several ways to fill positions that become vacant during a term:

  • A special election can be called.
  • An interim appointment can be made by the remaining board members.
  • Should all attempts to make an appointment in this process fail, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors can make the appointment.

Depending on when in the term a vacancy occurs, the seat will be on the ballot during the next election cycle.

All the options have positives and negatives, and in  Cambria, each method has vocal supporters and detractors.

Now It’s Time, To Say Goodbye…

Long-serving Director Michael (nobody calls him Mickey) Thompson announced that he was resigning his position effective the end of August 2017. Director Thompson’s adult life has been dedicated to public service, pre-dating his time in Cambria. He has been an active member of this community, with a broad and loyal base of friends and supporters. In addition to his service to the CCSD, he has been a contributing member of organizations ranging from the Chamber of Commerce, Cambria American Legion Post 432 and more.  He has been a faithful supporter of the Sustainable Water Facility, as well as a strong advocate for sensible management of balanced growth and environmental stewardship.  (Begin howls of disagreement here…) Over his long career of service, he developed a low-key but clear way of expressing his positions on important issues. He has also demonstrated an open-minded and fair approach to listening and adjusting his views based on new input or information.

His term runs through November of 2018, so the seat was eligible for appointment. The decision was made to follow the previous practice and have the sitting directors select a replacement by unanimous vote. The legally required process was followed; post a notice of vacancy, call for interested candidates, provide an application form and schedule a special meeting where the next phase of the process would play out.

A Baker’s Dozen

Thirteen candidates submitted applications.  A read through all of the applications revealed a healthy list of desirable skills and experiences, many in the public sector, and some with previous leadership roles on the CCSD Board.

By the time the meeting began only a dozen candidates had remained under active consideration. There was just one woman on the slate, which, given the makeup of the town and the number of women who are very involved in the community was a bit of a surprise.

“Let’s Get Ready To Grumble!!!”

From the first gavel, it was obvious that the meeting was not going to go very smoothly. There were no clear guidelines that would cover the entire process and there were no objective criteria the Directors could use to fairly and equally “score” candidates.  In reality, each member of the board brought personal preferences and biases to the process, and without more structure that ultimately ruled the decision-making process.

The “interview”  process had been used in the past, but with a much smaller group of candidates. With a dozen people to work through it became clear that it would be at best difficult to give each candidate, and each director, a decent amount of time to thoroughly explore even a minor few positions. Successive applicants, having heard the previous questions and answers, would have the advantage of adjusting their responses based on what they just saw and heard.

In This Corner…

Two of the sitting directors – Jim Bahringer and Greg Sanders – expressed views that advocated appointing someone with positions similar to Mr. Thompson’s, the rationale being that he was elected with a significant margin, and the citizens who spoke with their votes should have their positions sustained for the remainder of the term.  Others on the board had different views.

In That Corner…

President Rice pointed out that over time, Director Thompson’s positions evolved and would likely have continued to evolve should he have served his entire term.  Director Farmer pointed to the most recent election, where he was selected over an incumbent, as a sign that community sentiments had changed significantly since the 2014 vote, and those sentiments should be taken into account.

In The Peanut Gallery…

A third position, which makes sense to me, is to appoint someone to fill the vacancy who brings a new energy and outlook, different experiences and a philosophy that is inclusive and open to input but can stand firm on major decisions.  More importantly, the appointee should have a set of skills that would add value to the body, rather than just appeasing any given segment of the overall town.

Round One

The candidates make their statements.  Each established their positions, using different techniques from a classic recitation of resumes to showy flourishes that played to the crowd but didn’t land with much impact.  The rounds progressed, with various combinations of probing jabs and slick defenses.  After a while, the judges decided to narrow the field, with each member offering their choices.  Those that met the on-the-fly threshold of multiple mentions went on to the round of six. At this point, I have to switch to a different sports metaphor.

The Ties That Bind…(Apologies to Bruce Springsteen)

After eliminating 6 of the 12 candidates, the board continued their attempt to select a new teammate.  Rather than retelling the whole excruciating story, I’ll go with the Warner Wolfe version. (If you want you can “go to the videotape” HERE)

“Bahringer opens with a strong nomination -picking a seasoned veteran to join the starting five.  He makes a strong case for his pick, citing a 17-year career on the CCSD team as a major strength.  Sanders nods and agrees, adding a second.  Crunch time – the ball is passed around the court, and ultimately the candidate is REJECTED!  The crowd is getting into it now.”

The process continues, with nominations, discussions, and rejections.  Each round ended as the first had – Bahringer and Sanders on one side, Rice and Farmer on the other.  The exchanges got hotter, the arguments more pointed, and the language grew more forceful.  “Come on man, take this seriously!”  “I’m taking this very seriously, Mister!”  Tough stuff!

In the end, seven votes were taken, seven scores of 2-2.  Nobody wins.

Let’s Do It Again!

With no selection made, the board agreed to have a second special meeting to try again to fill the seat.  We’ll take a look at that in our next episode.

Oh, Yeah…

Did I mention that Greg Sanders announced that he was resigning his seat at the end of October?

 

PART II  – CLICK HERE

 

 

 

100 Days

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The Crazy Beauty of Democracy

Elections – our opportunity to make choices and vote our ideals. Or hearts.  Sometimes even our rational minds.  This past election season was certainly unlike anything we’d seen before.  And now we get to look back at the magical 100 days, and see what we have wrought!

Setting the Stage

Not everyone was happy.  No matter where one stood on the issues, the general sense was that some soon-to-be made choices would either lead to comfortable stability or radical change.  Some traditional affiliations held, but without the rock-solid surety of previous election seasons. New candidates emerged, familiar faces stepped up and fell back, and in the end, it came down to two.  One, a familiar and often scrutinized woman with a long and laudable record of public service.  The other, a man of some celebrity, known for things other than a firm grasp on the intricacies of complex and serious governmental process and responsibility.  Both had ardent and vocal supporters.  Both had detractors.  Both stepped forward and spoke of their vision for the future.  They were different, very different.

The campaigns rolled on, the candidates leaned on their respective bases for the votes needed to win the election.  Most observers thought that she would succeed. Her popularity wasn’t as solid and enthusiastic as it might have been; she had been urged to lean in a bit harder and expand her support, but she stayed true to her strategy.

He was a wild card from the beginning.  Of course, there was a core group of passionate supporters who shared his views and attitudes.  There was also a growing distrust of the established government and of the established governors.  The vague discomfort grew into something stronger as the campaign season wore on.  More and more supporters of adjacent candidates turned to him, embracing his message.  A message that was often hard to figure out, and positions that were more sound byte and vague accusation than firm and verifiable policy positions and governing platforms.  It was all, “They’re bad, I’m not” and, “There’s something going on here and I can stop it” slugs.

We all know how that turned out.

Raise your Hand and Repeat…

The oath of office was administered.  Some thoughts at the time:

“Well, he won on a wave of passion and desire for something other than the same old, same old… but running for the office and actually being in the office are very different things. He will realize how complex and difficult the role is, and will become more serious about doing the job. There is no way he will continue to pepper other government representatives with vague accusations of corruption, incompetence and elitism… no way he will remain under-educated about how the government works, how public service differs from public criticism, how the mechanics of public budgets and finance differ from simpler tasks of personal financial management…  how public works differ from private enterprise, even when both are technically complex.  He will grow and mature, and recognize that the words he used as a private citizen with little public accountability must be delivered more thoughtfully and with greater precision when holding the public trust. He will recognize that the other elected representatives are there, as he is there, through the will of the people… he will not need to embrace them, but he will need to work with them in a trusted and professional manner…”

Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.

Walter Isaacson, writing about Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers

Showtime

So the clock ticks, and the official record begins. His knowledge is on public display.  His questions are now coming from a position of responsibility, and what was ok before is now not so okay.  Expectations are higher.  Skills are expected to sharpen.  Efforts to become more expert in key areas have to be made, and results have to be measurable.  Careless and inflammatory remarks made as a private citizen, or as a populist candidate, now have to be challenged more quickly and more forcefully.  Attacking others, no matter how “benignly” will draw return fire; he can’t be surprised by it nor unduly offended.  This isn’t a game, its people’s lives.

Survey Says…

The maturity has not happened.  His questions and public comments remain, at best, difficult to follow.  The go-to move of repeating the vague accusations and suspicions that enthralled his supporters during the campaign just don’t pass muster now.  Certainly, many of his base still cheer him on and marvel at his courage and “stick it to the establishment”  attitude.  Great.  Fantastic.  Unbelievable, believe me.

I don’t, and here’s why.

It is easy to declare one’s intention to “bring people together” and “heal the divides that separate us”. But, with every comment to a reporter, every broadcast interview, and every indolent repetition of the same old lines, bridges erode.

Every repeated, simplistic analogy is evidence of a closed mind.

Every play to the base is a missed opportunity for wider connections.

The true test of leadership arrives; the opportunity to really listen, digest and incorporate information and develop a better understanding – well, still waiting.

The hundred day mark has been reached.  From where I sit things have gone badly.  Sorry, Harry, but that’s my thought from the back of the room.

 

The Continuing Education of A Curious Boy

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Cambria is as much a melting pot as New York or San Francisco.  Within the community there are artists and farmers, small business owners and the people who staff and run the many shops, restaurants and hotels that cater to the large visitor population that fuels Cambria’s economy.  There are retirees of all backgrounds, and young (though not so many) families who have chosen to build their futures here. Vineyards, microbreweries and tasting rooms share their own creativity, offering inviting places for people to meet and experience liquid art. The hills surrounding the town are dotted with farms and ranches, with cows lowing mere yards from the beautiful PCH or following well-worn paths up and through the hills and canyons.  At times I find myself thinking, as I take in the unreal beauty, that it looks like a painting.  Life not imitating, but being ART.

And beauty is beauty.  The coastline may be on the wrong side of the continent, and the pine trees look different, but the infinite wonder of the clear night sky over the rumbling ocean is as inspiring as a high winter sky illuminating crunchy snowfields and frozen lakes.  Beauty.

 Doctor’s Appointment

When not gazing at the sky, I enjoy talking to people from all parts of the community.  I have long wanted to have a conversation with Doctor Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Ph.D.  Ms. Bettenhausen is a frequent contributor to the ongoing dialog that fills the Vet’s Hall every fourth Thursday of the month. She speaks with an endearing combination of poetry, reverence for nature and education but then easily pivots to a rapid-fire statistical precision (often flavored with the tone of incredulity) that can make a listener sit up and pay attention or chuckle in admiration as she weaves her narrative.  She is always well-prepared, and though her facts and figures sometimes add up to disputable conclusions, she remains open to feedback and discussion.  She has a great mix of ego, passion, curiosity and desire to bring positive action to difficult situations.  In a series of exchanges on social media, we expressed very different views on “how much is too much” interaction with the staff of the CCSD. Anyone who spends more than eighty-four seconds on Facebook knows that more often than not these exchanges lead to less than polite endings.  Ms. Bettenhausen took a different path, inviting me to join her for coffee or tea and a discussion of the issues and the information that led us to our different conclusions. It took a few months to make that meeting happen, though we did run into each other at the Cookie Crock (I just love typing “Cookie Crock”) and at the Vet’s Hall.

I had two CCSD-related questions I really wanted to ask her.  The first question, based on a sentiment that has been expressed by some community members – was pointed and direct – “do you think that the Board is corrupt?”  And the second, and more interesting question to me – “why do you engage so deeply with the issues of the CCSD?”

Outside Benches, Inside Voices

We finally scheduled a time to meet before a special Board meeting. We connected, sans refreshments, on a beautifully sunny afternoon, coming together on the benches outside the Joslyn Center a moonstone’s throw from the Vet’s Hall. Our discussion began as most first conversation begin in this town – “what brought you to Cambria?”  This usually leads to a fun exchange of stories, but in this instance it laid a bit of a foundation for the discussion that followed.

Elizabeth  Bettenhausen is a passionate environmentalist, and a more passionate advocate for education. She devotes a good amount of her time as a volunteer at Cambria’s grammar school, helping the kids with everything from reading to understanding our natural world and the fragility of our environment. She teaches them about our responsibilities in sustaining all that it is.

As much as she is a passionate environmentalist, she is equally an advocate for Social Justice.  This led our conversation back to the reasons we chose Cambria, and the layers of social complexity that both knits the community together and keeps it separated.  After a bit of background and personal history exchanges, Ms. Bettenhausen brought the conversation back to that initial question, and examined it through the lens of her experiences.

Ms. Bettenhausen shared her experiences working with the kids in the grammar school, and highlighted some of the divisions within the community that play out in the classroom.  She spoke about the distance between the Hispanic and non-Hispanic communities, and between the different tiers of economic advantage.  We touched on the various “sub-cultures” that make up the community, and what each tribe saw as their vision for the town.  We spoke about the realities of the social ills that affect all communities regardless of size, location or economic status.  The painful and not always obvious darkness of drug abuse and the associated impacts on families and communities seem to bring the same pain and destruction whether in Cambria California or Katonah, New York.  Poverty in Paso Robles hurts as much as poverty in Bridgeport Connecticut.

We spoke of faith both learned and earned, and of the beliefs we examined, lived and ultimately rejected. And we discussed the beauty of the natural world that surrounds us.

Three o’clock suddenly tapped us on the shoulder, so we began our walk towards the Vet’s Hall. I remembered I hadn’t asked Elizabeth (by now I am comfortable using her first name) the two questions that had been clanging around in my brain for weeks and weeks. I  I’m glad I didn’t open our conversation with them;  the discussion might have gone a completely different way.

(Oh, by the way, the answers were “No – perhaps not fully competent, but not corrupt” and “I believe it’s my responsibility as a member of the community.”)

Doctor Two

As if talking to one gifted teacher wasn’t enough, I had the unexpected pleasure of joining a discussion with another local legend, Bill Bianchi, Ph.D. I’m sure a lot of people in the community are familiar with Bill’s work; a Google search will lead you to a range of his writings.  Worth a spin!

We were attending a social function filled with impressive locals from all backgrounds.  Bill was quietly sitting at table, engaged in general discussions about a range of things. As often happens around here, the conversation turned to water – a subject Bill knows a little bit about.  With a Doctorate in Soil Physics, his expertise runs deeper that the local aquifers.  In a quiet, light voice he walked us all through the fascinating history of water issues that have always been part of the California story. Bill blended his academic work and knowledge of local history with deep technical and statistical data wrapped in a very humanistic spirit and served up an education that put local water issues into a bigger context. Bill shared his experience and expertise is such a casual, inclusive manner that learning didn’t hurt at all!

Calm Tops Calamity

So many topics often become nothing more than ragged noise fueled by parochial passions that over time blur fact, fiction and feeling and lead listeners far from the kernel.  Both of these discussions reminded me that passion met with education and a thoughtful soul, delivered without arms in hand are so much more inspiring than red-faced and hard-hearted denial of different thoughts and perspectives.

Thank you, Doctors!

 

Tough Slog

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Water, Water Everywhere

It certainly has been a challenging few weeks for the Cambria Community Services District employees.  They’ve been inundated from every possible direction, with never-ending rain straining every resource. From the well fields to the brine pond, water, water everywhere.  The town, the surrounding hills, the beaches and the roads were assaulted by blessed and cursed rain.  It was all hands on a flooded deck.   Danger. A slip, a missed step, a falling tree, or a power line.  Look left, get pummelled from the right.  Miss something over there while trying to fix something over here, and bad things can happen. 

At the same time, the CSD staff leadership was under a different deluge – one of warnings and eventually notices of violation from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board.  Some of these issues overlapped, with the rains exacerbating the strain and driving serious and consequential real-time decision-making, each choice the best that could be made, knowing that the downside of other things put aside could come back to haunt.  There is real danger in these times.

Pick up a shovel or spreadsheet?  Answer a public request or comply with an agency requirement?  Ensure safety or ensure administrative compliance?  Ask for help or ask forgiveness?  Whatever call is made, another one will be made by someone else. Such is a life in public service.  Plenty of support when someone gets hurt, and plenty of told-you so’s when someone comes up short.

Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. Thomas Paine

Extra, Extra!!!

In the weeks since the last Board meeting, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board sent Notices of Violation to the CCSD.  Each notice contained specific complaints, and each listed infraction carried the potential for fines; the number of instances times the dollar amounts per violation quickly added up to a theoretical fine closing in on $600,000.00 all in.  Startling, disturbing and definitely eye-catching.  Which is why the headlines led with it in one form or another.  Not Fake News, but certainly tone-setting.

A careful reading of the credible news articles revealed a more detailed and nuanced view of the situation. The vast majority of the violations were administrative – late or incomplete reports being the main bloc of issues.  The reporting requirements placed on the CSD are not trivial; some would argue they are close to punitive.  The reports seem to be required so the Water Board and other oversight agencies can monitor and manage any potential issues that could compromise the health and safety of both citizens and the environment.  Important stuff, and each agency seems to take these data points very seriously.  Timeliness of the reports likely impact the reporting the respective agencies need to do, and on it goes.

A deeper dive into the reporting and updates from the involved parties reveal that the draconian tone of the notices (and the subsequent headlines) were meant to convey a message – “Hey, guys – we are very serious here.  Get it together fast!!!”  Further reading offered a more conciliatory and even encouraging posture from agency representatives.  While not absolution, it revealed a more pragmatic and less dramatic approach to solving the problems that drove the notices.

The General Manager acknowledged the violations, and accepted that he and his staff had to do much better to win the trust of the agencies and the public.  Significant progress has been made against the backlog of late reporting.  Root causes were identified, and process changes and personnel realignments were made to better manage the requirements going forward.

Still – those headlines!  The most extreme of the stories flew around Social Media like the winning Lottery numbers.  To some, I guess, there were.

Accountability

I never expect to see a perfect work from an imperfect man. – Alexander Hamilton

Throughout the onslaught, some very serious questions were raised around accountability.  There is no doubt that the General Manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring the CSD’s obligations are met. He’s The Guy.  Responsibilities for individual deliverables fall across different parts of the organization, and many are shared among different, interlocking functions, but when things go boom, people are looking for that “one throat to choke.”  He is the one who takes the beating, no matter how fair or unfair.  I think he accepts that responsibility, and so far he has stood up and taken the heat.  He also stood tall and apologized for his comments at an earlier meeting, directing his words to the individual he scuffled with and the agency he inaccurately represented. Most importantly, he has taken action to correct what needed correcting.  Still, there are members of the community who are demanding his head.  Some have been taking small snips, others flashing their blades wildly. Still others lay out stones in the road hoping he will stumble over one and knock his own head off.  Or lose his cool, speak out of turn, and force the hand of say, oversight agencies.

Others take a more measured view, shut out the noise, and deal with the facts.  Not a single dollar in fines has been levied based on the Notices Of Violation.  That could change, and maybe it could result in a significant fine.  Maybe there will be a nominal fine or penalty.  Maybe the oversight will be ramped up and the reporting requirements tightened.  Or maybe, with considered review, opportunities to reshape some of the requirements will make it easier to comply while maintaining the correct levels of safety and situational awareness.  I struggle to think of a reason an agency would severely punish a community for these types of infractions.  I wonder why some community members seem almost gleeful at the prospect.  Weird, right?

Abandonment

I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too!  – Margaret Hamilton

You know what else is weird?  The incredible swiftness with which some loyal friends and supporters of the Board President tossed her under the Prius and sped away because she did not do their bidding.  She (GASP!!!!) voted the way she thought was best.  Well, hot damn!! I fear some people don’t quite know how representative government is supposed to work.  It is interesting  to see some of these folks go on about free and equal, but when they don’t get the specific actions they want they call for the overthrow of their own votes. To quote some bozo in Washington. “SAD!”

Unaccepted Answers

With every meeting and every conversation, it becomes clearer that no matter what the explanation, what the reasoning or what the evidence says, some  folks simply will not believe anything the Board says about the Sustainable Water Facility.  From the conditions that drove the rapid development and build out of the facility, to the funding of the project, the rebranding, and the current status, required changes and ongoing permitting, every position given by the Board is called into question by those who oppose the plant, along with pretty much everything else that is the District’s responsibility.  Every question has been answered, and just about ever answer has been rejected.  Short of allowing folks to place fingers in wounds nothing will change any mind.  This is really too bad.  But if the foundational mindset is that there never was an emergency and the facility was always intended to fuel growth, therefore everyone involved is corrupt and dishonest, this will never change.  It becomes a game of attrition.

I often question my own view of the facts, so I reach out to different members of the resistance to ask for a better understanding of their positions.  Results have been mixed, with some good, open and civil conversations, and some sharp, “stick to the issues and “What do you not see?” retorts, as if coming to different conclusions somehow makes me a dullard.

Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. – Alexander Hamilton

How Do We Listen?

There were a couple of real head-scratching exchanges during the last meeting.  They illustrate our collective differences in how we listen, what we hear through our own filters and biases, and how we respond to what was said.  A few quick examples:

  • The GM went through, in some detail, the actions he and the staff have taken in response to the Notices of Violation.  He highlighted a few of the drivers that contributed to late reporting, including samples that are sent to different labs around the country, resulting in uneven and delayed results needed to populate the required reports.  He outlined the steps taken to remove this particular stumbling block; later, in public comment a citizen referred back to the GM’s comments as an example of finger-pointing and shifting blame.  Now, my initial reaction was “that’s not what I heard.” Director Bahringer’s response confirmed my take on what was said.
  • Another citizen (and prior candidate for a Board seat) spoke about the loan agreement that funded a large part of the facility, saying we have “hocked everything we own…”and painted a dire picture of having everything in town seized if we default.  I wonder if he read a different loan agreement, because I didn’t see anything like that in the one I read.
  • A third example was an exchange between Directors Farmer and Sanders regarding the work needed to be done to complete the EIR.  Director Sanders shared his experienced opinion that documents like the EIR often go through a complicated response process, and at times the information that agencies have requested in their review comments are already in the document, and could be found by a more careful review of the data provided.  Director Farmer replayed that back as Director Sanders blaming the Agencies for not doing a good job, rather than the original EIR document being flawed.  Certainly not what I heard Director Sanders say, but that’s how Director Farmer heard it.
  • The last example of what was said versus what was heard – in discussing the excess water in the brine pond, the GM outlined a plan that is under consideration, pending approval and permitting from the appropriate agencies.  That plan includes draining much of the rain and floodwaters out of the pond and into nearby fields, lowering the content of the pond to safe, compliant levels.  The second piece of the puzzle would be the ongoing removal of the brine produced by the SWF.  This would entail pumping the brine into tankers and trucking it south to a facility that would dispose of it safely.  The General Manager did some quick math, and estimated that taking everything currently in the brine pond, pumping and trucking it out could cost around a million dollars, and that clearly was not a feasible solution.  This was relayed back to me in an email as  “The estimate at the meeting was at least $1 million to dispose of what’s there now. “

Perhaps these few examples can highlight why it might be helpful to take a minute or two, think about what we hear, ask clarifying questions, or even replay a recording to validate our thoughts.  However, if we all go into a situation with set jaws and contentious minds, not much will change.  A war of attrition.

Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest – Paul Simon

Once Upon A Time

A friend shared with me an article by Nathan Welton from July 2004, detailing the multiple environmental groups who engaged in the battles over the Hearst development efforts. I was struck by the sheer number of different and overlapping groups, and the fractures and tensions among them as they battled to find a common voice.

This section caught my attention: “Leading up to that event was raucous name-calling littering editorial pages — one recent letter painted North Coast county supervisor Shirley Bianchi “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hearst Corp.” for her support of the current preservation and development plan.”

“Meanwhile, a former adviser to the Environmental Defense Center has admonished the group for having the temerity to make a public request for documents related to the Hearst deal.”

“And Sierra Club officials are threatening to kick local board member Tim O’Keefe out of the organization for publicly airing his differences over Hearst.”

Turn on a trusted and dedicated public figure – check.

Get mad about public document requests – check.

Exile individuals for airing differences of opinion – check.

The more things change…

Quite Remarkable

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Wait a Minute, Mister Postman!

I was very surprised to see a series of official documents regarding issues between the CCSD and Governmental agencies appear on Social Media within hours of them being sent.  Odd, I thought.  How on earth did these posters get these documents so quickly?  They weren’t any of the addressees, nor any of those cc’d.  They weren’t mentioned in the body of any of the official documents.  So why am I so interested in how the document got posted so quickly?  Good question, multi-part response.

Learn Your Lessons Well

First, some color.  Back in my corporate days I would  find myself in litigations and mediations around a host of issues – business, technical, contractual, etc.  In one particular case I was in a mediation session in Chattanooga, Tennessee.  One of the attorneys from the other side was an older guy, right out of Central Casting.  White haired, hounds tooth sport jacket, bow tie, round spectacles, probably smoked a pipe while sipping sweet tea.  Behind the fatherly appearance was a legal lion. One phrase he used, in his soft southern drawl, was “this document is quite remarkable.  Quite remarkable indeed!”  I knew I was in for a battle with a very capable opponent.

That simple phrase comes to mind as I think about the most recent chapter in the ongoing drama “As The Water Churns.”

The Documents

I read them several times so I would have a decent grasp on the issues. Most of the issues seem to be administrative violations, with late and/or incomplete reporting topping the list.  Why is this happening?

  • Staffing issue?
  • Onerous and redundant requirements?
  • Lack of expertise?
  • Lack of understanding of the reporting requirements?
  • Clerical errors?
  • Incompetence?
  • Malice?
  • Prioritization where the reporting was superseded by more critical tasks?

The issues raised around the rapid rise of water levels in the brine pond are clearly a concern, and highlight the risks associated with a failure to properly address the root causes.  As the report correctly pointed out, the a major contributing factor was out of the district’s control, but the remedy belongs to the district and the agencies responsible for the land and culvert that caused the problem.

These issues need to be addressed, and it is imperative they are addressed fully, however long that might take.

The language of the notices seemed to be overly dramatic and heavy-handed, designed to be a very loud shot across the bow.  A subsequent report in The Cambrian seems to support this observation.

Shot heard.

I heard it’s Conspiracy Theory month.  Here’s mine.

Remarkable

It’s quite remarkable that an official series of communications from a regulatory agency to another agency, ‘cc’d to members and staff from additional agencies, wound up in the possession of three citizens not affiliated with any of those agencies, not on any part of the distribution/cc list, and with no indication that they were in any way party to the matters being discussed.  Well, I thought, these documents are public record, and can be shared (after proper review) with members of the public.  Yet here they were, posted to a Social Media Page, mere hours after they were sent.

Even with everything moving at previously unheard of speed, it would be nearly impossible for a citizen to draw up a FOIA request, submit it to any or all of the parties named or copied, have the request go through the appropriate vetting process (especially since there are specific threats of penalties that could reasonably require a response and discussion between/among the parties) before the information is released to a citizen. Even if a miracle FOIA event happened, an individual would likely have to know that such a series of notices were being prepared and sent, who was preparing them, and who would be getting them.

Quite remarkable indeed.

I thought about it some more, recalling the times that staff and board members raised the issue of members of the public using the agencies to harass and obstruct Cambria’s efforts to successfully complete the SWF project.  I thought about the General Manager’s repeated comments, the resignation of a key employee, the stories I’d heard from other Cambrians about the many “off the books” interactions between citizens and staff members of several agencies, including the Water Board and the Coastal Commission.

What’s the likelihood of these “off the books” interactions being discovered by a FOIA request?

I though about the many letters – including the ones submitted through EIR Review, and those published in papers like the Sierra Club newsletter, and compared them to the writings and public comments of several of the prominent opponents.  The similarities are quite remarkable – as if the same writer’s hands guided them all.

Finally, here’s a blatant example of agency documents appearing on Facebook, in near real-time, from persons that have no discernible reason to have those documents in that timeframe, and the theories of collusion, obstruction and double-dealing seemed more credible.

 

Shine The Light 

If there are people in positions of authority – or staffers with inside information – who are inappropriately sharing documents, giving access to confidential or sensitive information, or otherwise assisting people or groups who are deliberately acting with the intent to cause failure, that needs to be investigated and dealt with.  That goes for anyone – CCSD Board members, Coastal Commission staffers, Water Board folks…

This is a reasonable position, and one that should be appreciated by the few folks who consistently lob accusations of corruption, collusion and all manner of wrongdoing at the CCSD Board and staff.

It is about everybody’s favorite word – TRANSPARENCY!

 

 

As the kids say, “I just can’t….”

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Where do I begin…

I’ve taken a little more time than usual to capture my thoughts from the January CCSD meeting. I was so – I don’t know – confused, disheartened, bemused, all of the above when I left that I really had a hard time sorting through it all. It was such a strange and unsettling meeting that I actually went to the video tape and watched the whole thing again, wanting to be sure my initial reaction wasn’t due to the weather. It wasn’t; this meeting was a mess.  A quick look at the agenda didn’t reveal anything controversial, and my sense was that it should be a pretty crisp meeting. Boy, was I wrong.

It doesn’t matter how fair and balanced I try to be with this one. I’m bummed that our most critical local government function went all Humpty Dumpty.

If you could see her through my eyes…” Cabaret

Let’s go to the video tape…

It might be a good idea for every Director, Staff  member and public speaker to watch the entire 4 hours and thirty-nine minutes of this session so they can see what we the people see from the audience.  It could  offer some insights as to where behavioral changes might result in a better, more productive and positive collaborative enterprise.

HERE’S A LINK TO THE REPLAY

So why the long face?

After thinking about it for a few days I’ve come to the belief that the behaviors exhibited in the meetings are more the result of issues that take place outside the Vet’s Hall, and build to a point that explode during a public meeting.  Let’s start with Public Comment. It seems like it has become a game of dueling speakers. One gets up to speak negatively about the Board, the staff, and actions taken or not taken. The next speaker gets up to defend the board, the staff and actions taken or not taken. It’s like a slow game of tennis, but you get to sit down after each stroke.

It took me a while to figure out what one speaker was talking about. Survey equipment or surveillance equipment?  A man with a dog? Two men in hazmat vests? Routine surveillance? What is this, an episode of the X Files? Photographic evidence showed surveyor’s levels, but no surveillance equipment. Or hazmat vests. Or a pickup truck. Or the man on the grassy knoll. Weird, but definitely the CSD’s fault. I’m still not sure what that was all about, or why it was an issue for the Board.

The interaction between the General Manager and Citizen Dickason was embarrassing. It went from Jerry Gruber to Jerry Springer, with both sides hitting  the “I DON’T TRUST YOU!!!!!  WELL I DON”T TRUST YOU EITHER!!!!! duet like veteran community theater actors.

New Direction?

With the elevation of Director Rice, I expected that there would be some differences in how the meetings would be run.  Community members have expressed unhappiness over the length of the meetings. President Rice on several occasions stated that she would like to see them take less time. In her first full meeting with the gavel, she brought this baby in at a crisp four hours and thirty-nine minutes plus a few seconds. There was much shifting from side to side in the folding chairs. A good chunk of time was spent on President Rice going through her proposed goals and objectives for the coming year. Perhaps a review of the meeting recording could help her identify where clear thought and word economy might move things forward at a more reasonable pace.

There seemed to be a marked change on how dialog around public comment would be handled. The combination of Brown Act requirements and CCSD Bylaws set a general framework for allowable interaction. Directors have the option of giving short responses to speaker questions, and to ask short questions of the speaker for clarity or amplification. In past meetings these exchanges were few, and generally brief. In this session, debates seemed to break out all over the place, and, in several instances, Directors had terse exchanges with speakers, the audience and each other.

New President

On multiple occasions the President made what I consider to be inappropriate or poorly thought out comments to the General Manager. Putting aside the battle between GM Gruber and Citizen Dickason, I was stunned by the way President Rice handled two issues.

I am of the mind that an employee, no matter how high they are in the organization, should not be dressed down, have their competence questioned or otherwise undermined in a public meeting by a Board Director or Officer.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”    From The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare

Additionally, it is, in my view, inappropriate for a Director, let alone the Board President, to publicly accuse or imply that a business or organization doing work with the CCSD is behaving unethically.  The comments by President Rice and Director Farmer in relation to the CDM Smith task orders were painful to hear, and based on my experience, reflected a real lack of understanding of how projects like the Sustainable Water Facility are managed.  Consulting firms do not exist to do favors – heck, they would go out of business pretty quickly if they gave away their services.  These services have real value, and require real work by real people with deep expertise to achieve complex objectives.  The whole process of designing and executing a complex technical project demands clear requirements and deliverables; it also requires a robust change -management methodology, which covers expanded requirements, changes to project scope, additional services required (time, materials, expertise, support…).  The methodology usually outlines what steps are to be taken to define the  scope of any change, why the change is needed, who is responsible for the change, and what costs, if any, are projected to be required for the change.  To have public officials imply that the consulting firm is acting in bad faith – “they know we have this money…” is not cool.  Telling the General Manager that you think he did a poor job in negotiating the changes is at a minimum in poor taste and shows a real lack of leadership.  Comparing the execution of the complex project to building a house, and telling the consultant tough – the rest of the work will be on their dime – may seem like a popular posture but is actually pretty ignorant.

What good is sitting alone in your room… Cabaret

Some suggestions

General Manager Gruber expressed the desire to file requests for information from all of the agencies he believes are being hectored by members of the community.  He has stated a belief that the impact to the staffs of these agencies, including the CSD, is significant in cost and operational effectiveness.  He also stated that these constant filings (and other contacts) are seriously undermining the reputation and credibility of the District.  He also believes some of these efforts are deliberate tactics by some groups to cause the SWF project to fail.

OK, if these assertions are true, I would support an effort to prove them.  File the requests, collect the data, put together a process to translate these situations into real costs – with some reasonable calculations that would give the Board and the community a fair sense of the size and impact of these issues.  If it turns out that they do, in fact, have a measurable impact on the District, it should be reported on, just like a failed piece of equipment, an infrastructure emergency, a vehicle replacement or any other expense or activity that impacts the District’s ability to do business.

And, if this all proves out, what action could or should be taken to address the specific identified problems?  Will the individuals or groups found to drive these problems change their views and alter their behaviors?  Based on initial reactions over the last few months that these charges have been surfacing, I doubt it.  Will the information galvanize the community to apply their voices in an effort to persuade?  Maybe, but to what effect?  Will the Board find a way to better dialog and support their responsibilities, or will they as individuals continue to root with their core constituents?    Based on this last meeting I have my doubts…

Come into the light

It is one thing for members of the community to make accusations of corruption, malfeasance, collusion, secret meetings and other nefarious goings on by Board members.  It is quite another to hear sitting Board members make similar veiled accusations against their colleagues, the firms that the CSD does business with, and other businesses and concerns in town.

If someone has an accusation to make – make it.  Publicly.  With facts.  Data.  Names. Specific actions or events.  Stop with the passive-aggressive, air-quote “many people are saying” type of nonsense.  Put it out there and be ready to prove it.  Save the suspicions, conspiracy theories and “alternative facts” for a different forum.  Decide if you want to be a grown up who takes the facts as they come or a partisan who takes the facts that they favor.

Make the meeting rules clear and stick to them.

Demand respectful behavior from everyone.

Correct errors and misinformation in a crisp, factual way.  When a speaker repeats false information – like how many hours CSD employees work – provide the data that clearly ends the debate.

Figure out a way to get the tough conversations done before or after a public meeting. Solve the conflicts before they hit the meeting floor.

It’s like raaa-aiiiiin on your meeting day…”

badly heard Alanis Morrisette lyric

Have a meter

One of the interesting things about attending the meeting twice was the opportunity to see it from different perspectives.  I generally sit in the last row so I can see, hear and observe the whole room.  Watching the replay gave me different views of the proceedings, and offered a few chuckles.

Watching the speakers queue up for their shot at the podium reminded me of shoppers looking for the fastest line at Costco.

Listening to a citizen address the Board and mention how a Director spent some time looking at his phone at the last meeting.  Watching the same citizen sitting in the audience reading the newspaper as other matters were discussed.

Having a citizen proclaim that the General Manager should be fired for his exchange with a speaker, and then stating that his assertions of harrassment were based on hearsay.  The citizen then continued with ” I heard it wasn’t even her… I heard it was someone else.”  uh, using hearsay to attack hearsay?  Have a meter!

hearsay – noun
  1. information received from other people that one cannot adequately substantiate; rumor.
    irony

We The People

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Community

The period between Thanksgiving and New Year is one of increasing activity for everyone. In Cambria, that includes such traditional events as Hospitality Night, Friends of The Fiscalini Ranch “Songs For The Season” Fundraiser, the opening of the Cambria Christmas Market (which I believe can be seen from space) and Cambria Center For The Arts Theater’s delightful production of “It’s A Wonderful Life”, which is open to all free of charge. The weather is cooling, the shops are looking festive and the line at the Post Office has begun to double back on itself as holiday greetings arrive and depart and packages are lugged in and hauled out. The rotating faces of the homeless stationed outside remind me that we still have a way to go to make the season a little brighter for everyone.

Cambrians are many things, but at the top of that list sit the twin sisters of Kindness and Generosity. We may grumble a bit as we dig a little deeper to pay our water bill, but that grumbling doesn’t even think about making an appearance when we reach again for that ten or twenty dollars to hand to the volunteers lining the driveway circling the Vet’s Hall every time a community member is faced with a difficult and often tragic situation. The sudden unexpected loss of a beloved community member draws a congregation to mourn together, remember together and celebrate a life well lived, together. People truly care about each other around here; as good as it is, it ain’t the spaghetti that draws a crowd.

The community demonstrates caring in other ways, most visibly in the political process. There are thousands of people in the community, and a really impressive number participated in the recent election, with a registered voter participation rate in the neighborhood of 87%. The run-up to election day was crowded with candidate forums, small gatherings at citizen’s homes, discussions at the Farmer’s Market and everywhere people would meet. Everyone had an opinion, a favored candidate, and carried a burning platform. Lines were drawn, sides taken, divisions hardened. But really, how deep did the divide go? My guess is that there are a handful of diehards on every side, a larger number adjacent, and an even larger number right in the neutral zone; not uncaring, not uninvolved, not ambivalent. Just people who kept their humanity standing in front of their partisanship. It was pretty noisy, and kind of ugly at times, but we all had our chance to speak with our votes.

No Electoral College Needed

With the election behind us, I looked ahead to the December Board meeting, where the newly elected and re-elected Directors would take their seats at the podium.

One major item needed to be addressed at the top of the session – electing the President and Vice President who would lead the Board in the upcoming year. This was an event eagerly anticipated by much of the community, and there was a lot of energy around the topic in the weeks between the election and the session. As with many things, there was a lack of clarity as to how the process actually works. Many believed that there was a rotational policy, where the officers would rotate through their terms. A subset of this belief was that the sitting VP (assuming re-election or in this case, continuation of his elected term) would become president, and a new Vice President was to be elected. Others believed that everybody got a turn with the gavel. Many felt that it was only fair that a sitting Director who had served a full term, but who had not been given a turn in either position was “due”. This viewpoint had some additional merit due to the fact that this Director was the top vote-getter in this election, as well as in her previous run.

Where’s the Rulebook?

I remembered a bit of a conversation I had with one of the Directors earlier in the year, and I believed I had a good understanding of the “rules” surrounding this process. I wanted to be sure I had it right, so I sent an email to the Directors and asked for clarification of the rules, and for any “color” they might want to add.

My Email: “I’m doing a bit of research for my next piece and was hoping you all could give me your quick view on the nomination and election of Board execs – President and Vice President.  There seems to be some confusion in the community about how that process works.  My understanding from what I’ve read and heard is that there is no official rule/policy/bylaw that mandates a change in officers.  There is a section on the CSD Website that says officers are chosen every year, but nothing that says “new” officers must be chosen. I’m trying to clearly separate the issues -what is “REQUIRED” versus what is “Past Practice” versus what is “Fair.”  There is a perception in some parts of the community that everybody should get a turn with the gavel; some believe that it is a requirement, others believe that is a customary practice, others believe it is a position that is earned.  So my simple (!) question – what is the current governing rule/regulation/bylaw that determines how these positions are filled? If you care to add any “color” to the response that would be helpful.”

 Within two days I received independent responses from Directors Sanders, Thompson and Rice. They agreed on the facts, and also gave some interesting background. They all agreed I could share their feedback.

 Greg Sanders: “Michael – the CCSD Board of Directors By-Laws, duly adopted by the Board, are very clear on the subject.  Section 1.4 of the By-Laws states as follows:

“The President and Vice President of the Board shall be elected annually at the first regular meeting in December and the term of office shall commence immediately upon election and continue until replaced.” 

That is the only provision of the By-Laws pertaining to the election of the President and Vice-President of the Board.  There is nothing in the By-Laws regarding rotation, etc. The Board is free to use any criteria it chooses to select a Board President and Vice-President.  The Board could, for example, decide immediately following an election that a candidate receiving the most votes should be selected as the President.  Or, the Board could choose to ignore the election and select a President and Vice-President on the basis of some other criteria, or no criteria at all.

He also added some historical perspective: In my service on the Board… there has been no particular pattern followed.  I served back-to-back terms as President of the Board in 2009 and 2010.  The Board wanted continuity at a time when some very significant issues were under consideration.  When I served from 2002-2010, Don Villeneuve, a fellow Board member, did not serve at any time as President.  As I recall, he did not serve as Vice President, either.  He resigned in 2008 (or thereabouts).

In my experience, selection of a Board President and Vice-President has been based on exigencies.  Ilan Funke-Bilu served as either Board President or Vice –President when the District was involved in litigation with Chevron Corp. over MTBE contamination of the Santa Rosa Creek aquifer.  He conducted most of the negotiations with Chevron.  Having a leadership position enhanced his position vis-à-vis Chevron.”

Mike Thompson: “Good afternoon Michael—-To avoid any possible Brown Act violation, I won’t cc any of the other individuals you queried. You are correct in assuming that there is no official rule/policy/bylaw regarding Board elections. The only requirement is the ability to count to three…in other words, it takes two members besides yourself to gain election. Last year Gail indicated a desire to continue in the chair to see through the process of applying for the permanent permit for the SWF. I and two others felt that was in the best interest of the District. In the recent past, Greg Sanders was President for two consecutive terms, so there is precedence.”

Amanda Rice: “The way boards choose their officers has always struck me as kind of an awkward situation, primarily due to Brown act restrictions about talking to other directors about certain business items. I can’t, for instance, talk to directors to try and find out if there’s a consensus about who should be president or vice president. There is no rule or law that requires the officers to ever change; as long as somebody is in office they can serve as president or vice president.

Besides there being nothing specific about “how” officers are rotated, there is nothing that bestows any additional powers or authorities to any individual board member, whether they are president, vice president or non-officer directors. The bylaws give the president the job of chairing… the meetings and to the vp in the president’s absence.

Amanda then added some interesting color:Last year the bylaws were amended to give the president some additional authority:

  1. Designates or acts as a spokesperson for the board and a point person for gov’t relations.
  2. Makes appointments to all committees subject to board approval.
  3. May add an item to the agenda without the same required board majority of other directors. Can also approve the request of another director to add an item to the agenda, even without board majority.

The bylaws were also changed so that the general manager developed the agenda in cooperation with the president and vice president. Previously, the bylaws stated that the executive committee worked with the general manager to put together the agenda.

The bottom line is this – with the approval of the majority of the board, our bylaws give the president additional control of the direction of the board and therefore, of the district. I disagreed with the changes then. I disagree with them now. But they are the bylaws that I abide by as a director.”

So, one official bylaw.  No official “Rule.”  All for an office that has “no special power” except when it does.  Got it?  Good!

It was a blustery day in the hundred acre wood.
Fortunately, Pooh's thoughtful spot was in a sheltered 
place. Now he sat down and tried hard to think of 
something.
Winnie the Pooh: Think... think... think...
Gopher: Say, what's wrong, sonny? Got yourself a 
headache?
Winnie the Pooh: No, I was just thinking.
Gopher: That so? What about?
Winnie the Pooh: I... Oh, bother! You made me forget.

The Big Moment 

I was a few minutes late due to the big ass rainstorm that picked the right day to show up. Despite the weather, the Vet’s Hall was packed with people eager to have their voices heard. There was a lot of great energy in the joint – not all positive of course; I got the sense that many of the attendees were staunch supporters of Amanda Rice, and they were not convinced the Board would honor their wish and select her as the new president. And so we begin.

Vice President Thompson did an “LBJ’, indicating he would not accept if nominated and would not serve if elected. Newly elected Director Harry Farmer, in his best “slow-jamming the news” voice, nominated Amanda Rice to fill the office of President. Wild applause from the audience! Discussion followed. Director Jim Bahringer spoke. He said that the politically easy thing for him to do would be to support Amanda, but in his view Director Greg Sanders would be a better choice to lead the Board, given the circumstances and work to be done over the next year. He felt Amanda should be Vice President this year, and President in 2018. This did not go over very well with the attendees. Public comment was fiery, with pointed and passionate comments along with a reading of the will – of the people who signed a petition calling for Amanda’s ascension, complete with the petitioner’s written comments. The nomination was defeated 3-2. Director Bahringer then nominated Greg Sanders and Amanda Rice for President and Vice President. More discussion, with Director Rice giving her reasoning as to why she would be the right choice for President. More cries from the people, lots of angry faces, fully expecting their hopes for change to be crushed.

A vote was called on the Sanders/Rice ticket. Monique straightened her Christmas sweater and called the roll:

Director Bahringer – NO.

Director Sanders – NO.

Vice President Thompson – NO.

Director Rice – NO.

Director Farmer – NOOOOO.

What? WOW!!!!! He voted against his own nomination!?!? This was really fascinating – a ripped-from-the-pages of a political thriller screenplay. I scanned the room for Aaron Sorkin. He wasn’t there, so I scanned the room for Aaron Wharton, who also wasn’t there. No matter – the drama continued.

Director Bahringer then immediately nominated Director Rice for President. Monique, now at the edge of her seat, again called the roll. The vote – 5-0. Amanda was President. She immediately nominated Greg Sanders for Vice President. Again Monique cheerfully called the roll – again 5-0. The CCSD Board of Directors was ready to go.

Fast Forward

I know Kathe Tanner will report on the important discussions that followed, but I want to comment on the last Agenda item. A compensation increase for selected members of the CSD staff was put before the Board for a vote. The increase would be given in in two steps in 2017. A 5.5% increase in January, a second 5.5% in June. At first blush an 11% increase is attention-grabbing and cause for serious discussion. The General Manager went through the reasoning behind the proposal, with one of the key points being very compelling to me. Over the last several years staffing levels have been reduced, with several positions eliminated and the attendant duties added to the responsibilities of the employees in discussion. So these positions carry more responsibility, and in my mind additional compensation should be given.

I understand arguing against the increases on financial grounds. I was distressed to hear that some members of the board and the public had views that were less than sensitive, culminating in a public comment that the employees “should be grateful they have a job.”

I continue to be confounded by the people who, in earlier public comment railed against the staff for not delivering information they have demanded (demands that add additional workload and are a time drain on an already overburdened team) are the same people who, in the same meeting, cried out loudly for “fairness” and  “doing the right thing” in the election of the Board President would speak so forcefully against showing “fairness” and “doing the right thing” for the employees who give more than what is reasonable in service to the community.

The board did the right thing and approved the compensation.

Happy Holidays.

 

 

Voices, Votes and Values

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Random thought of the day

I don’t know about you guys, but I can’t think of anything more exciting than magnificent pictures of water treatment infrastructure – especially motors and pumps. Can I get an AMEN!!!???  It’s clear the General Manager embraces the old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” but I’m not sure we need the pictures and the thousand words! No wonder the meetings run so long!

Signs

Many words have passed among the community during the run-up to the November 8th election. In addition to the fate of the free world being decided, there was also a Presidential selection that needed to be made. Our fine candidates for the CCSD Board did their best to get their messages out to the voters, making themselves available for discussion. The Farmer’s market was a popular spot to get face time with all of them. It was kind of interesting to see them standing a few feet away from each other – close enough to ask each other a question or have a quick discussion as a group, with constituents right there to participate in an informal, open air way. That could have been an opportunity to build a dialog that would continue beyond Election Day, regardless of the outcome. Sigh; a boy can dream…

I did a quick spin through the market looking for the purveyor of the magic beans that yielded the millions of colorful campaign signs that sprang up everywhere around the town. That must have been some feat of seed engineering to have them all grow with different colors and names.

October Scarcecrows

Speaking of hybrids, the October CCSD Board meeting was held at 4:00 pm. Not the traditional 12:30 pm nor the requested 6:00 pm, but a compromise time that seemed to make neither a major or minor difference in attendance. By my count, there were 16 attendees, excluding board, staff and speakers. Of the 16, 4 were non-incumbent candidates. One of those guys was there to speak on a different subject. So 25% of the audience had to be there. We were missing some of the regulars, but were joined for a while by an interesting fellow who shared some of his thoughts during public comment. Although his political views and personal belief systems were certainly different, he was given a free and equal opportunity to speak. He may have been humming “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” because he was met by 3 members of the police.

The meeting was fairly low-key, with a very good presentation on the new town park that is being designed and implemented in what seems to be sensible and well thought out phases. Good job!

The Town Engineer then shared some very interesting information on an issue that had risen (floated?) to the top. Sharp-eyed and focused community members had noticed significant differences in the amount of water pumped versus the amount of water that was accounted for – either through meter counts, known allotments for special contracts, and/or testing. The initial numbers that raised the alarm were significant, and demanded investigation and explanation. The Engineer came prepared with updated data and explanations for the numbers. Coincidentally, he was in the process of going through training on the required methods of auditing and reporting on water usage. He was freshly armed with tools and processes that would help get a handle on the issue. His initial findings told us that the numbers used in the preliminary report were unaudited and inaccurate. After putting things in the right framework, the data revealed a much more manageable loss. It is not where it needs to be, but the corrected numbers and better processes will be used to set a strategy of continuous improvement. My takeaway is that it will be several months until the process is refined to a point where everyone can at least agree on the data and the technical teams can implement plans to attack water loss on multiple fronts.

By the end of the meeting we were down to 2 attendees – me and Dewayne Lee. It took a few minutes to get the circulation back into our legs, but dammit, we survived!

Election day, and the winners are…

Voter turnout was beyond impressive with over 79.5% of registered voters casting ballots. That, my friends is an engaged electorate, and underscores the level of passion in our community.

With such a large turnout in Cambria as well as the rest of San Luis Obispo County, ballot counting has taken longer than anyone expected. As of today two of the incumbents – Amanda Rice and Greg Sanders – have comfortable margins and, barring a major change, should be returned to the board. The third seat is unsettled, with incumbent Board President Gail Robinette enjoying a slender 14 vote lead over surprise challenger Harry Farmer. That order quickly changed as the next round of ballot counting put Harry in the lead. As of last count his lead stands at 23 votes. With around 386 ballots left to be counted, this one might be finalized by the weekend. I can’t imagine how stressful this is for the candidates and their supporters. Regardless of who wins the final seat, I hope all the passionate supporters maintain their sense of propriety. I don’t want to see any rowdy protests in the West Village; no angry chants of “Not My Board President.”

Obligatory Food Reference

In the days following the election I managed to finally sit down and break bread (actually, pancakes) with Andy Pickar. I got to know Andy a bit over social media, and later in person. We have similar outlooks on some things, and our business experiences were not dissimilar. We met at the Creekside Café and talked about a range of things, with the discussion coming around to the great community we live in. Andy has an interest in finding a way to contribute to the community and share his good thinking and analytical skills in ways that make things even a little better for all of us. We talked about the CCSD and the CHD – The Cambria Health District. Both organizations have passionate supporters with different visions of how their futures should be sculpted to best service the Cambria community. I really enjoyed the discussion, and believe wherever Andy engages his contributions will make things better. If I were on the CHD Board I’d give him a call – unless you have a rule about shorts and sandals!

November already

The business of governance continued with the November CCSD Board meeting. This session was held at the traditional time of 12:30 pm, and citizen attendance was really light. I guess everyone was spent from all that voting. If I didn’t include myself, I could count the attendees on one hand. Literally. The room was crowded with members of the Water and Wastewater teams, who were recognized for their contributions to the community. It was nice to put faces to names, and to see them receive recognition from the community. (They all wore blue shirts – but nobody told them they had to leave!)

There was another speaker (also wearing a blue shirt) who gave an update on upcoming events that support the SLO County homeless population. The General Manager’s report (including pumps and motors pix) was followed by an interesting discussion around a request to extend a Franchise Agreement with Mission Country Disposal for Solid Waste Disposal Management. The request was for an extension of 20 years (and possibly more) and is linked to the build and management of a state of the art plant that would process materials not suitable for landfills. I will leave the real explanation to the experts – including our local reporter Kathe Tanner, who pays way more attention to the details than I do.

Finally, a discussion around a compensation increase for the Finance Manager sparked good discussion among the board. They are challenged with balancing the realities of hiring and retaining qualified employees with sensible financial oversight. After a healthy discussion, the motion to approve the compensation was passed by a 4-1 vote, with Director Rice the dissenting vote. Her objection was based on fiscal concerns; she was very clear about her appreciation for the employee and his value to the community.

During the public comment periods, a returning regular exercised her right to freely complain about actions and inactions taken and not taken by the board, and treated each member with equal disrespect, eschewing the more respectful title of Director, or even Mr. or Ms. And used their first names as she went over her allotted time. I guess when you’re a real activist the rules of time don’t apply, and the simple courtesies are only to be expected from the board members who are attacked. I am a pretty mellow guy, and I can’t remember the last time I came close to losing my temper in public. I came really close today, but decided that I would let magnanimity carry the day.

Serenity now!!!

The Final Frontier

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Finally!

After many weeks of missed opportunities I was finally able to coordinate schedules with incumbent Board President Gail Robinette. We had previously agreed to meet but due mostly to my lack of follow-up that meeting never got scheduled. We picked a date and time, and agreed to meet at the Coffee Den on Main Street. Realizing that our appointment was late in the morning, I went ahead and made my own whole wheat toast.

When Gail arrived, we ordered coffee and then discussed where we would have our conversation. It was at this moment I became aware of “THE VAN”. I’d heard talk of this vehicle, often in whispered tones, voices unsure what was behind the sliding door. Walls lined with maps, charts and satellite recon pictures of the greater Cambria area? Multiple screens linked to cameras secreted in scarecrows around town? Rows of textbooks, notebooks and coloring books? Amway? I was all atwitter, nearly spilling my small regular coffee on my blue shirt.

Space…

Gail swung the Starship Robinette into a corner space, opened the door and invited me in. My mouth was dry. My legs a bit weak, Voice a mere rasp. Yes, my cold still lingered. I wasn’t going to give up, though. I had carried on through post-meeting high noon encounters and Farmer’s Market debates, all the while trying to stay upright. Now, with the secrets of “The Van” about to be revealed, I reached down for that last reserve of Robitussin and stepped in. And it was…

Very nice! Thoughtfully equipped, sensibly laid out, comfortably appointed. Practical, low-key and designed to maximize the space. Detail was everywhere, but not in a flashy or attention-seeking way. The van was neither Scooby nor A-Team. And it made perfect sense. Very much like Gail Robinette.

The Back Story

Our conversation was very different from the ones I had with the other candidates. Gail spent a fair amount of time sharing her journey, speaking lovingly (yet reservedly) about her memories of people who made profound impacts on her life. A second grade teacher who recognized something in this young girl, and offered the interest, encouragement and mentorship that ignited a love of learning that guided Gail’s life. It carried her through her pursuit of education and through her long career as an educator, administrator, writer and consultant. This conversation wasn’t about her public service, but about why she feels public service matters. It certainly wasn’t all about her – she asked me about my background and experiences. We shared our journeys that led us to Beautiful Cambria. Rather than a deep political discussion between candidate and writer, we got to know each other as individuals. And then two hours had gone by. Gail had to attend a long list of meetings, and I was overdue for a long slug of cough syrup. We agreed there was more to discuss, specifically around the upcoming election.

  The Sequel

We were able to reconnect the following week, again using The Starship as our conference room. The doors and window were opened – true transparency – and we dug in to the issues.

The discussion was, once again, more of an education. Gail has a long record of public service, so there isn’t much unknown about her positions and actions on key issues, nor any doubt about her support for the Sustainable Water Facility. What was helpful to me was hearing the history of how we got to the current situation.

Gail went deep, sharing examples of meetings, workshops, reviews, and conferences that included citizens, environmentalists, urban planners, disaster management professionals and government agencies – a laundry list of participants you would want involved when you are seeking the best possible solutions. Gail noted each participating agency and when they engaged – making me question much of what I hear from those who claim that the CSD has ignored or avoided those same agencies. She hit all the decision points while highlighting the methods used to keep the public informed and involved.

Warp Speed

With time again growing tight, we moved a bit more quickly through a few topics that I saw as important. First, I asked her the same thing I asked all the incumbents – her perception of how the Board operates as a team. She was very thoughtful, and honest. She believes that overall they work fairly well together, though there are issues and events that can and do cause some stress. She sees beyond the conflict and looks for ways to navigate through the tough and sometimes contentious discussions to get to reasonable solutions. She is a firm believer that her role as President is to help find those solutions. She also stresses that every Director’s vote carries equal weight. Her approach to reasoned and inclusive problem solving is a reflection of her life philosophy; stay calm, stay positive and stay focused.

I asked her about the water wait list.  Specifically the oft-stated opinion that it is loaded with people looking to make windfalls from selling when water connections are made, her own lot that sits in the queue, and the idea that she should recuse herself from any decisions that might result in personal benefit. Her response is clear – if people bought lots with the sole goal of making a big return, well perhaps they weren’t very good investors; she points to the long years of paying and waiting with no clear end in sight. As to her own position, Gail simply states that she has spent a good amount of her own money to look into the issue, and feels confident that her actions are legal, ethical and in no way affect how she acts and votes on water issues.

On public trust, transparency and communication Gail acknowledges the balancing act she and her fellow Directors face as they do their jobs. Gail believes (as do each of the candidates I’ve spoken with) that there is a need for continued dialog and information exchanges between the CCSD and the community. She supports more positive community involvement, including an appropriate use of standing committees as a method of collaboration and governance.

When it comes to individual dialog, Gail was pretty frank. She frequently meets with members of the community, and welcomes any opportunity to listen to input and feedback. She takes it a step farther then anyone else has so far. She is not interested in meeting with someone who has the intent of harassing or causing deliberate disruption or intimidation. She respects the community, but her experience has shown her that there are sometimes those who approach with less than good intent. It was a bit sobering to hear that, and to read between the lines – a read that leaves me with the impression that she has experienced things in her public service that give her reason to be vigilant. Food for thought.

Epilogue

Another two hours had flown by, and we wrapped up and said our goodbyes. Gail energized the transporter and beamed me back to Main Street. Thinking back on our time together, I don’t know that I learned anything policy-wise that I didn’t already know about Gail Robinette, CCSD Board President and Candidate for Re-Election. I did learn a whole lot about Gail Robinette, teacher, leader and peaceful warrior for the community she loves and serves.

A pretty good episode!