Saturday, July 23, 2016

Amador County Business Council has new executive director

Today, I learned that the Amador County Business Council has a new executive director, Kevin Walker. Until recently, Walker worked for subdivision developer JTS. He may still be working for them.

I have asked an ACBC officer where Walker lives and whether he still works for JTS. No reply yet (the former ACBC ED was from Stockton).

JTS owns the Castle Oaks Golf Course subdivision in Ione, and its principal has been sued by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court trustee in relation to a huge Ponzi scheme that defrauded a number of investors. JTS is also developing the old Greilich Ranch outside Plymouth into a wedding venue with exclusive vineyard homesites, called Rancho Victoria. It's near the intersection of Highways 49 and 16. Walker has been the project manager.

In 2014, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control board ordered JTS to perform a technical report for Rancho Victoria. Neighbors and a state investigation had earlier reported and documented sediment from the project flowing into and polluting local streams and creeks. The developers had  mass-graded large hillsides in the summer and fall with few provisions for erosion control from the winter rains.

 Here's page one of that letter.
As I have said for years, the ACBC is a "pay to play" organization that's largely a front for the construction and development industry. And now they're being led by a guy who's directly from that industry.

That's not all, though. Back in the summer, the "Friends of Agribusiness" set up a political action committee to help re-elect incumbent county supervisors. Walker was one of the largest donors, making a $2,000 donation to pay for polls and mailers for incumbent supervisors Richard Forster and Louis Boitano.  Here's what radio station KVGC had to say about that. 

If you don't think big-money developers are attempting to shape our county's future, I would urge you to stop and think again.

And then there's the recently released special grand jury investigation report, which makes three of our sitting supervisors appear to be either incompetent or corrupt. Perhaps I'll find time to write about that soon, too.

Who says life in Amador County is dull?

Thursday, October 15, 2015

When education meets ideology, Amador-style

What do the spotted owl, sawmill closures, the Butte Fire, brush removal, the Amador County Fair's youth livestock programs, Foothill Conservancy, Friends of the River, environmental "indoctrination," Mokelumne salmon restoration, yellow-legged frogs in high Sierra lakes, Folsom and New Melones Dam, state agency name changes, draining reservoirs to provide water for salmon, the Cosumnes River, and chytrid fungus have to do with a simple classroom program to educate elementary school students about the life cycle of salmon, California's iconic native fish?

Not much, you say? Au contraire, mes amis. For certain members of the Amador County Board of Supervisors, they are all linked, all part of an evil environmental conspiracy. And it all begins when you teach kids how salmon hatch from eggs and develop.

At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, October 13, 2015, before retired teacher Toni Linde could begin her presentation on a school salmon project, Supervisors Oneto and Plasse jumped right in, complaining about people who don't like dams and the potential cost of fish ladders if needed for Mokelumne salmon restoration. Those of us familiar with this board know the drill: these supervisors frequently make sure everyone hears their opinion -- germane or not --interrupt speakers, argue with the public, and mock or denigrate people not in the room -- and sometimes people in the room, too.

Patiently, Toni tried to describe her program and request. The Classroom Aquarium Education Program, a California Department of Fish and Wildlife program, has been in place in Tuolumne County schools for 10 years and Calaveras County schools for nearly that long. In Calaveras and a couple of Amador classrooms, elementary-grade kids incubate salmon eggs from the Camanche Fish Hatchery, see the young salmon through alevin stage and then release the fry into the Mokelumne River below the hatchery.

The kids learn about how salmon grow and their role in the ecosystem and food chain (human and otherwise). They use applied skills, including math, to keep the eggs and young salmon alive. It's an excellent learning experience, focused on our native fish.

The local program has been sponsored by Stewardship Through Education, a local group that teaches kids about watersheds and watershed health. STE receives funding from the Upper Mokelumne River Watershed Authority, to which the county belongs, and a variety of other sources. They're not a bunch of radical yahoos. But they are teachers, and they think it's important that kids learn about their local environment in an experiential, hands-on way.

Toni was requesting county funds that are sitting in a fish and game fee account that can be used for this kind of education program under state law. The money would pay for equipment so that every elementary school in Amador County could participate in raising young salmon from hatchery eggs. There is plenty of money in the fund to cover the cost.

So did the supervisors jump up and say, "Sure, we think it's great to teach kids about how nature works?"

Not on your life.

Instead, poor Toni had to endure discussion of all the items I mentioned in my opening paragraph, above. She handled it all with good humor, I must say, and in the end, the supervisors asked her to return in two weeks and provide them with the curriculum and lesson plans. (Apparently they are now experts on how to teach first graders about fish.)

Before they were done, the supervisors made some not-so-choice statements.

John Plasse: "It's a pure attempt at indoctrination of what kids should think at a very young age."

Brian Oneto, referring to a statement at a different meeting by my husband, Pete Bell, "Regenerating the forest from the salmon .. I think it's kind of far-fetched." Of course, it's also scientifically proven that spawning salmon return marine nutrients to forests, which the elementary kids learn, according to Toni.

Oneto mentioned a "symbiotic relationship" between frogs and fish in high country lakes. and that scientists were wrong that the fish harm (as in eat) the frogs. They weren't wrong,  of course, but he was right that more-recently a fungus (he called it a virus) is now a big problem for Sierra Nevada yellow-legged frogs. But if one species is a predator for another, that's hardly a symbiotic relationship.

Richard Forster, "Do Friends of the River or Foothill Conservancy contribute to this program?" (For the record: No. Never. And so what if they did?) His main concern, however, was that the program provide sufficient emphasis on the role of salmon as food, not just teach kids about their life cycle.

Lynn Morgan clearly supported the education program. Forster said he's leaning that way if they can see the curriculum. Louis Boitano mostly talked about past fish derbies and issues with the fund.

My guess is this will work out in the end. If the supervisors choose not to fund the program, others are likely to step up. But really -- does everything have to boil down to ideology these days?

You watch this board and tell me.

Meanwhile, my hat's off to Toni Linde for her uncommon grace and humor -- and for wanting kids to learn more about the planet they're going to inherit.

Update, October 28: Yesterday, the board of supervisors voted to contribute $7,400 to the program -- the full amount requested. Congratulations to Toni Linde for moving this worthwhile project ahead and thanks to the board for supporting it! 

Friday, February 20, 2015

The power of thinking big

Throughout our nation's history, we have been led by people who think big. People with vision. Leaders who could inspire us to do better, to be better, to dream, to achieve. In fact, to me, that is what defines leadership, to a great extent: The ability to inspire people to action based on a better vision for the future. It can come from groups of people as well as individuals.

So I am really dismayed when local residents engage in what I would call "small thinking." I have seen it from the local politicians who cannot see how we could have a Mokelumne Wild and Scenic River and water supply at the same time, who won't set high standards for local development and protect local scenic history and beauty in our general plan update, who settle for lousy development projects like Dollar General when we deserve the best.

Photo of Kennedy MineI've seen this lately in a local political group on Facebook, where I spend way too much time these days. Someone has a proposal, puts forward an idea -- buying and protecting the Knight Foundry being the latest example. And quickly, someone says, "How could we afford that?" or "It's not that important when we have infrastructure needs." Or  simply, "It can't be done."

What the heck is with that? Amador County's history was filled with dreamers, people who took risks, leaving their families and even their countries, risking their lives to come here in search of something bigger, better than what they had at home. We deify those people in this county. Their descendants proudly defend their legacy today.

So why have some of those very descendants lost that drive, that vision, that ability to go beyond small thinking to something bigger? Yes, things are not easy. Yes, we have many competing demands on available time and money. Is that anything new?

Many who live in this county have not fallen into the trap of small thinking. Back in the 1980s, our neighborhood found itself in need of better fire protection and emergency medical response. Did we say, "It can't be done?" Someone likely did. But many folks believed it was needed and worthwhile, so we started a fire department that later became a fire protection district. I wouldn't say it's exactly thriving now, but we no longer have to wait 30 minutes for a fire engine or EMTs to arrive when we need them. People's lives and homes have been saved as a result.

There are many other examples of what our community can do when we work together. Here are some example that come to mind. Some are ongoing efforts, some were discrete projects. It is by no means a complete list (feel free to add more in comments):

Photo of Middle Bar Bridge

All of these were done by people who had a vision for a better future.

To think small is to give up on our community. This is a wonderful place, but it could be better. We need better jobs. We need to preserve our historic resources and scenic beauty. We need to demand the best from developers, not just accept what they decide to give us.

Abraham Lincoln didn't inspire the nation by suggesting we give in to the minor demons of our spirit. Instead, he called on us to embrace "the better angels of our nature." Parents do not tell their young children, "You can't amount to anything; it's too hard."

Photo of Volcano AmphitheaterSo why should we do anything other than work for the best for our county -- following the traditions that made America and California international leaders and our own local tradition of getting things done and taking care of our own?

The first step is to believe we can.  And to do that, we must think big. 

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it" __Goethe  

Friday, November 29, 2013

ACTC stays the course on Pine Grove Project -- for now

My last post related to an effort by Jackson-based Supervisor John Plasse to get the Amador County Transportation Commission to reconsider an October vote to "program" (request) state funds necessary to get the Pine Grove Corridor Improvement Project shovel-ready. At last Wednesday's standing room-only ACTC meeting, there was a great deal of discussion about the Pine Grove Highway 88 project and whether and how moving it along might affect funding for other transportation projects in the county.

In the end, the Commission voted 4-2 to reject Supervisor Plasse's motion to reconsider its October decision. Only Commissioner Dave Richards joined Supervisor Plasse in support. Commissioners Tim Murphy (Sutter Creek), Keith Sweet (Jackson), Michael Vasquez (Amador City), and Ted Novelli (Pioneer) voted to oppose the motion, thereby upholding their October decision.

That moves the project ahead for now. But as the ACTC finalizes the 2014 Regional Transportation Plan, it could move the Pine Grove project down in priority and choose to spend the money elsewhere. So it behooves everyone interested in this issue to pay attention and participate in the public hearings on that plan next year. Let's hope ACTC holds at least one of them in Pine Grove.

I hope to write more about all of this once I have reviewed my notes and especially if I can get my audio recording into a more-audible state. But since I may not get to it, here's a quick summary for now...

Supervisor Plasse questioned whether the Pine Grove project proposal will do what it says it will, whether it is needed, and whether it should move forward to a point where it could end up taking the lion's share of the largest pot of county transportation funds for years (ACTC's Neil Peacock pointed out that there are a number of funding options for the project). Supporting his motion to reconsider were Amador County Business Council Executive Director Jim Conklin, Supervisor Brian Oneto, and Oneto's brothers Rux and Eddie. Conklin also mentioned that the business council is looking at a transportation sales tax.

Speaking in strong opposition to the motion were Supervisor Louis Boitano of Sutter Creek, Amador County Planning Commissioner and Pine Grove project stakeholder Andy Byrne, Pine Grove Civic Improvement Club Chairwoman Jan Houghton, Pine Grove resident Craig Burman, Upcountry Council Chairwoman-elect Sherry Curtis, Kirkwood and Sutter Creek resident Melene Smith, and yours truly. (I was there not only as an upcountry resident but also representing the Foothill Conservancy, which this, my personal blog, does not do).

Ione City Manager Ed Pattison and Jackson resident and Silver Lake property owner Lisa Lucke referred to transportation and safety issues in their towns, while agreeing that Pine Grove obviously needs attention, too. Plymouth City Councilman Greg Baldwin, speaking as an individual, was concerned about potential lack of funding for other projects. Pine Grove stakeholder committee member Mark Bennett discussed the challenges of transportation funding and project planning, suggesting a focus on the issues around the Pine Grove Elementary School and taking a hard look at the funding options. 

In the end, the majority of commissioners chose to stay the course. But that could change, as I mentioned above. So if you care about this issue, be prepared to spend some time on it next year.

Update, November 30: I have corrected Jan Houghton's name and title, above. Apologies to Jan for my earlier error.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Do planning and public participation count? Maybe not in Amador County

When is a plan not a plan? Does public investment in project planning matter when one elected official doesn’t like the result? Does more than a decade of citizen participation in a local planning process count for anything? What should a public official do when he votes with all of his fellow board members on an issue and later has a change of heart? These questions and more came to mind this week as I learned about certain events related to the Pine Grove Corridor Improvement Project.

It takes a little time to explain, so bear with me …

For more than a decade, the Pine Grove Corridor Improvement Project has been a local transportation improvement priority. Pine Grove has serious issues with traffic congestion, safety and smooth traffic operations (left turns, stops, etc). As someone who often drives this section of Highway 88, I can vouch for this myself. We once had to wait for 100 cars returning from Kirkwood to pass before we could turn left. A friend walking across the highway at night was killed by a car. For many of us, this is a personal issue that affects our daily lives, not simply a matter of moving money around on a spreadsheet.  

The Pine Grove project was a priority in the 1996-97 Amador County Regional Transportation Improvement Plan. It’s the top priority project in the current plan, which was adopted in 2004. It’s also the top priority project in the draft update of the regional plan developed by a committee that included city and county officials as well as local citizens, including me. 

Work on the Pine Grove project itself began in 2002. Since then, the Amador County Transportation Commission has spent or obligated $1.8 million to develop a proposal the Pine Grove community could accept that would address well-documented safety, congestion and operations issues. Citizens have spent countless hours in public meetings discussing and analyzing project alternatives, with a great deal of ACTC staff support. Now there’s an agreed-upon design for the improvements and the project is $700,000 under budget and ahead of schedule (how rare is that?). It’s ready for the next step.

The ACTC voted to take that step on October 24. That morning, the commission voted unanimously to submit a funding request to the state to provide funds for the two steps needed to create a shovel-ready (“shelf ready” in ACTC jargon) Pine Grove project: construction-level design (plans, specifications and estimates) and purchasing needed right-of-way.

The funds would come from Amador County’s share of the Regional Improvement Program funds, part of a chunk of money available under the State Transportation Improvement Program. There’s money there for us, but only if the ACTC requests it every two years, and only for projects that are a priority in the approved regional transportation improvement plan.

ACTC must make the request by December 15. If they don’t request  the funds, that money will not be available to the county for any project for five years. Five years.  

The ACTC staff made persuasive points in its October 24 staff report:  If the next two steps are not completed soon, the Pine Grove project likely would never be built. They also pointed out that moving quickly to a shovel-ready state could reduce overall costs and make the project more competitive for various state and federal funds.  They showed two construction funding options to the commissioners, but the ACTC has not yet committed to fund construction of the project, or decided how to pay for it. According to ACTC staff, there are many options available and the project is highly competitive for a number of different pots of money.

The ACTC voted unanimously to request the funds and put them to the Pine Grove project, with the goal of having it shovel ready by fiscal year 2019-20 or later in 2020. Moving forward seemed like a done deed.

But that was last month, before Jackson-area Supervisor John Plasse began a campaign to change the ACTC vote (unanimous, as you’ll recall). He mentioned it in the Upcountry Community Council meeting (and those people are none too happy about it). He lobbied members of the Jackson Revitalization Committee. Soon after, the Amador County Business Council voted to urge the ACTC to reconsider its decision and wrote
a letter to that effect.

Now the reconsideration question is on the agenda for the next ACTC meeting, which will be held on Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, starting at 9 a.m. It’s a wonderful time to get the public to a meeting, don’t you think?

If the ACTC votes to reconsider its earlier decision and fails to act by the December 15 deadline, Amador County will lose those funds for five years. They would not be available for any other projects in the county.

Alternatively, ACTC could send its draft 2014 transportation plan update to the state, showing five years of project funding. Since Pine Grove is still the number one priority in the plan, it would still be the funding priority. So that makes no sense. At least not to me. And the draft plan is just that – a draft. It hasn’t been through a single public hearing, environmental review, or adoption by the ACTC.

If the ACTC submits the full transportation plan for funding, it could later change the priorities and effectively kill the Pine Grove project.  Perhaps that’s Supervisor Plasse’s goal. After all, he has been heard making disparaging comments about the project and calling it the “Pine Grove Beautification Project.” Never mind the pedestrian, school, and driver safety issues, folks – it’s all to gussy up the town.

I hope the ACTC commissioners will reject Supervisor’s Plasse’s rear-guard action. But if his motion succeeds and there’s a new discussion, they should ask him to present hard data, including traffic counts and accident data, to show why the Pine Grove project should not be the county’s funding priority. They should ask him to explain why he is willing to disregard the millions of dollars and years of time invested in the Pine Grove Corridor Project as well as the results. They should ask him how they can again ask any member of the public to participate in a planning process when their time and effort is apparently meaningless. They should point out that Pine Grove is the top project in the draft transportation plan update. And they should note that getting the Pine Grove project in ready-to-build state is not the same as funding its construction, that many construction-financing options exist, and that other projects can and will move forward at the same time.

But truly, they should simply reject the pressure to reconsider their unanimous vote and move on. No single elected official should be able to throw an entire planning process out the window, even if he can bring the “powers that be” along to lobby with him.  And the fact is, he can’t – unless he gets other commissioners to vote with him.

Let’s hope they stand strong, support their plan and project investment to date, keep faith with the public, and move the Pine Grove project along the road to construction.  

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Some thoughts on the county layoffs

As a county resident and taxpayer, I'd like to share some thoughts and questions I have about the county budget and recent layoffs of 25 county employees. I asked some of these questions and made some of these remarks at the board of supervisors' special meeting Monday, June 4. The only answer, from Supervisor Forster, was "We've been talking about all this at three budget hearings." 

As I pointed out at the meeting, there are there no draft FY 2012-13 budget documents online. There are no meeting packets or recordings online for any of the budget hearings. So unless one attended the hearings, it's impossible to actually get any information about the county's financial condition.

I can't help but wonder why the county is laying off workers before meeting with all of the workers' unions to discuss how to address any budget shortfall. I also wonder why the county is budgeting for a return to a 40-hour workweek when the county workers were willing to take furloughs and work 36 hours a week this current fiscal year. The county could work up two alternatives -- staffing levels and salary costs with and without the 40-hour week -- and discuss that with the unions.

If the county wants to keep offices open 5 days a week, it could do that and still have workers on a 36-hour week: they just wouldn't all be furloughed on the same day of the week. Many state offices are staffed by workers who work fewer than five days a week, yet the offices stay open during core business hours M-F. It's a little more complicated for managers and may require more cross-training, but in most offices, it can be done (been there).

Speaking of 40-hour weeks -- has anyone done an analysis of the demand for county services on Fridays? It may be that some offices have very little demand for services on Fridays while others have more.

As Supervisor Novelli acknowledged June 4, laying off an employee has a ripple effect in the community that hurts businesses, schools and more. A 2010 CalPERS study using a widely accepted econometric model (IMPLAN) showed that every dollar CalPERS pays in benefits creates $1.55 in direct, indirect and induced economic and revenue benefit in Amador County. It's pretty safe to assume that county worker pay does much the same thing. Workers use their income to buy goods and services (and pay taxes), and the businesses who receive those funds then buy goods and services, pay employees who then spend money -- and pay taxes.

So in the long run, county layoffs hurt our local economy and reduce county tax income. And they reduce the level of services available to the public (that is, after all, why the workers are there in the first place). 

The laid-off workers have been given the option of working the next three weeks or taking severance pay. If the county gets the ERAF money and restores some or all of the positions, those who take the pay may not come back. If they don't, the county will then lose the investment it has made in their training as well as their institutional knowledge.

At Monday's meeting, I couldn't figure out why the county is not including in the budget the $1.1 million it expects to get in ERAF funds so it can keep its trained and experienced people working and maintain current levels of public service. If the money doesn't come through, the county could adjust the budget and if necessary, lay people off then. They'll know early in the fiscal year.

Since there are no budget documents online, it's impossible to see where else the county may be making cuts. Are the supervisors cutting the funds they budget for discretionary spending? (They didn't cut any of their own staff.) Are they cutting services that benefit small groups of people as well as large groups? Are we still paying $56,000 a year to kill coyotes and other predators while we close our branch libraries? Is there fair geographic distribution of cuts -- or is the Upcountry, which is losing its librarians in Pine Grove and Buckhorn -- suffering more than other areas?

There's just no way to know. And the more I think about this, the more questions I have. If you too have questions, please join me in asking for greater transparency and more public consultation about the county budget. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A few words about local forests

I haven't been writing much here lately. Too much else to do. But I did write a recent blog about the local SPI clearcutting that turned into an op-ed published in the Bee on Sunday, November 20. To read more about the clearcutting, see Ebbetts Pass Forest Watch's website.

As SPI massacres local forests, other people are working together to find ways to make the forests more resilient, reduce fire danger and create local value-added products and jobs. To read about that, see the blog of the Amador-Calaveras Consensus Group.

Dr. Malcolm North's presentation there last week was especially informative.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.