Sunday, November 7, 2010

Taking the long view to save the Moke

The other day, a friend of mine said, "I hope we live long enough to see positive results from your efforts." He was talking about the fight to save the Mokelumne River from new dams and diversions. That effort is led by the Foothill Conservancy, and in my role with that organization, I spend a lot of time on it (quick disclaimer -- this is my personal blog and I'm not speaking for the FC in it).

Recently the Amador County Board of Supervisors voted not to support the designation and to meet with stakeholders to discuss legislative options. While some see that as total defeat for the Wild and Scenic campaign, I take a longer view. A negative person might focus on the "not support" side of the vote. Instead, I'm optimistic that the "meet with stakeholders" part of the decision could lead to a positive result.

Why? After working on Mokelumne conservation for 21 years, I believe that most people in Amador County really do want to keep the river like it is today. Those who dream of new dams for local water are usually brought back to earth once they really understand how much water's in the river, how much is already spoken for, how much dams cost, how the water rights work, and how much water we already have (enough to nearly triple the county's population).

So the question becomes, How do we keep the river the way it is today? The only way I know of is through National Wild and Scenic River designation.

Decisions about dams aren't made in Jackson or San Andreas or even Sacramento -- they're made by appointed bureaucrats at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in D.C. To stop new or larger dams, you have to take away their power. The one tried and true way to do it is with National Wild and Scenic River designation.

Those of us dedicated to protecting the river aren't giving up because of one vote. We know that thousands of local residents and more than 100 small businesses support the designation. We know that city council members, Calaveras County supervisors, Amador Water Agency directors, landowners along the river, and many other individuals are among the supporters. We know that local support has doubled in the last year since East Bay MUD proposed its latest Pardee expansion (the fifth effort to dam the Middle Bar and/or Electra run in the last 35 years).

So we'll slog on, and eventually, we will save this river. If you haven't signed on to support saving the Mokelumne for future generations, please do it today. And if you'd like to share your support with local and regional elected officials, you can use this easy e-mail form.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Oh, the irony

I recently sat in a public meeting where a local elected official was complaining about how rural counties are treated by certain state agencies. He said something like, "We did comment, but they ignored us."

I really wanted to say, "Welcome to my world," since I've come to believe that most of my own public testimony before certain local officials, including the body on which this particular gentleman sits, is about as futile as holding my breath until pigs fly. It's not usually what I say, mind you. It's who I am, and more important -- what they think I am, or represent -- that colors their reaction. And I have to tell you, it's pretty frustrating.

My guess is that the state agency in question probably deals with the Regional Council of Rural Counties in much the same way. They think the group's concerns are predictable. They think its solutions aren't practical. They think they've heard it all before. So they don't listen.

Maybe this official and his colleagues could learn from that. Instead of judging and dismissing people or groups who appear before them, they ought to take the time to listen and fairly consider what everyone has to say.

A little respect and listening goes a long way in this world.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Placing faith in growth

The Placer County city of Lincoln had just over 11,000 residents in 2000. By 2010, its population had boomed to more than 41,000. Now the town is struggling to make ends meet.

As discussed in recent article in the Sacramento Bee, Lincoln residents will be voting this November on a utility tax to help prevent more layoffs in their police department. It seems that as property values – and property tax and sales tax revenue – went down during the recession, Lincoln has found itself unable to support its police force.

Here’s a priceless quote from the Bee, “After years of being a largely rural small town, the city decided to ride the housing boom. But after the boom went bust, Lincoln finds itself stuck in the middle, having given up its volunteer fire department and smallish police force.”

It appears that the majority of the city residents support the tax, because they understand the importance of having a functional police department. At the same time, one can’t help but wonder: If Lincoln hadn’t grown so rapidly, would it be calling on local residents to pay more taxes? Or would the city be in better fiscal shape?

It’s an important question to consider. Here in Amador County, some folks are loudly beating the drum for population and housing growth as a panacea to all that ails us. But they rarely present any facts or examples to back up their theory. They simply believe that more houses and people create a more affluent community with adequate tax revenue. It’s a faith-based approach to economic development: "In Growth We Trust."

But does it always work that way? Let’s compare Amador and Calaveras counties. Calaveras had more rapid population growth than Amador over the last decade (13.1 percent vs. 8.3 percent).

Who has the higher unemployment rate right now? Calaveras.

Which had the higher sales tax revenue for the last available recorded year (2008-09)? Amador.

Who has more private sector employees? Amador.

Who has the higher median household income? Amador.

Calaveras does have higher property values, so we’ll give them that. But on several measures of economic well-being, it’s not doing as well as its slower-growing neighbor to the north.

Maybe fast growth is not all its cracked up to be, especially if you have no other real strategy for a strong, sustainable and resilient economy.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Some observations post-Measure N

When times are tough, or something threatens to shake up the local power structure, the nasty dogs come out in force. Just look at how people are reacting to the narrow election margin on Measure N, the Gold Rush referendum.

The final vote count put the Yes folks up 16 votes. The No folks, the No on Measure N committee of Preserve Historic Sutter Creek, have requested a recount.

This should not be a big deal. Recounts are pretty normal for close elections, and just part of the process. Remember that certain presidential election a few years ago?

But some of the pro-Gold Rush folks have gone ballistic (see the comments on the Amador Ledger-Dispatch website.) They’re attacking PHSC, individual PHSC members, and anyone else they consider to be an opponent of the type of sprawling super-sized subdivision Gold Rush represents.

They’re also dredging up history – and getting their facts wrong in the process. They’re attacking me for the actions of a family to which I’m not related (apparently spelling is not their strong suit). They’re attacking the Foothill Conservancy for being the same as Protect Historic Amador Waterways, which if it weren’t so wrong would be sorta funny, considering that PHAW actually sued the Conservancy at one point.

You’d think the narrow vote on Measure N would give people pause. After all, it does show that a substantial number of Sutter Creek voters are opposed to the Gold Rush project as approved. Remember, we’re talking 16 votes. The Sutter Creek City Council and pro-GR folks should be thinking long and hard about that. If anything, they represent only the barest of majorities on this issue.

To their credit, the Gold Rush developers’ response has been rather subdued. They’re not out celebrating in the streets, gloating, or attacking the Sutter Creek residents who voted No. Instead, they’re inviting them to talk. It’s a nice gesture, and ought to be a sign to their attack dogs to back off. But it’s also relatively meaningless, since they’ve never before responded to the concerns of that strong near-majority (or maybe an actual majority) who oppose Gold Rush.

And of course, the developers spent about $140,000 on the election, compared to the approximately $5,000 PHSC spent. Plus, they’ve been knocking on doors and selling their project to locals for what, eight years? I think the close margin was a surprise to them. If I were them, I’d be sober, too.

It amazes, but does not surprise me to see PHSC accused of “dividing Sutter Creek.” If anyone has divided the town, it’s the developers and council members who ignored the sincere concerns of a substantial number of local residents over the last few years. They could have listened and made an effort to work out a project everyone could live with. But they chose the path of conflict, instead.

Time will tell what lessons, if any, are learned from this referendum election, and what the long-term effects will be in Sutter Creek and the county at large. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Voices for civility

Last week, Amador Ledger Dispatch Publisher Jack Mitchell published an opinion piece that was anything but civil. Mitchell fell back into an ugly, old habit I keep hoping he will outgrow: calling people names and demonizing individuals and groups with whom he disagrees.

In this week's paper, the defamed citizens -- and several others -- responded. But not in kind. They called Mitchell on his bad behavior. But they also called out for respectful, civil discourse.

One letter-writer even pointed out that Mitchell had engaged in exactly that on his front porch when she knocked on his door to ask him to sign the referendum petition challenging the Gold Rush Ranch approval.

Good people can disagree without being disagreeable, juvenile, disrespectful, and hateful. They can, in the words of the famed negotiating book Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In, "Be hard on the problem and soft on the people."

That's important everywhere. In small communities like ours, it's critical. No matter what happens with an issue that causes us to disagree today, tomorrow there will still be neighbors to help, causes to support, and community needs to address. We must build and nurture the relationships that allow us to work together, not allow our differences to tear us apart.

I'm so proud of the good people in this county who realize that and put it into practice every day. They -- not the folks who resort to personal attack when they don't get their way -- are our true local leaders. And they are the ones who will help us find a path to a prosperous and sustainable future while preserving the small town and rural values we all hold dear.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Some old but still good random thoughts

This morning, I was looking for an old op-ed piece I'd written in response to one of Amador Ledger Dispatch Publisher Jack Mitchell's attack pieces (Jack's been stuck in attack mode for as long as I can remember). I couldn't find what I was looking for, but did find another commentary I never finished. It seems relevant today, so I thought I'd share an edited excerpt:

Elected officials ignore new ways of thinking at our county’s expense. If they only listen to the people who think like them, they’ll never be challenged to broaden their thinking, find creative solutions, or move beyond the ordinary to the exceptional. They’ll also motivate those who opposed them in the last election to organize for the next one. Power politics begets more power politics—it’s self-perpetuating.

So it’ll be interesting to see whether our elected officials actually work to represent everyone or only their supporters. It’ll say a lot about them as people. And it will give us some sense of where our county is headed: to a positive future focused on problem-solving and common ground, or one bogged down in infighting and dysfunction.