It’s not sexy like the Edge/Wilcox scandal, but the Los Osos Public Comment scandal and coverup will cost Los Osos and County taxpayers millions of dollars more in rigged contracts, costs increases, additional fees and charges, further damage to Los Osos’ threatened drinking water supply and probable litigation. The man pulling the strings behind the scenes of both scandals could pay at the polls in 2010, if voters take a deeper look…
By ED OCHS
The cloud over Los Osos has barely moved all summer. Neither has the cloud beneath the cloud.
It’s been a long season of disappointment and discontent for homeowners unfortunate enough to live in Los Osos’ infamous Prohibition Zone. The fight against the County’s costly, economically devastating and environmentally inferior gravity collection system has been all but lost, paving the way for the $200 million central sewer that a line of experts have long concluded to be unnecessary.
Lost in the fight for a better project was all hope for affordability, and with it a future in Los Osos for many of the town’s current homeowners who can’t afford to eventually pay up to $400 a month in additional property taxes and rising sewer fees and charges, every month for the next 30 years.
Yet, it was County Public Works and Board of Supervisors clearly on the defensive at the July 14 monthly update on the Los Osos Wastewater Project (LOWWP).
The County was seeking the Planning Commission’s Coastal Development Permit (CDP) and approval of its Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for the LOWWP. Emboldened by the Planning Commission’s more open deliberations on key issues, Los Osos residents were ready for public comment on the update with a combination of vital information and stinging criticism, as they attempted to leave their mark on the five-man board that will ultimately decide the fate of the Los Osos project and therefore the community.
Led by even-handed, fair-minded Chairwoman Sarah Christie, the Planning Commission conducted a painstaking public review of Los Osos input and options that the County had long since ignored or dismissed. The Commission’s revisions to the project, such as moving the sewer off the Tonini site and closer to town, over the groundwater basin, rejecting sprayfields for disposal of tertiary-treated effluent—cornerstones of the County’s proposed project—had apparently affected Ogren’s willingness to face Los Osos residents on July 14.
In fact, Ogren, Environmental Specialist Mark Hutchinson and Grants Administrator John Diodati did not show up for the July 14 monthly update, their absence unexplained by the Chairman. It was only Public Work’s monthly update of the $200 million Los Osos Wastewater Project, and three-quarters of the Public Work Department project team couldn’t make it to work.
Efforts on hold
Project Engineer John Waddell was left to deliver a downbeat progress report, prompted by Public Works’ unhappiness with the focus and pace of the extended Planning Commission hearings.
Noted Waddell, with more Planning Commission hearings ahead in July and August, “The time before the Planning Commission has had an impact on the design-build process.
“As you (the board) know, a short list of design-build teams was established in April. The next step then would be the release of the Requests for Proposals (RFP). Based on prior direction, the project team was focusing on the RFP for the collection system. However, since the end of April when the Planning Commission hearings were continued, those efforts have been on hold.”
Also on hold, according to Waddell, was the project budget. It had all been basically spent or allocated through the end of the fiscal year of June 30. Millions more would be needed to continue funding work on the project. Public Works would soon be requesting, and receiving, millions more from the board.
“But,” Waddell restated, “all essential work on the project is on hold right now as we go through the Planning Commission hearings. There’s no efforts going on related to working on the RFPs or the facilities plan. Basically only essential efforts needed to be responsive to the Coastal Commission are what’s going on.”
Worse for Waddell than delivering the update on this Tuesday afternoon in July, he was the last man standing from Public Works and would have to bear public comment alone.
During days of hearings spread over months, the Planning Commission had taken extensive public comment from all sides of the sewer debate, including from Ogren nemesis Dana Ripley, author of the 2006 Ripley Pacific “Los Osos Wastewater Management Plan Update,” as well as Sierra Club’s Andrew Christie and Los Osos Sustainability Group’s Keith Wimer, along with others who felt they hadn’t received the same fair, open and honest hearing from the Board of Supervisors that they did from the Planning Commission.
By giving an ear to Ripley and STEP proponents, Christie and the Planning Commission had breathed new life into Los Osos Sustainability Group members and allies, whose goals Gibson had prematurely crushed on April 7 when the board eliminated STEP collection and any alternatives from their promised design-build cost competition.
This day, with hopes raised anew for restoring STEP to the design-build phase, thanks primarily to Christie’s attempt at independent review, Los Osos speakers would be out for their three minutes each, a minute for each year of Gibson-Ogren plotting, resulting in a porous project needing a major makeover by a junior board, $7 million later, with millions more on the way to keep it afloat while under repair.
Facing increased protests from Los Osos homeowners after unilaterally breaking his promise and pulling the plug on STEP and alternatives in April, Gibson decided to change the rules for Los Osos public comment on off-Tuesdays when Los Osos wasn’t on the board’s agenda. He limited all comment on the Los Osos sewer to a total of 10 minutes, no matter how many people showed up to speak. This served to reduce public comment on Los Osos to two minutes per person, rather than the customary three.
Concerned about competing with friends and neighbors for limited air time, and of making the drive downtown and not being able to get heard at all, fewer speakers showed up over time. Gibson’s new rule had slowly begun to work: Less time, fewer speakers, less protest, silent go the sheep.
While ignoring public comment is one of the most effective weapons in the board’s arsenal against Los Osos—the board rarely responds—it is Gibson’s displays of anger during Los Osos public comment that reveal his elitist views about the democratic process, his dictatorial inclinations and deep-seeded biases.
The acerbic supervisor has made a habit of interrupting Los Ososans during their public comment. He turned off the microphone on Retired Judge Martha Goldin for mentioning MWH and Ogren in the same sentence during General Public Comment. He publically discredited Lisa Schicker’s complaint against MWH and Ogren before reading the full submission, and, on August 4, he tried to embarrass Keith Wimer, one of Los Osos’ most respected citizens, by questioning his credentials for reporting on the increasing rate of seawater intrusion in the Los Osos groundwater basin and the failure of the County’s project to address overarching groundwater management issues.
Immediately after Wimer finished his three-minute presentation on seawater intrusion—a presentation inaudible to television and online viewers because of sound difficulties that lasted for the duration of his comments and his comments alone—Gibson cross-examined him from the bench.
“Mr. Wimer, your analysis of seawater intrusion is based on whose technical analysis? I’m just curious who di
d the work?”
“I did… ,” said Wimer.
“I’m just curious as to your qualifications on hydrogeology,” Gibson inquired.
“I don’t have to be a hydrogeologist,” answered Wimer. “All I have to be able to do is read.”
“OK,” said Gibson, “So you’re not a hydrogeologist. That’s all I needed to know, Mr. Wimer. Thank you.”
“Next speaker is … ”
History of abuse
Few politicians, local or national, have developed such a documented history of abusing power in such a brief time as Supervisor Bruce Gibson, whose 2nd district includes Los Osos.
As board sewer whip, Gibson’s close partnership with Ogren on driving the MWH gravity project for Los Osos, and Ogren’s failure to produce a project acceptable to the Planning Commission and Coastal Commission, may come back to haunt him. Gibson, Cayucos resident and wealthy land owner, may have difficulty getting reelected in 2010, if a candidate emerges that listens more closely to Los Osos concerns. Many in Los Osos who voted for him in 2006 won’t be repeating in 2010, and Gibson has few successes to boast about as Chairperson of a board sitting atop a volcano of corruption and scandal that has exploded under his administration.
While Gibson’s decisions are clearly one-sided, as his aggressive pursuit of his big-money agenda is relentless, it’s the disdain he doles out to constituents, most who voted for him and who now challenge him, that is the attracting the most attention.
In April former LOCSD board president Lisa Schicker filed a formal complaint with the County, supported by 100-plus pages of documentation, against contractor MWH for bid-rigging and Ogren for conflict of interest involving MWH. County Counsel Warren Jensen, echoed by Supervisor Patterson, promised a written report to be posted on the County’s website within weeks. Weeks passed. Nothing from Jensen,
Reacting to public pressure in May, an angry Gibson railed in public with Schicker in the gallery, “I see nothing of substance, nothing in any way credible about the material Miss Schicker has brought forward. It seems mostly (in) regard (to) the inner actions between the Los Osos CSD and Montgomery Watson Harza (and) has no credible assertion, much less proof of anything to do with Mr. Ogren’s conduct or anything the County has done, and I think we can safely, simply dismiss them as anything significant we have to weigh in terms of our consideration.”
Schicker was troubled that Gibson had to resort to what amounted to a verbal “public flogging” as a response to her willingness to come forward as a former elected official and state her concerns to the board for the record in order to safeguard the public.
“All he had to say was, ‘It appears that Miss Schicker’s complaints have no merit—so far.’ He should have waited and reviewed everything before giving legal opinion on the record,” she said, “rather than appearing to be judging me or the carefully sourced and referenced information I presented in good faith as a responsible citizen and former elected district officer.”
After months of silence on what became 1,300 pages of documentation by Schicker, Jensen finally issued a “preliminary legal evaluation” on August 18. Based on Jensen’s and Gibson’s earlier remarks, it should have been no surprise to any Los Osos observer that Jensen’s long-delayed “evaluation” turned out to be little more than a two-page letter of dismissal of all allegations against Ogren and MWH.
1,300 pages and not a word of it true, no facts that connect, not a drop of concern by the County for the taxpayers who must foot the bill for the cost of corruption. Schicker might as well have filed blank pages or not filed at all. The message was clear. MWH and Ogren were good to go, pure as the driven snow.
Los Osos Updates
Besides geography, Los Osos and current County staff have something else more relevant in common: Neither has experienced building a sewer before, nothing remotely on the magnitude of Los Osos, with its catalog of unique characteristics. And nothing remotely as costly, in terms of money spent, homes lost and lives wrecked.
In an unprecedented move for an unprecedented project, the County sets aside the first Tuesday afternoon of every month for an update by Public Works on the status of the proposed Los Osos Wastewater Project and to receive public comment on staff’s report. The County started the Los Osos Monthly Updates sessions in 2007, after taking over the project upon passage of Assembly Bill 2701 the previous year.
No other community in the County is singled out for such a bloc of government time each month, only Los Osos, Then again, no other community in the County is ultimately being taxed up to $400 a month (most of that appearing on homeowners’ property tax statement, the rest in fees and charges). No homeowner in any community in the U.S. is paying as much for sewer service to flush their toilet as they will in Los Osos. And that sewer tax largely targets only a select group of homeowners within the community, those living in the so-called “Prohibition Zone” —not the entire district, nor those homes in the PZ situated on an acre or more.
Aided by the intense lobbying efforts of Gail McPherson working for the County within the community, the County managed to convince most in Los Osos to trust the County process through the successful “blank-check” Proposition 218 vote in 2007, up to the moment of truth in April 2009 when the County abandoned the so-called “process” and any pretense of cooperation with the community along with it. Trusting the process shaped public comment for years and gave the community County control, MWH and gravity.
Public comment at monthly updates has almost always featured a few speakers chiding the County, staff or process, occasionally in a raised voice, sometimes in the race to beat the three-minute clock. However, the majority believed the County would “do the right thing” and keep its promise for a head-to-head comparison of the top collection systems, including alternative technologies, to determine the most cost-effective project for the officially disadvantaged community.
All that changed on April 7 when it suddenly became apparent to those who formerly trusted the County up to that point that they had been strung along and betrayed. To those who paid attention and already knew, and to those who now knew in hindsight, it was clear that the County never had any intention of keeping its promise to homeowners who voted for the 218—in no small part because of County’s promise to compare real system costs for the best value.
Following his edict to exclude STEP, Chairman Gibson responded to a wave of criticism by capping comment about Los Osos at board meetings, except in Los Osos’ designed update time slot. He enacted the 10-minute rule on non-update Tuesdays, and became even more confrontive toward Los Osos speakers, interrupting any speaker during General Public Comment who mentioned “Los Osos” or “sewer” or anyone involved in it.
In May, County Counsel Jensen emerged from his legal haze of sex and corruption scandals only long enough to declare the Gibson had authority within the Brown Act to limit public comment.
By the time the August 4 update rolled around, three weeks after the July update, the Planning Commission had held two more meetings. As bold and brave as Chairwoman Christie appeared earlier in the hearings, seeming to open up the debate anew, she suddenly decided not to make a stand for STEP. Instead, she backed off any further effort to advance STEP and allowed gravity to proceed uncontested, despite the huge cost difference in systems, in their impacts, and her own deep environmental concerns addressed only by STEP.
As a result, County
staff was feeling better about itself at the August 4 update, apart from the many changes conditioning the permit that made staff appear somewhat less in charge before the Planning Commission. Ogren even made an appearance at the podium after public comment, not before, to talk about the overall status of the ISJ process and other topics such as harvest wells. He droned on for several minutes, spinning webs with words, reminding anyone who might wish otherwise that he is still very much the Public Works Director.
Rubbing in salt
Gibson was back on the prowl again, looking for payback, and focused his glare on Keith Wimer of the Los Osos Sustainability Group, who he blamed for creating a wedge issue by convincing the Planning Commission and Coastal Commission that the County’s project would do nothing to stop seawater intrusion in the basin, which Wimer called “out of control.”
To further minimize Wimer’s warning, supported by LOCSD documents, a bristling Gibson turned to District Engineer Rob Miller and coaxed him into admitting that seawater intrusion could be eliminated by the water purveyors alone, according to Gibson, through “a redistribution of pumping patterns that actually halt seawater intrusion.” At the same time he was admitting that addressing seawater intrusion was not part of the $200 million wastewater project, but rather up to the purveyors, not the County, to fix—and basin users to pay for.
Gibson: “So without the wastewater project at all, it would be possible to stop seawater intrusion if the purveyors were to change their pumping practices in the basin.”
Miller: “The model predicts that that’s possible, but there are challenges in actually getting that water out of the ground…”
Gibson, interrupting: “But it’s conceptual and that’s why this result is so important. Because when you analyze the other situation, which was I guess the proposed wastewater project which brings a certain amount back to Broderson, the safe yield to the purveyors drops by 50 acre feet a year and you’re suggesting that could be covered by conservation, but again 2050 acre feet a year could be produced with seawater intrusion stopped.”
Miller: “When we say it’s stopped, it’s probably better to say managed, because there is a small fraction over on the west side that will have some chlorides coming into those wells. It’s maintained below 250 milligrams per liter, safe to manageable levels …”
Gibson, interrupting: “It meets safe drinking water standards.”
Take that, Mr. Seawater Intrusion.
Upon closing public comment, previous Board Chairmen, including most recently Supervisor Patterson, used to ask other board members if they had any comment on any of the public comment they just heard. Gibson doesn’t even ask.
Now, to respond to Los Osos public comment a supervisor would have to interrupt Gibson in the act of calling for the next item on the board’s agenda. Rarely do any of the other supervisors interrupt to comment or ask a question, as if they either lack the intellectual curiosity or courage to inquire any further than Gibson allows, or they have been told not to ask any questions.
The next monthly update of the Los Osos Wastewater Project—and public comment—will be held in Board of Supervisors Chambers on Tuesday, Sept. 1.