The County of San Luis Obispo is unlike most counties in California — and across the nation — because of its distinct preference for silence as a general response to public inquiry. Many inquiries and concerns are raised and have been raised by citizens who demand transparency and accountability. However, many of those inquiries and concerns are swept under the rug without recourse. This is the culture of silence, and it’s rudely counter-intuitive to making progress and uncovering the truth about highly questionable governmental practices that have become standard operating procedure in the County.
Trouble at the Los Osos CSD
Emergency Services Committee member Michael Wright was chosen as resigned Los Osos Community Services District director Maria Kelly’s replacement on the board at Thursday’s meeting. The meeting became contentious after it was revealed that LOCSD President Marshall Ochylski and director Leonard Moothart personally solicited Wright’s application, and had chosen him before reviewing other applicants.
In the midst of the conflict of interest investigation involving Kelly and County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren, there are new allegations of cronyism on the LOCSD board. Previously, Wright was Ochylski’s campaign manager when Ochylski ran for Bruce Gibson‘s District 2 spot on the Board of Supervisors. Additionally, Ochylski and Moothart attend the same church, and were close with Wright. Wright, an insurance agent working for Farmers Insurance Group, is reportedly Ochylski’s own insurance agent, according to sources close to the LOCSD president.
When Ochylski stated that he preferred the board choose someone like Kelly, who is now the subject of conflict of interest allegations, tempers flared from the audience. Ochylski threatened to clear the room, but opted to take a 10-minute recess instead. When the meeting reconvened, the board declined to comment or launch their own investigation into the recent conflict of interest charges from the LOCSD side of the voting ledger. LOCSD General Manager Dan Gilmore, who stated he was a friend of County Public Works Director Paavo Ogren, declined to comment about launching an investigation. At the previous meeting, Ochylski stated he was reluctant to conduct an investigation because the board couldn’t afford an independent private investigator.
By the end of Thursday’s meeting, a friend of the board president was appointed allegedly because he was a friend of the board. Considerable qualifications, such as prior board experience (Julie Tacker) and popularity (Keith Swanson) were ultimately deemed superfluous.
Adam Hill vs. The World
District 3 Supervisor and current BOS chairman Adam Hill had launched a very public feud against the conservative-leaning Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB). Hill decried the group as being “hate-mongerers” and “racists” because they hired a known Caucasian presidential impersonator, Steve Bridges, to headline one of their events as “President Obama.” COLAB fired back, alleging that Hill was using COLAB as a means of “cast[ing] aspersions upon [State Senator Sam] Blakeslee via guilt by association,” writes spokesman Andy Caldwell in a statement sent to local media.
Ultimately, Hill apologized for his antics and called his words “admittedly strident generalizations about racism,” but COLAB felt that Hill did not go far enough in his apology. In fact, Hill’s overtly partisan apology focused on denouncing racism as projected by conservatives: an admittedly strident generalization about conservatives. His apology garnered sympathy from local Democrats who, as leaders should, decry racism in any form. However, Hill omitted the fact that he threatened to expose the organization’s IRS Form 990 statements and the salaries of their members, and he allegedly threatened to expose the organization using County resources.
COLAB and Hill reached a truce in late June, and agreed to tone down the rhetoric. However, citizens have continued to question Hill’s temperament as a member of the board.
Prior to his feud with COLAB, Hill had angrily chided Los Osos residents who opposed the sewer project in its current form. Hill had sent disparaging e-mails to local residents, and complained to The Tribune about Los Osos speakers regularly hindering the flow of BOS meetings. Hill asked Sheriff Ian Parkinson to dispatch a deputy to stand guard at every meeting and protect the board from a half-dozen elderly residents.
Deputies have threatened to arrest Los Osos speakers if they used certain words to express their dissatisfaction with the supervisors, and have continued to reiterate their threats. Residents have compared Hill’s actions to McCarthy-like communist witch-hunts and voter disenfranchisement legislation — yet Hill has made no apologies or statements regarding his spiteful, authoritarian actions.
Questions remain unanswered about Hill’s emotional stability as chairman and member of the BOS.
Kill the Messenger
The County of San Luis Obispo has repeatedly failed to comply with public records requests from local residents. County government has shown to be extremely squeamish when confronting residents and dissidents directly about landmark issues such as the Los Osos Wastewater Project. When cornered, the County government, particularly District 2 supervisor Bruce Gibson, has literally told people to take the County to court to get answers. Gibson and his colleagues know full well that residents — who are already burdened with the prospect of having to pay $200+/month costs plus connection fees — would be unable to afford legal representation.
The County’s inability to engage in a mutual debate about the sewer has resulted in project cost increases and missed opportunities. After the BOS and Public Works soundly rejected public input on specifics of their sewer plan, the County Planning Commission sided with residents and changed the project location from the Tonini site — which would have utilized sprayfields to dispose of reusable water, a much needed resource in the Los Osos basin — to the Giacomazzi site. As a result of the County’s failed siting plan, project costs increased by 15%-20%.
Later, when the project reached the California Coastal Commission, board members there decided to grant a de novo hearing after siding with appellants, who were previously turned away by the County on relevant issues. Between the time of the initial meeting and the de novo hearing, United States Department of Agriculture officials told Razor Online that the loan and grant funding for the project changed from $80 million in financing ($16 million grant/$64 million loan financed over 40 years at “below market interest rates”) to $87 million ($4 million grant/$83 million loan financed over 40 years at 3.25% interest). In other words, project financing increased, but so did the interest. Because the County did not acknowledge the merit of concerns from residents, the costs are now higher for those in the Prohibition Zone singled out to pay for the project.
Over the years, local media outlets have sent inquiries to County government only to receive no response. Attempts to speak directly with contractors and consultants closely associated with County projects are deferred to County officials who offer ambiguously worded non-responses that often spur — at BOS meetings by supervisors — answers that people “don’t like.” For example, when The ROCK investigated the effects of liquefaction in Los Osos, Public Works’ John Waddell merely referred to the wastewater project’s Environmental Impact Report. Waddell completely sidestepped questions regarding the necessity to conduct a liquefaction study “prior to approval of the improvement plans for the proposed facilities that are part of the collection system and at the treatment plant site,” as mandated by the EIR.
Let’s be realistic: government cannot please everyone all the time. They also cannot respond to every person who has something to say, but when hundreds and thousands of people speak to a significant, widespread issue, the government must address it. Clumsiness, incompetence and ignorance are no longer acceptable excuses. In the democracy we live in, we have the good fortune of expressing ourselves at the ballot box and creating change over time, when possible at all.
However, voters are no longer in control once their candidates ascend to a position of power. Once their candidates — in San Luis Obispo County, at least — are able to sit behind the dais, they quickly accept the devil’s temptation of silence. Silence is so prevalent within the County government it’s become a culture. It’s so tempting to pledge transparency and insist that it’s there, even if it can’t be seen, but when nothing is said or done except grimace and groan at the working middle class, then transparency has been sacrificed for political expediency. The people who come week after week to express their concerns to their elected officials are left to draw only one plausible conclusion, however tragic: they are despised by the very officials they elected to serve them.
Officials seem to believe their silence is a right of privilege, not merely a statement of disapproval. We are facing a prolonged period of silence under this misconception that our elected leaders have the right to be silent when, in fact, their silence has only reinforced the idea that corruption exists — and that corruption is here to stay.
In order to uncover that corruption, we cannot be as silent as they are. We can’t stand idly by and support our elected officials who think silence is acceptable. The solution? Be loud about your freedom. Demand accountability from your public officials, no matter what Supervisors Gibson and Hill or the deputy in the back of the room say about you to your face in public or via e-mail. If they prefer silence and insults, give them no choice but to listen to their litany of failures for the rest of their days in power.
— Aaron Ochs