On October 13, 2010, I wrote an article titled “Get The Facts: Ring Paavo’s Doorbell,” which was understandably controversial. The controversy reached a fever pitch when I took on local radio host Dave Congalton, who wrote an article about it. Since then, I spent time objectively analyzing the overall job performance of the County, and their responsiveness to concerns surrounding the Los Osos wastewater project.
In order to maximize your potential, you must value your strengths, but you must also acknowledge your weaknesses. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors has provided board meetings as required by the California Brown Act, legislation they’ve selectively enforced since the passage of Assembly Bill AB 2701.
District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson has held office hours for his constituents — including concerned residents of the Los Osos wastewater project — but he’s given people chilly responses both privately and publicly. At the September 13 BOS meeting, Gibson even referred by analogy to BOS meetings, which include people speaking at public comment, the “zombie parade.” One can only speculate as to the things he’s called Los Osos residents at the family dinner table.
One of the County’s talking points is that they provided an “unprecedented amount of public comment,” which is public comment that must be legally allowed by default. During regular board meetings without a LOWWP project update, County board and staff has rarely issued complete or any responses to questions raised by Los Osos residents. Most of the responses given have come from Gibson, who has stated many times, “We’ve heard these same people, and their assertions before. We’ve already addressed those.” When there is a project update, Public Works has cherry-picked questions, and summarized them into overtly generalized, topical questions that are easily digestible or dismissed.
Public comment has been greeted with varying degree of responses. During Gibson’s tenure as board chairman, public comment was sometimes reduced to one or two minutes because Los Osos public comment “delayed board business,” which is an unproven assertion. Gibson would often chide speakers and uphold the premise that the “majority” of the community supported his comments and efforts.
When Supervisor Frank Mecham was board chair he allowed Los Osos public comment to exist without rhetorical recourse, but his responsiveness to comments was low. He, too, had complained about the sewer critics, and sought to reduce their public comment time. Following Mecham’s complaints, the Tribune published articles that promoted the idea that public commenters, like former Los Osos Community Services District president Lisa Schicker, should “put a sock in it.” Occasionally, Mecham would express dissenting opinion and vote “no” on some County staff recommendations, and would be criticized by Gibson for breaking the chain of unanimous support.
As current chairman, Adam Hill has set constitutionally questionable parameters for what is and isn’t acceptable board comment. To enforce those parameters, since January of this year, he has summoned a deputy to oversee Los Osos public comment despite the fact that no threats were publicly made from speakers at the podium. Once his directives — including his handling of public comment — are questioned, Hill has personally attacked and threatened local leaders (i.e. COLAB), constituents, and local media not affiliated with The Tribune.
In fact, Hill has consistently used The Tribune to reinforce his point of view, and has allowed the McClatchy newspaper to compare Los Osos public comment to the 2011 Tucson shootings and the Westboro Baptist Church without providing any anecdotes or supporting evidence to justify the comparisons. Given his violent, confrontational disposition toward the people he criticizes, some have openly mused about the deputy being summoned to protect the people from him.
County Public Works have produced a wealth of materials related to the LOWWP on their web site, and the archives are extensive. However, County documents have been selectively uploaded to reinforce the narrative of progress, unanimous support by participating local agencies, and little opposition that rarely merits a qualitative reply. The opposition that is represented on the web site comes from residents who Gibson and others have repeatedly and rudely shamed in public. Dissenting opinion is barely recognized — and if it exists somewhere, a counterpoint is provided in the form of unprofessional evisceration found in a sea of convoluted rhetoric and personal attacks.
Some public records requests have achieved results, but most haven’t. Since “Ring Paavo’s Doorbell” was published, Razor Online has been forwarded hundreds of e-mails from residents that have sought public records requests. Though Gibson has stated that “the county has shown unprecedented transparency and responsiveness to document requests on this (sewer) project,” most of those requests were not fulfilled. Despite some residents’ attempts to revisit and restructure their requests after receiving no response initially, the County has mostly declined to respond after the 10 days, as prescribed in California Government Code § 6253 (c). The County has not delivered written notice, explaining why they could not fulfill public records requests (including possible statutory exceptions pursuant to Cal. Govt. Code 6254 and 6275 et seq.). County Counsel Warren Jensen told Razor Online last year that staff were under no obligation to respond, though the law says otherwise.
County Public Works has complied with some public records requests only after the media scrutinized them.
The public officials — whose names, addresses, and phone numbers were disclosed in my article previously — were those who did not reply to inquiries and public records requests. Even simple questions were left unanswered by those who happily shouldered the responsibility for designing and operating a $200+ million wastewater project that is located in a high-risk liquefaction zone, sole-sources and utilizes controversial contractors, does nothing to implement measures to reduce and prevent saltwater intrusion from affecting the groundwater basin. That’s just a small sampling of the problems this project has.
It was a mistake to post the addresses and phone numbers of the individuals because I have no control over what someone could do with that information. It was just as wrong as our government creating a situation — through condemnation, oppression, and manipulation — that would literally leave thousands of people no other choice but to ring doorbells, call their representatives, and have a conversation with them without being lynched. It was just as wrong to post personal information as to callously ignore pleas of senior citizens, the middle-class, and residents on fixed incomes who are only looking for answers. It was a mistake for me post such sensitive information when I could have simply said that the people are now left with that option — as undesirable as it might be to those who have unrequited faith in their government to do the right thing.
After reviewing everything the County government has done under a microscope, it’s painfully clear that they refuse to think about the people. Their actions and inaction have set a chilling precedent for local agencies to aggressively dismiss and snub residents who are concerned about the sanctity of their livelihoods in their community while pushing so strongly to preserve their own personal safety; they attribute more value to their own lives than the lives of thousands affected by their decisions. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t protect themselves — as they have every right to do so — but the principle behind the now-’infamous’ article remains the same.
Call me old-fashioned, but when the people are inadvertently left to sacrifice financially and socially for a large-scale project, I believe it is only fair — as the project’s sole authority — to sacrifice your time to communicate civilly to people who have concerns or disagree with you. Instead, it appears that you, supervisors, have wasted much of our valuable time, resources, and $200+ million doing your worst.
– Aaron Ochs