My wife and I went on a long-planned multi-week trip that took us (ok, me) away from the fun and frolic of Cambria politics. In the time leading up to our journey, and through the weeks we were away, things continued along the bumpy bubbling path towards the November elections. In addition to the Community Services District Board of Directors election, where three seats are up for grabs, the Cambria Community Healthcare District Election has heated up, with many of the same passionate behaviors on display. I have spent very little time on that situation, though I hope to dig in a bit more before November.
There have been three sessions that have occurred since last we spoke – The monthly Cambria Community Services District meeting, a sponsored Candidate’s Forum for those running for three CCSD Director positions, and a public information session where the community could give input and ask questions about the recently released Draft Environmental Impact Review document for the Sustainable Water Facility.
Since I was away, I had to watch a combination of live-streamed and archived footage of the first two events. In both cases, there was a significant amount of noise leading to sessions. I’ll do my best to capture my thoughts and observations from both, though some of the “color” will be missing.
CCSD BOARD MEETING
The Community Services District received a bit of a jolt when the long-serving and highly valued Waste Water Systems Supervisor submitted his resignation. This came at a particularly inopportune time, as next level testing of the Sustainable Water Facility was coming up quickly, and his expertise and steady hand was a critical part of the plan.
Word of his departure began to spread among the community, and the posting of the Agenda for the upcoming meeting contained reference to the resignation. As difficult as his resignation was to hear, the reasons he gave in his resignation letter pulled the cover off a long-brewing problem that, when exposed, caused quite an uproar among different parts of the community.
In his letter, he stated:
“In the current situation I am in with the demands placed on staff by members of the community, who feel as though it is their duty to act mulishly against the district and its staff, I feel as though the district needs my full, undivided attention. This ultimately takes time away from my family, and I realize that this isn’t the district’s intention.“I think you and the board are on the right path and have the community’s best interest in mind. I have come to the conclusion that I can no longer work in a community where people threatened my job and my livelihood for political reason. Nor can I work in a community where that sort of attack is considered acceptable by members of the public. “I have put in an extreme amount of hard work and energy to make the water system in Cambria the best I possibly can. In my nearly 10 years of service with the district, I have regularly been treated poorly by members of the community who think that I am overpaid, I don’t do anything and I am out to ruin their water system and waste their money. “I can no longer continue to work in that sort of abusive environment. Thank you for the years of service.”
Soon Social Media was lighting up with opinions – some claimed it was all a political game to cover up mistreatment of employees by the GM. Others claimed the poor guy was just overworked and should have left years ago. Still others pointed to a long list of other employees who had left the district over the past few years – evidence of ongoing employee dissatisfaction. I don’t recall anyone asking the true question – what if it was true, and he did leave due to community member’s harassment? What should the community do if it were proven that the claims were real and legitimate? After all, there are plenty of documented (and boasted-about) instances of people showing up with photographs, notes, and charts tracking employee activities. Some have boasted of following employees in district vehicles. Other claims include standing in the parking lot of the CCSD offices and logging the comings and goings of employees. In short – yeah, I believe it happened and probably still does. I imagine that, with a little effort a significant amount of data could be collected that would document the number of phone calls, letters, requests for information, reports, complaints and other related contact not only with the CCSD, but the multiple agencies that interact with and have responsibility for activities around the CCSD and it’s operations. That might tell a very interesting story.
GIMME GIMME GIMMME
A related topic was brought up by the General Manager in his report -ongoing public information requests which, in his view were excessive and deliberate attempts to hinder the CSD’s ability to conduct business. He cited recent requests and described the impact on staff who had to research and respond to them. He acknowledged the public’s right to request and receive information, but stressed his view that many of these requests amounted to (my words) deliberate harassment.
After the GM’s comments, the board had a discussion on the issue. Director Rice challenged the GM, and called his comments unprofessional. Her view was that it was impossible to encourage public participation in the process of government and at the same time chastise those who so engage. The exchange grew heated, with the GM passionately defending his position and his employees, and restating his opinion that there needs to be some reasonable judgment around the use or abuse of the public right to know.
This is a real issue, and deserves a real, sober conversation. How much is too much? Who decides? What constitutes abuse – on both sides of the question? Is this an issue that can be measured in black and white? Are there processes in place that govern this issue? I assume there is some statute or law that would “punish” a public official or department found to have denied legally requested information. Is there a law or statute that could be applied to individuals or groups found to be deliberately flooding agencies with requests for information with the goal of gumming up the works and gaining an advantage?
My view is that the public has the right to information, but also has an obligation to exercise that right with reasonable care, and not abuse the process for personal or political purposes.
DEATH, TAXES AND PUBLIC COMMENT
An adjacent issue also comes to mind – just what is and is not allowed during public comment at public meetings? This issue often comes up, where a citizen submits a request for public comment, is granted a time (3 minutes in the case of CCSD meetings) and uses that time to basically abuse the Board and/or staff, often with accusations of all manner of nefarious activity from incompetence to corruption. How is this helpful? How is this reasonable? How is this not challenged? More importantly, why do people feel they have carte blanche to launch these attacks on public officials, and in the case of the CCSD – citizen volunteers who put a lot of themselves into making positive contributions to the community? I accept and understand that we all at some points in our lives feel the need to express anger, sadness, dismay or puzzlement at things that affect us. I don’t get why it acceptable to continually go over the top, month after month, with no reasonable accountability. Rights? How about Responsibility?
QUICK, GET THE RAINBOWS AND LOLIPOPS!
I don’t mean to paint a gloomy picture of our community democracy in action. Often times fellow Cambrians will stand at the podium and share positive comments, thank the Board and staff for their work, highlight an accomplishment or congratulate a success. Citizens also stand at the podium and ask hard, uncomfortable questions in well articulated, well reasoned ways, seeking answers or explanations without resorting to ugliness. It can be done! Maybe not as entertaining or stimulating as a good rant, but hey – we’re here to do the people’s business. If it’s theater you want, the Pewter Plough Playhouse or CCAT are always mounting a production or two you can enjoy.
SPEAKING OF THEATER…
A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE…
One of the staples of the American political season is the public candidate’s forums – often one of the only chances the community gets to see and hear all the candidates share their views and answer questions in a public setting. These forums – debates, town halls, moderated Q&A sessions – provide an opportunity for candidates to get in front of the community and represent themselves alongside their fellow contestants.
In the case of the Cambria CSD election, things were a bit unusual. A political organization – Free and Equal Elections Foundation – sponsored a candidate’s forum, moderated by the Foundation’s “founder” and co-moderated by a politically active actor with a background in supporting liberal and sometimes controversial causes. OK – so far so good. There was a major sticking point however, which led to a LOT of community angst and aggravation. Although all candidates were invited to attend, two of the incumbents declined to participate. Their reason for declining – they felt that the foundation’s founder and forum moderator was biased and unfit to be a moderator based on her public comments, as well as a sponsored political ad calling for changes to the makeup of the current Board. The person in question publicly stated “I stand as the Founder of The Free and Equal Elections Foundation and an expert in the electoral arena for almost twenty years. I’ve never seen such a level of corruption as I’m seeing with the CCSD Board.” This statement, along with many others made in public comment directed by name at one of the incumbents, made the decision not to attend understandable. A third incumbent did attend and participate. This incumbent had conversely been publically praised and supported by the moderator, and I assume she didn’t share the sense of potential bias her colleagues on the Board felt.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE, A COMEDY TONIGHT
Knowing I was going to be away for the Forum, I submitted a series of questions that I thought were relevant, and particularly directed at challengers who do not have the advantage of a long public service record to demonstrate their positions or actions on critical issues facing the community. These questions, captured in my blog of September 19 were also shared with the Forum’s moderator, and discussed in more detail at her request via offline messages prior to the session.
I was able to view the archived video of the forum when we returned from our trip. Though there were several technical glitches that interrupted parts of the recording, I believe most of the event was captured and fairly represented the forum.
Despite all the tumult, the forum proceeded as planned, and a good number of interested community members came to see and hear the candidates make their case. For all the noise before hand, the forum was pretty uneventful though a few things did stand out a bit for me.
The first thing that struck me was that it is fairly difficult to get any substantive dialog in these types of discussions. All candidates answer the same questions, but are time-limited which made it challenging for anyone to go much beyond first level responses. It does, however, present the opportunity for candidates to draw distinctions between themselves and the others, and give the community a sense of who they are and how they conduct themselves. This is a place where presence and personality can be helpful.
The incumbent on the panel was in an interesting position. She had the clear advantage of her experience as a board member, which gave her first-hand knowledge of the workings of the District, the data behind many of the pressing issues, and the thought processes and steps that led to decisions and actions, which helped her highlight her experience. The down side was that she was in a few instances put in an uncomfortable position of maintaining the confidentiality required of her position. Overall she did a good job of balancing these factors. Her shining moment came late in the event, when a fellow candidate made mention, for the second or third time, how he sympathized with her because of the way she was treated by her fellow Directors. She gave a great response, thanking her fellow candidate for his comment then clearly stating – “I am not a victim” and that if she felt that way she would not be running for re-election. It was a strong moment for her and her candidacy.
Another moment that made me perk up was when a late entry, write-in candidate spoke plainly to the community, calling out three individuals who often speak during public comment at Board meetings. He challenged them by basically saying if you think you have better ideas, stand for election and let the public decide if they’re better. This led to a brief exchange when one of the people named by the candidate yelled out her name and objected to the comment. The candidate replied “well I object to a lot of things you say!” Her reply included the first time I have ever heard “crap crap” used in a sentence.
Again, not being in the room in real time it is hard for me to give an accurate sense of the mood, but from my viewing it appeared the event was mostly civil and positive. None of the new candidates really made much of an impression on me, but based on feedback after the event their supporters felt they did well. Much like the current Presidential elections the debates probably will not move the needle one way or the other for any candidate. The event itself seemed to be well-run, and the “celebrity” factor neither added or detracted from the overall event.
A second session, sponsored by The Chamber of Commerce and moderated by The League of Women Voters is scheduled for Thursday Oct. 13th. I plan on attending that session in person. Not sure what shirt I’ll wear.
MORE ON THAT, PLUS THE EIR REVIEW AND MY CHAT WITH TOM KIRKEY WHEN WE RETURN…