Cambria. For a “sleepy little seaside community” there sure is a lot of churning going on. Given the range of Cambrians and Cambria-hopefuls, every public dollar that is raised and spent gets a lot of attention. Moreso, every agency and administrator tasked with delivering the services that those dollars are intended to support face ever-mounting public pressure. While the three agencies – the Community Services District, the Healthcare District, and the School District – operate independently of each other, the issues they deal with have similar drivers – taxpayers and ratepayers.
It is a challenging time to be an elected member of any of the three main administrative organizations. It is even more dangerous being an administrator of one of these organizations.
The cost of Cambria living is pretty high, and the traditional working-class families that are the heart and soul of many communities are struggling to take root, or stay rooted in the area. Housing costs are up there for both buyers and renters. The inventory mix is split among primary homes, second homes, vacation rentals, and some multi-family residences. Missing from that list is a reasonable stock of affordable housing options. Hence, some families looking to establish roots are finding Cambria out of reach.
In another bucket – an aging population, many retired, many still working in occupations that have either low or speculative incomes such as artists, musicians, and craftspeople. They are faced with a reality that warns they may no longer be able to stay in the community they have called home for many years.
There are, of course, many residents who are in stable financial positions. I see the continuum sort of like the Circle of Life.
The Community Services District continues to be an organization under attack, with the General Manager the focus of an escalating, and ultimately successful battle to separate him from his job.
Some members of the community have been calling for his ouster, laying the blame for everything on his desk. Changes to the makeup of the Board of Directors gave the protesters a stronger voice behind the oak.
Some of the complaints are valid; mistakes in judgment have been made. Some of the issues could have been handled more skillfully. But many of the problems Cambria face have very little to do with the GM’s job performance and a lot to do with circumstances he had been given to manage, often without clear direction from the board. And as always, not enough resources to fully attack the three billboards of under-funded projects that underpin the health and safety of the water and wastewater infrastructure.
After a flurry of Closed Session meetings – meetings that can generously be defined as sloppily arranged, noticed and reported, the General Manager and the Cambria Community Services District parted ways. The General Manager, Jerry Gruber, received a separation package consistent with the terms of his contract. This enraged some in the community, who believed that he should have been fired for cause.
Based on the lack of any formal performance metrics, evaluation process, corrective action plans and alignment of goals against district objectives, any other resolution would have been both unfair and imprudent.
A search for a replacement will be undertaken. Perhaps a re-examination of the job requirements might lead to a different approach to structuring the district administration. Is it a 1-person job? Are there candidates who really have all the skills and experience to manage a small but complicated community services district?
From my back of the room perspective, I am both happy and sad that this situation has been resolved. It was clear that the relationship between Mr. Gruber and some members of the board was not good, and getting worse. Nobody was happy, and the longer it went, the uglier the dialog became.
The personal toll it was taking on Mr. Gruber, and his family was tough to watch. As his friend, I saw how it weighed on him. I also saw how he handled it with grace and professionalism. I was able to spend a bit of time with him as the curtain was being rung down, after the first closed session meeting where it was clear that change was imminent. He never said a bad thing about the board, the community or any individual, friend or foe. He pointed to his whiteboard and said he still had work to do, and he would report for duty and do his best until the clock ran out. Mistakes? Yes, mistakes were made, he agreed. Accomplishments? Yes, there were plenty, though often overshadowed by the voices of the perpetually pissed. Such is the life of any executive in any corporate or government agency.
I hope that, with some time and distance, everyone can find their way back to a less heated and more positive mindset. Some will, some won’t.
Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones;
So let it be with Caesar. The noble Brutus
Hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer’d it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest–
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men–
From Julius Caesar, By William Shakespeare
Sometimes I wonder if I attend the same meetings as others in the community.
For the past five-plus years I’ve listened to presentation after presentation from the GM and staff, as well as committee members charged with studying rates and fees that fund the district’s deliverables. In chart after chart, key infrastructure projects have been identified, risks described, actions taken, improvements made and improvements deferred. Many of these presentations were accompanied by cautions that projects postponed or upgrades delayed would add to the growing danger to the systems that deliver our water and take away and process our waste. PowerPoint after PowerPoint showed failing components, as well as repairs and replacements that had occurred. In each instance, the GM, or a Director, made the point that we continued to fall behind and that the revenue that comes into the District is significantly less than what is required to maintain everything.
To sharpen my thinking, I reached out to accomplished leaders I have worked with through my career to see if they might have insights into this complex challenge. I was connected, through a mutual friend, to Susan Leal, a noted expert on environmental, legislative and global water and infrastructure issues. I gave her a brief description of the situation, and she graciously responded with a simple, yet clear truth.
“My guess is that the rate increases surrounding water and wastewater are difficult to swallow—especially after the rates have been frozen or otherwise not kept up with the cost of delivering service. Management of wastewater is often more expensive than water supply especially when the infrastructure is old and in need of an upgrade.
Bottom line: in California and in growing number of areas throughout the country: we need to use less water and be prepared to pay more for it. I know that’s not comforting, but that’s often the reality.”
Wait a minute – we have had rate increases for years. Where did that money go???
As pointed out numerous times, the increases that were put into place were too gentle. The sensitivity to the taxpayer/ratepayer wallet overshadowed the economics of providing the services. I am often perplexed as to why this tidbit is rarely mentioned in a rush to find malfeasance, misconduct, incompetence and a million other reasons for opposing what, to many are rational and needed increases. As we track the effects of the newly-approved rates, it might be a good idea to maintain awareness that, even with the new revenue, it will not be enough to fund all the identified needs.
Despite falling significantly short of protests, a good number of ratepayers spoke out in opposition to the increases. Many feel that the district has been and continues to be fiscally mismanaged, and demand a better accounting of how ratepayer money is spent. Others objected due to the financial hardship the increases will have on them as they struggle to maintain a life in Cambria. All of these concerns need to be considered as we move forward, and it will not be an easy road to navigate unless all involved make a real effort to work together for solutions that equitably and practically benefit as many of us as possible.
On the bright side, the recently – formed and empowered Finance and Infrastructure committees have been doing great work, really digging in and identifying areas of improvements to process, evaluation, tracking and reporting to the Board, and by extension to the community. The committee members are smart, committed and collaborative – a great example of citizens working towards improving rather than decrying Cambria’s governance. Their efforts, backed by a pledge to jealously oversee the fiscal management of the district, should make us all feel more confident that the health of the community will be fairly and objectively managed.
The Coast Unified schools are struggling. Depending on how one looks at the data, the schools are failing, really failing, or beyond all hope. A declining enrollment, fueled by the economic climate in town, is putting pressure on the district to balance everything from course offerings to staffing. This uncertainty is triggering a growing number of parents to move their kids to different schools, some private and some public. This is a tough choice for many, as the schools they are choosing are towns away. This often means travel expenses, tuition costs, and significant changes to the schedules of the parents and students. It also adds to the stigma, fair or unfair, of the Coast Union school system.
The School Superintendent has been under fire for her performance. She has been equally under fire for her compensation, which is quite healthy. Taken separately, both are problems for a small community with a changing school profile. Together, they form an obstacle that can’t be ignored. Add to this list a very public vote of “no confidence” by a near-unanimous roster of Cambria’s teachers.
Under significant public pressure led by concerned parents, teachers, and interested community members, the Board came to an agreement to end the relationship with the current Superintendent.
A search for a replacement will be undertaken. Perhaps a re-examination of the job requirements might lead to a different approach to structuring the district administration. Is it a 1-person job? Are there candidates who really have all the skills and experience to manage a small but complicated school system?
Over the past few months, I’ve taken a semi-casual look at how the Healthcare District is run. I reached out to all the elected Trustees and asked a series of questions based on my simple understanding of the organization, and my perceptions of how they were operating as an elected board. I received replies from four of the five members. Each response had different degrees of detail, from very short and unhelpful to very detailed and thoughtful. Each respondent was careful to stay within the bounds of the Brown Act as it relates to privacy, confidentiality and the appearance of “serial meetings’ – meaning each response was singular and addressed to me only.
My second approach was outreach to the staff that manages the district. I sent a detailed letter to Administrator Sayers, which contained reasonably detailed questions driven by my observations and by questions, comments, and positions taken by community members, particularly three members of a citizen’s committee that worked closely with some of the Board on issues and opportunities around the fiscal management of the District. The three members of that committee are all running for Trustee positions in the upcoming election.
Mr. Sayers responded with excellent, detailed information, and answered the questions I posed as best he could, again within the bounds of confidentiality and privacy. I was able to follow up with more detailed questions based on his responses, and he continued to respond with information and feedback from other staff members. Mr. Sayers was open, honest and most importantly professional in the way he conducted the dialog.
Mr. Sayers will be leaving his position at the end of the year.
UPDATED 10/7 – Mr. Sayers has left the organization.
A search for a replacement will be undertaken. Perhaps a re-examination of the job requirements might lead to a different approach to structuring the district administration. Is it a 1-person job? Are there candidates who really have all the skills and experience to manage a small but complicated healthcare district?
Before the upcoming election, the community will have had the opportunity to see and hear the candidates for both the Healthcare District and the Community Services District. Small, invite-only gatherings are being hosted by citizens and groups within the community for the various candidates. Larger, more formal events will feature the candidates in a managed and moderated setting. The public will have the opportunity to engage in the process.
The Healthcare District Forum was held in late September. The three challengers – Iggy Federoff, Laurie Moyer-Mileur, and Bill Rice joined incumbent candidate Bob Putney for a well-moderated session that gave each candidate the opportunity to define themselves and their positions. The event was well-attended and respectfully conducted.
The Community Services District Candidates – challengers Cindy Steidel, Dennis Perry, and Donn Howell will join appointed incumbent Aaron Wharton and write-in candidate Steve Kniffen for a two-hour event on Wednesday, October 10th. The forum will be moderated by the League of Women Voters and will take place at the Joslyn Center on Main Street. I am looking forward to the session, and expect it will also be well attended.
Cambria, anything but sleepy!