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Beautiful Cambria is a landing place for many wanderers seeking to sit for a while and just be.

“A while” often turns into forever. Comfort sometimes gives way to urges to adapt the world to align with individual vision, religion, or fantasy.

It Is Sometimes Said

I like the life here. Perhaps I can add just a touch of my favorite spice to the mix.”

“But I do not want your spice, thank you very much. ‘Here’ is perfect! Though, it would be nice to add a pinch of color, a tiny wisp of culture, a few soft bars of favored music. Who could possibly object?” 

“No! Thank you but, NO! I do not want your pinches and wisps. They clash with my dapples and murmurs, and your humming drowns out the flutters I cherish.”

“Frankly, all that pinching, fluttering, humming and wisping is becoming just too much to bear. The creatures who truly own this place are becoming fearful and anxious, and they should be held above any that came later.”

“Aren’t we all creatures, after all? What places one above another? We can hum, dapple, murmur, and pinch, so too can we build and grow.”

“But if we all grow as we wish, then what happens to what was? This incursion must be carefully managed. I shall do the managing.”

“I do not like to be managed! Do not manage me!! I will manage you!!!”

“Your managing does not agree with my managing!” 

“How, then, will we manage?”

“Actually, it is not you or I who needs managing. It is THEM!!! Let’s join together to make it so, for we know what is right for all!”

“What? I can’t hear you over all the clamoring, managing, dappling, murmuring, pinching, spicing and fluttering. Perhaps we are agreeing?”

“Agreeing? That can’t be! There are still others who are trying to join in, and that can’t be good!”

“Others? Are there not enough of us already doing all those ‘ings’? We shall soon all be dehydrated from the objecting, and not a drop to slake us all!”

“Perhaps it is time for a good rest, to clear our minds and restore our balance.”

“Rest? I can’t possibly rest inside the cacophony of others. And all the light is blinding me!. I fear I will never rest until it is dark and quiet.”

“I fear you just described death.” 

“That is fine with me.”

“But it is not fine with me.”

And so it goes. Any questions?

Let dreamers dream what worlds they please
Those Edens can’t be found
The sweetest flowers
The fairest trees
Are grown in solid ground
We’re neither pure nor wise nor good
We’ll do the best we know
We’ll build our house and chop our wood
And make our garden grow
And make our garden grow

Make Our Garden Grow from “Candide” – Leonard Bernstein

Enjoy this powerful performance of the finale “MAKE OUR GARDEN GROW”

Stop Singing, Papa


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Once Upon A Time

In an earlier creative life, I was part of a small group of voice-over artists doing a radio spot for a retailer’s anniversary campaign. The end of the piece called for a simple arrangement of “Happy Birthday.” The producer rolled tape, and we sang. After a brief pause, he hit the talk-back button and said, “Okay, let’s try one more. Michael, why don’t you lay out on this one.” Lay out. On Happy Birthday. So I stopped singing.


Years passed, and many birthday celebrations came and went. I laid out for a while, but secretly practiced “Happy Birthday,” focusing on maintaining proper pitch. After a while, I was able to get through the piece without drifting. Then came the next step in my journey – keeping my pitch when someone added harmony. Now, I know it sounds like a pretty simple task, but for me, it was nearly impossible. Making it even more vexing is the fact that my wife is a singer. A really really really good singer, who has taught countless others to sing correctly and beautifully. She fills the world with beautiful noise. I have the noise part down…

After years of private practice, and lots of positive and negative reinforcement, I can now get through a spirited Happy Birthday on pitch most of the time. I do have to close my eyes and visualize the notes, but hey, at least nobody asks me to lay out!


Granddaughter Chloe has a straightforward way of communication. On her third birthday, I was rather enthusiastically singing Happy Birthday. More than once. In the middle of my third or fourth rendition, she gently but firmly placed her three-year-old hand over my mouth and said, with love and seriousness, “Stop singing, Papa.”  


So I laid out.

I Just Can’t Help Myself

Yesterday, I was pulling out of the Cookie Crock parking lot when I spotted a friend walking towards the entrance. Facebook had earlier notified me that it was her birthday, so, without thinking, I began to sing “Happy Birthday” out the car window. She glanced around, trying to locate the source of the sound. Rather than finishing the song, I waved and got out of the car for a proper greeting and a short, lovely chat. A smart move, considering I was approaching the part of the song that requires me to close my eyes and focus on my pitch. Anyone who has been in the parking lot of the Crock knows that it demands wide-open eyes, good ears, cat-like reflexes and a deep faith in a higher power to navigate the terrain safely.

When Last We Spoke

I remembered that the last time we had spoken in person I had done a poor job expressing my thoughts, leaving the impression that I was upset or angry. I was able to go home, collect my thoughts, and figure out what I was trying to communicate. I then put the right words into the proper sequence, writing rather than streaming. I’m glad I recognized my missteps and doubly glad I was able to express my thoughts adequately to a person I much admire and respect. She is a person who lives her values, which is endlessly inspiring. She deserves a quality rendition of “Happy Birthday!”

The reality is that, much like my singing, I don’t always hit all the intended notes, sometimes drifting and clanging off of random thoughts that seem connected in my mind, but can land atonally on unsuspecting listeners.

This Seems Familiar

In my creative days, I would often find myself in maniacal sessions with a collaborator, throwing jokes, musical ideas and characters around looking for a better more perfect scene. It was great fun and very fulfilling, though it often required an adult to be in the room, capturing the best thoughts and keeping a loose perimeter around the proceedings, lest we combust into a puff of nonsense. Afterward, I would retreat to my home studio and spend hours and days shaping and polishing those ideas into songs and scenes, putting the right sounds and rhythms to the words and music.


Evidence of Creative Collusion!

Later, in my “real job” phase, I was fortunate to experience a similar creative world. Designers, engineers and product managers replaced the playwrights and actors, with business leaders acting as the adult. The differences were not so significant, though; creative people set loose together in search of innovation. Later, we would retreat to our spaces, open our tool kits, and turn that creative chaos into rigorously constructed solutions.

Chaos, Focus, Results

Through all of these phases, I have come to recognize where I am most effective at communication, and where the madness in my methods can be at times distracting, confusing, annoying and intrusive. Try as I might, though, I have not quite figured out how to get to the end without going through the beginning. 

So I lay out for a verse or two.

Mirror, Mirror

Watching others communicate is often enlightening. At the monthly Community Services meetings, a core group of citizens joins the board and staff in reviewing the activities of the district. It is unusual to have a meeting where the regulars don’t speak out. Some comments reveal a detailed understanding of complex challenges. Some posit little more than entrenched opinions that, while often well stated, contribute little towards moving us all forward. The core message from the core messengers is usually “No.” No compromise, and no respect for different views and approaches, while at the same time demanding respect and acquiescence to their viewpoints. It often feels like a ceaseless campaign to grind everyone and everything down to the point of surrender. Requests for balance are taken as demands for silence. A large group of citizens who volunteer their time and expertise towards the betterment of all is often overshadowed by the sideshow stars who demand a solo.


We could all benefit from occasionally laying out, and making time to listen to ourselves with honest ears. It might increase our ability to sing in harmony.

Restless Souls


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Moving from one side of the country to the other was, in many ways, a rebirth. Aside from the vast differences in weather, simple things that were taken for granted now seem distant and almost exotic. The particulars may vary, but the core remains remarkably constant. 

Then and There

Stunningly tall and beautiful spruce of different flavors formed a natural border around our small piece of Connecticut. Interior trees of red and gold maple, white birch, crab Cherry Apple Mapleapple, and weeping cherry presented a gloriously fragrant and hopeful palette of color when they flowered in spring. Summer featured deep and varied shades of green. Autumn took the stage in a blaze of deep red and gold. Sturdy boxwoods formed a line and marked transitions. Flowering shrubs neighbored sturdy yet wispy willow bushes that swayed in the breeze, and the biggest rhododendron ever anchored the far edge of the front yard.


And birds. So many different birds, from the ever-present blue jays to the scarlet breasts of the visiting cardinals. Robins rocked around the yard. And so many finches. Small, fragile flutters of every shade of yellow, with an occasional flash of green to mix things up.

The bird feeder outside the picture window gave a view to performances that ranged from balletic to brutish as the birds would alternately wait their turn at a peg, or, growing impatient, knock a fellow diner out of the way and grab the seeds. Smart ones would flit around at ground level, snatching the feed that slipped through the croaks and craws above. An entertaining program, no remote required.

Higher up, crows and crones would sit, gossiping and complaining about whatever was irritating them. An occasional bird of prey would soar overhead, and a big old crew of turkeys would strut through like they owned the joint.


Deer were everywhere, grazing the grass and savoring the flowers that filled pots and patches around the house. Squirrels abounded, thick bushy tails and darting eyes testing the environment for things they could snatch, then soon forgetting what they just buried and again going into search mode. Rabbits passed through, as did the occasional cat or dog. Coyotes would sometimes speak up from the woods framing the small lake on the other side of the road. They sounded like a thousand, though more likely just a few.  Now and then a black bear would zip through the neighborhood, risking a scolding from the neighbors or an unintended meeting with a passing car.

It was a beautiful place that often caused me to pause for a minute, and appreciate the beauty and peaceful grounding of home.

Here and Now

On the opposite edge of America, a welcoming committee of pelicans, cormorants, and seagulls stake out neighboring rocks. Coming and going, sinking and swimming as they dine on what lies beneath.


On the land, a scattered few white egrets hunt for a nosh. They move, Elmer Fudd-like across the terrain; tip-toeing through the brush slowly lifting one leg, then the other. All around them, cagey and cage-free ground squirrels stand still, looking intently for danger, or a path to a different vantage point. Heads pop out of bushes, from under the boardwalk, and from tunnels and burrows.


The Egret and The Squirrel

Often, the egret and the squirrel stand mere yards apart, staring intently in opposite directions, oblivious or indifferent to the other. Occasionally the cast will be joined by the grey-blue heron, standing tall as the breeze ruffles feathers and down. When the hunting ground becomes uninteresting, the slender, nearly one-dimensional bird suddenly extends its wings and takes flight. What seems fragile and slight is unexpectedly powerful and majestic. With a few slow and deliberate motions the bird is airborne. Impressive.

Walking and Stalking

In the neighborhoods, deer come visiting, stopping to fill up on vegan delights thoughtfully provided by nature and the occasional optimistic gardener. Turkeys strut around like their east coast cousins, though some might argue they are more laid-back, as befitting the Cali lifestyle. Coyotes earn their keep in the fields and gardens. Larger predators are more likely mountain lion than a bear, though both certainly make themselves comfortable in the mountains just outside of town.

It is a beautiful place that often causes me to pause for a minute, to appreciate the beauty and peaceful grounding of home.


The beauty of life, as represented by these very different but very similar residents, exist for everyone. They don’t give a thought to the accents they hear, or the color of the eyes that stare back in wonder. They don’t ask for identification, or an income statement, or a diploma.  No cover, no minimum. Plenty of room to share. And they seem to be just fine with it all.






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Sometimes we let our experience and expertise blind us a bit and forget that other folks may not have the knowledge and understanding of a subject, a process, or a discipline that is vital to success. This thought has been tugging at me over the last few weeks, as I attended several different community meetings. The constants I observed from the back of the room: ethical leadership, active and inclusive dialog, and respect for all and from all, even during difficult discussions.

A New Look and Feel

As newly elected and returning CCSD Directors gather to begin their work, the tone of the board and the community feels somehow different. There’s a sense of new beginnings, and everyone seems to be looking to lighten the tensions that had been ever-present over the past few years.

Continuing changes on the Administrative side has some staff members playing out of position. The acting General Manager, with support from an experienced consultant, has kept the operation moving ahead.

Refining Teamwork

As the new team finds its way towards effective collaboration, members will become more familiar with each other’s style of communication. Experience tells us that the fundamentals of good communication require both speaking and listening. More so, it requires active listening and awareness of how others are hearing what you are saying. Adjustments to cadence, language and most importantly, gaining acknowledgment that things are clearly understood. Question. Summarize. Restate. Read the room, read the dais.

Embedded Practices

As new citizens join the expanded standing committees, thoughtful attention to respectful dialog should be a guiding principle for all members. Real collaboration can yield positive results for our community. We need to be rooting for the people who have stepped into these committee roles.

Paying Attention (poorly)

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to lead an engagement that would put a series of sophisticated, intelligent production mail systems into Korea ePost. My role, as Project Leader, was to work with the US and Korean teams to define technical and business requirements, compile all the appropriate costing and pricing information, and build a Statement of Work that would set the specifics of the project. We initially worked in the U.S., and, when the framework of the project was robust, we moved the activity from the U.S. to Korea.


H.O. Lee and some guy

Our dealer in Seoul, H. O. Lee, had spent years building the relationships that made this project a reality. The Korean-based team consisted of engineers and project support people with backgrounds in Software, Systems, Data Management, and Operations. Most were Korean, some were Chinese, and all spoke some English. I had a high degree of confidence that we would work well together.

White Shirts and Bad Ties

I flew to Seoul for a week of intense review and refinement of the documentation that would guide the project and serve as the governance model for the engagement.

We powered through Day One, reviewing each section of the SOW. Day Two was more of the same. I was feeling great! On Day Three, a slightly apologetic H. O. Lee pulled me aside and said, in his soft sing-song voice: “Mike, we appreciate very much you coming to Seoul to teach us about the software and the inkjet printing and the file-based processing. Mike, we study English for years in school. But Mike, you talk so fast!!!! Please, SLOW DOWN!!!”

OK then… back to Page One…

Missed The Mark


I didn’t read the room very well.

I didn’t do a good job of recognizing a significant problem with my style. My fellow team members hesitated to make me aware of the problem, which added to the stress they were feeling. H.O. Lee recognized the issues and, as a good leader should, brought it to my attention in a way that helped me to correct my approach.

We recovered from my failure to execute a basic responsibility, and, after several months of hard work, we completed our installation.

Use What We Learn

I carry this, and other hard lessons forward and try to not repeat past communication mistakes. I try to listen more closely. I ask more questions and then play the answers back to make sure that what I heard is what was said. Most importantly, I watch others closely to ensure that they are absorbing and understanding what is being discussed. These actions help everyone contribute to the discussion and make useful, informed decisions and take the steps that will deliver successful outcomes.

Then I go ahead and make all new mistakes!

You know, that sweatshirt isn’t going to keep you dry.

Words of wisdom from a local beer slinger.


 Adversity does not build character, it reveals it.  

James Lane Allen

Cambria is home to more character than one town should rightfully have. Wherever you look, an organization is raising funds or doing projects that add to the beauty of the town and the well-being of Cambrians. Helping families who might need a bit or communities that might need a lot.


Today, like every Thanksgiving day, meals are being served at the Vet’s Hall free of charge for anyone in the community that might want to sit together with friends and strangers to share a meal and common humanity.

The gathering is more than a “help those less fortunate” event; it indeed is a community of good and caring Cambrians who both give and get the grace that comes from service and community. Faith, politics, economics and social status are left outside, and for this time of sharing, all is well. Soon we will be hosting thousands of visitors who will make the drive up the coast to enjoy the ever-growing Christmas Market, and discover the shops, restaurants, artists and, above all the magnificent beauty of ocean and mountain that surround us and remind us of what we have, and our responsibility to protect and defend all we have been given.

Not Far Away

This mixed sense of gratitude and responsibility is amplified by the heartbreaking devastation to our north and our south, where fire has ripped into other communities filled with people who found their place amidst the wild, and sometimes dangerous beauty that defines California. Riches, spiritual and material, have been tested and taken away from some, while strengthened in others who, despite seeing the world ignite, head into the fire to save and help.

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love

Bruce Springsteen, Into The Fire

Standing Together

The giving and sharing we see today at the Vet’s Hall in beautiful Cambria are replicated across beautiful California. Maybe it is in a dark, smoky tent, barn, or other structure pressed into service to provide shelter and relief for those who have lost and those who have helped. Maybe it’s in a church or school gym. Perhaps it’s just one person bringing water and sandwiches to a displaced family, now living in their car parked in a rest area or a store parking lot. It is deeply meaningful for the giver and the receiver. Our humanity rises, always.

Adversity doesn’t build character, it reveals it.

No Mothers – and No Bootsies!!!

Andrews AvenueGrowing up in the Bronx was a lot of different things. Fun. Frightening. Rough. Loving. As crazy and unpredictable as urban life in the 60’s and 70’s could be, there were always rules. They weren’t written down, and they weren’t legally binding, but they were rules. Violating them could result in anything from exclusion to ridicule to, in extreme circumstances, a good beating. And that was just from the nuns!

Our Corner Of The World

The sprawling neighborhoods were rooted in groups of friends. Some were seeded by shared addresses, a common Little League team, or similar heritages. Others, like mine, were cultivated by a love of music. Some of us fumbled our way through the first shaky chords on a crappy guitar. Others found their groove on a basement drum kit or discovered their true soul on the church organ. New friendships grew out of those circles, as cars and motorcycles added to the list of passions. New introductions were made as sisters dated boys from a few blocks away. Part-time jobs connected us with people from exotic areas like Pelham Parkway and Far Rockaway.  Promises, hearts and the occasional bones were broken.

We Learn

Like kids, teens and young adults everywhere, we developed loyalties. We learned how to deal with differences. There were small spats and heated exchanges on the street or the basketball court, and as we became more familiar with the demon rum, in the drinking places and later the bars.

When we would hang around, busting balls and talking smack, things could sometimes escalate, with nobody wanting to back down, ever. Paul Lamacq, who lived in the next apartment building, would sense when the insults were getting out of hand, and would sternly say, “HEY! No mothers, and NO BOOTSIES!”  Bootsie was his mom’s little dog, who was often the subject of some amusement. Paul loved that dog as much as he loved his mother. So, when things got heated, the rule he invoked was simple. Fight all you want, but do not cross a line with words that can’t be taken back. Family, faith, anything that was personally painful or cruel stood out of bounds.

These Times

Today, over forty years removed, those core friendships still endure. Memories appear with an odd word, a faded picture, or a chance connection. A friend, out of touch for years, can call, and ten will answer.

As I  look across the tortured political climate that grips our country and our beautiful town, and I see and hear the hurtful things new friends and acquaintances say, I think to myself, No Mothers, No Bootsies.

​Now What?​

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.

  • Rate increases for Water, Wastewater and the Sustainable/Emergency Water Facility have been under consideration, with a lot of heat and energy being generated to thwart them through a Proposition 218 protest. That protest effort was unsuccessful, falling short by over 700 protest submissions needed to deny the rate increases.
  •  The Healthcare District has put a measure on the November ballot that would, if successful, levy an additional $35 annually on parcels served by the district to fund needed improvements to the District’s infrastructure, mainly focused on ambulance and facilities needs. The measure was supported by four Board Trustees, with one abstention.
  • Three seats are up for grabs on the Healthcare District Board. Of the three incumbents, only one declared as a candidate for re-election.
  • Two of three eligible seats will be on the ballot for the Community Services District. One is held by an incumbent, the other will replace an outgoing Director who chose not to run for another term. The third position – a two-year term –  will remain with the currently serving director, as nobody other than the incumbent filed to run for that position.
  • The School District will not have an election, as nobody but the incumbents applied for the two seats.

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.

  • CCSD General Manager – Dismissed
  • CCHD Administrator – Retiring under duress
  • School Superintendent – Leaving office in January

Ye true “Loyal Natives” attend to my song
In uproar and riot rejoice the night long;
From Envy and Hatred your corps is exempt,
But where is your shield from the darts of Contempt!

Robert Burns 1759 – 1796


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.


Logo with CCSD.PNGThe 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?


democracyFrom 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???

Never Enough

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.

Keep Listening

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.

School District

img-logo3The 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.

No Confidence

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?

Healthcare District

headerOver 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?

Public Presentations

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!


The Letter


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I’m having one of those days where past and present seem to swim together, leaving little wakes that diverge and overlap, rising and falling in free form. I’m feeling like these should somehow be tied together in a story, but I’m kind of afraid of screwing it up by forcing these thoughts and feelings into combinations that sound right in theory but kinda suck in practice.

But that never stopped me before, so…

Then and Now

I was happy to see that the business I devoted a lot of my life’s second act to today emerged as a stand-alone enterprise, free from the constraints of a larger corporate brand that at times helped, but also hindered the healthy evolution of a premier brand in a niche industry.

Pitney Bowes Document Messaging Technologies is now BlueCrest, with a new brand, a new market freedom, and I am sure the same hungry spirit, staffed by creative, innovative technologists and thought leaders. 

Catching glimpses of familiar faces in tweets and press releases was a gift I wasn’t expecting. I am happy for them, and a little envious that I’m not there to experience their next successful chapter.

Go get’ em, BlueCrest!

Document Messaging Technologies-BlueCrest  


Over the course of my career, I got to experience leadership in all shapes and styles. When I wandered into Danbury looking for a short-term temp job to help me support my family, (as playwright Robert Andersen once said, “you can make a killing but you can’t make a living in the theatre”) the production mail business was very small, and very much behind in the industry. That changed rapidly, driven by a team of brilliant designers, engineers, field service professionals and support groups that somehow managed to take what at the time was undisciplined, adventurous passion and energy and form a world-class organization.

Building that business required a leadership team that could harness the chaos, set big goals and motivate everyone to work together. They had to figure out how to deal with the brilliant, the stubborn, the dreamers and the grind it out-ers who had to come together to build the business.

From the outside, that leadership team may have looked just as diverse and disheveled as the rest of the workforce. But they were far from that. Today, as I sit in the back of the room watching and listening as our community leaders make sense of complicated issues, I find myself thinking about lessons I learned from those who mentored me. I remember things they said and did, things that are stored away in my mental file cabinet, available for revisiting and reuse.

Empowerment, Given And Taken

‘It’s your business, do what you think.’ Brian Baxendale, a gregarious and insightful leader, had the ability to see the potential capabilities of an employee and provide the right amount of permission tempered with the right amount of firm guidance. He remains an inspiration to many of us who got the chance to try things, to fail, and to try again.  

Cambria’s recent struggle with the issues around our Fire Department gave our community an opportunity to engage in passionate debate about how we view our world, and how we want to see it in the future. Cambria is rich in so many ways, but that richness doesn’t extend to the financial realities many of us face.  It has been interesting to observe and participate in the spirited discussions in support of or in opposition to a tax measure that would fund three firefighter positions. The conversations revealed more political and philosophical facets than I expected.

There were supporters of the measure who face real economic pressures, yet valued the service the firefighters bring to the community. There were those who feel the same economic pressures who opposed the measure because it would have a real impact on them. Many of us are staring at increased costs for all the services we rely on, with limited opportunities for a complimentary increase in personal income. There are people who are more financially secure who supported the measure because the tax would not cause them pain, and the additional capabilities were viewed as cheap insurance against a high-probability fire event. There were those similarly positioned who believe the extra manpower was unnecessary, as the coverage provided by both local and county/CalFire departments is more than sufficient. There are supporters who respond emotionally (“these are our guys!!!”) and detractors who see everything as corrupt and driven by greed (those bastards are at it again!!!)  And there are many, both supporters and opponents, who check some of the boxes in all of these categories.

A Loss

The reality though is that after all the tumult the measure was not successful. The supporters delivered a 54% tally, which fell considerably short of the required supermajority of 66%.  

Analysis of the outcome provided some insights, notably that within each area of Cambria those who voted – and voter turnout was not great – delivered a majority “yes” vote. Like they say, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades… but is there a message in the 54%, beyond just winning and losing?  


Can I get the Home Version of “Steve Kornacki’s Big Board”?

Informal polling, which has mainly been me asking people stuff, revealed that there was a real information gap in what the measure would do and how it would affect the fire services going forward. I was surprised to find that some folks thought the tax would add three additional members to the fire department. They did not realize that the defeat of the measure would result in the loss of three full-time professional firefighters. Of course, there were a lot of good, reasoned “no” votes, based on well-informed and considered rationale.

They Persisted

‘I’d like to try anyway.’   Ajay Ghia combined a studious, low-key approach with an unshakable determination to follow a course he knew was right. While presenting an acquisition recommendation to the corporate “C Suite” , he was met with a curt “you’re not going to convince me this is a good idea” from a notoriously difficult executive. After a beat Ajay replied, “I’d like to try anyway.” He then made a presentation that supported his position. The executive still did not agree, but he didn’t expressly kill the idea. Ajay and team went on to follow his strategy, the acquisition was made, and it became the platform for a series of systems that transformed the competitive landscape.

The members of the Cambria Fire Department are a determined and committed team who believe what they do is essential and critical to the health and safety of the community. They are also very dedicated to each other’s safety and success. As the community wrestled with the questions posed by Measure A-18, the firefighters continued to seek out ways to fund the three at-risk positions. The three firefighters had been hired under an earlier SAFER grant, which covered the cost for a period of two years. One of those efforts entailed applying for a second SAFER grant from FEMA.

Same Name, Different Rules

The difference between the first grant and the second grant is not trivial. Having seen the lack of follow-up from many communities who received the first round of grant funding, FEMA changed the rules and added a requirement that the governing agencies (CCSD) had to commit in writing to increasing levels of matching funds across the life of the award. This requirement raised the barrier to success considerably.   As opposed to the revenue A-18 would have provided, the cost of the match would fall to the CCSD, and by extension the community, with no additional revenue source to cover the expense.

Ready, Fire, Aim

‘Interesting, but Irrelevant’ Rick Jablonski, Sales Leader and strategist, would occasionally use this phrase when discussions would wander a bit and stall on issues that were tangential to the decisions that needed to be made. I find myself using it a lot lately.

Because the challenge wasn’t daunting enough, the staff report, required when matters are put before the board for consideration, contained a suggestion that funds currently directed to the support and maintenance of the Fiscalini Ranch might be redirected to the fire department. The funding deficit that would be then applied to the ranch would be filled by a potential parcel tax that would be dedicated to the ranch upkeep.

(Cue inspirational music)

The Fiscalini Ranch is a majestic oasis, with a history that in many ways defines Cambria.


Note to self – remember sunscreen!

It means many things to many people, and there are community-based organizations that dedicate time and money to keep it safe and vital. Walking the bluff trail and sitting on one of the unique and beautiful benches is my version of going to church. 

I don’t quite know where that proposal came from, or how much thought went into the ramifications of proposing it in this context, but it sure landed with a big BOOM. Suggesting that taking steps to “unfriend” the Ranch stirred a response that filled the cozy meeting room with community members who likely would riot (politely and gently) should the suggested actions gain approval.


‘Is this resonating?’ Bernie Gracy has been described as having “a brain the size of a small planet.” He was and is a tireless innovator with a passion for 100 + slide PowerPoint presentations, delivered with spell-binding energy and intelligence. He would always make sure to pause, wave his arm in front of the screen and ask the audience “is this resonating?”  A great reminder to validate that what we say is well understood.

This suggestion did two things; one positive and one amazingly damaging. On the positive side, the immediate and passionate response brought into crisp focus just how much the community will support and protect the Ranch. A smaller, though equally important effect, was carrying more of the community to the meeting, where they could see and hear the issues in person, and not have to rely on others, including me, to tell them what happened. Many of us who share our views and recollections do so through the lens of our own positions, which can unfairly shade the story as it is retold. A shining exception to that is Kathe Tanner, our long-serving journalist who has seen it all and told it all. Her report of the meeting was crisp, factual and spin-free.

The damaging part of the recommendation was that it cast the firefighters as villains, and gave fuel to opponents who had both subtly and overtly positioned them in that light throughout the discussion leading up to the June vote. That battle was pretty brutal, and the rank and file of our small but mighty fire department were put in the position to represent themselves in the debate.  They had the disadvantage of being firefighters and not accomplished debaters, opinion shapers, or skillful public commentators. Nor were they inclined to get down in the mud with some opponents filled with a weird rage built on a worldview that everything CCSD is corrupt, incompetent, greedy or otherwise evil. Instead, they had to make their case again, having seen the community not support their cause through the ballot box, yet facing what they believe is a serious staffing shortfall.

Facts and Reason

What was meant to be a simple, administrative and policy discussion to determine if the required letter of commitment should be issued quickly changed as the Board saw the furor the public release of the supporting staff report set off across the town. Board President Amanda Rice did an excellent job of setting the correct expectations for what was to be discussed and considered, and what was not to be considered. The ” not” was the linkage of Ranch funding to Firefighter funding, or any other method for funding the required grant match. The other members of the board added similar commentary, and also expressed a bit of discomfort with the inclusion of it in the report. This demonstration of leadership from the board went a long way towards averting unnecessary and destructive commentary from a rightfully upset gathering of citizens and Ranch lovers.

The Public, Speaking 

‘Here’s my sense of the thing…’was the signal that Karl Schumacher had finished his process of examining an issue and coming to a recommendation. This phrase artfully set the table for a well-reasoned and insightful answer rather than a partisan position. Amazingly effective and diplomatic.


With the floor open for public comment, community members shared their thoughts on the issue at hand. Most of the comments were in opposition to the request for commitment. Some arguments were made using perceived deficiencies and inaccuracies in the grant application, and the long-range financial impact the funding requirement would have on the fiscal health of the district. Issues raised also included the thought that the recent defeat of A-18 was a clear signal that the community had spoken and did not want tax dollars spent on funding the fire department positions. This position had been shared by a fair number of people on social media prior to the meeting.


I spoke in favor of supporting the grant, sharing my belief that the staffing levels advocated by the fire department, and endorsed by every fire professional I had interviewed, were both sensible and necessary. I also shared my dismay at the proposal to take from Fiscalini and give to Fire Department, likening the use of that tactic to Fake News – tossing an incendiary topic into the middle of a serious issue, resulting in a splatter of shrapnel that causes injury to common sense and thoughtful discourse. I also made a pitch for treating those with opposing views, and in this particular situation our firefighters, with less disdain and more respect.  Cambria Health District Board President Jerry Wood, speaking as a private citizen, also voiced support for the measure.


The most resonant and reasoned presentation came from Ted Siegler, a highly capable and respected community member with in-depth knowledge of the District’s financial condition as well as the working of the Fiscalini Ranch. Ted has served and continues to serve in leadership roles on multiple committees and boards, including the CCSD Finance Committee and Fiscalini Ranch organizations. I think I also saw him on the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Armed Services committee, but that may have been different prominent white-haired guys.

Ted laid out a clear set of facts, challenged some of the numbers that were included in the staff report, and concluded with the position that due to the district’s fiscal condition it would be irresponsible to take on additional financial responsibilities with no offsetting increase in revenues. It was practically impossible, absent a purely emotional motivation, to disagree with his findings and recommendation.

Decision Time

The talking stick was returned to the board, and they had further discussion about what they were about to decide. Cambria Fire Captain and grant writer Emily Torlano answered questions and clarified some information about how the grant was written and submitted. She noted that there was a question in the grant application that asked if the agency would like to request a financial hardship waiver of the matching funds requirement. The decision to check “no” had been made based on previous practice and with the thought that checking “yes” might have a negative impact on the application. It should be noted that the grant application process was begun well before Measure A-18 was placed on the ballot – a reasonable action given the uncertainty of the funding options to maintain the three firefighters hired under the original grant.

Before voting, the question was raised whether the Grant Application could be amended to change the hardship checkbox to “yes.” It was clear that the vote was going to go against the request, and options including not responding at all, returning with a brief decline – to – commit funding letter, or something else that would have the same effect but not incur a red mark against Cambria should future grant opportunities arise. In the end, the language used in the letter articulated the reasons for the decision to not commit. They were: District’s uncertain financial condition, and the defeat of Measure A -18. 


The decision the board made, while disappointing to some of us, was the right one for the community. As messy as it got, the Board showed solid thinking, compassionate listening, and excellent, committed leadership. 

The firefighters were a bit disheartened, but I believe they left feeling they got a fair hearing from the board and most of the community. There is no gloating or complaining to be done here; there should be some comfort in knowing the process worked, our voices were heard, and our elected leaders did their job with intelligence, honesty, and fairness. I hope we take that forward with us as we steam full speed ahead into the next hurricane of rate increases and ambulance taxes.


Shortly after the decision was made to withdraw the grant application, the Cambria Fire Department was notified that their application had been approved and the grant awarded. They had to decline.

 Pat Carberry spent his professional life leading different functions with grace, wit and compassion. Pat was also a hard-nosed businessman when necessary. He served in Vietnam as an Army Green Beret, but rarely spoke about his service. Pat was famous for the “Letters From God” that he’d read at the retirement parties of fellow PB’ers. When it came time for him to retire, he took a very different approach. He spoke quietly, and shared, ‘I’ve seen the horrific things human beings have done to each other.” A pause, then he looked at each one of us and said “Love one another.’

Fire On The Hill


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Fire interrupted the May night, bringing the residents of a quietly beautiful neighborhood out to the street, fearful and perhaps momentarily confused by what they were seeing. A house, no, a home was glowing and snarling with the fury of a thousand nightmares. A neighbor, injured and in pain, seeks help as her home is consumed by a disaster. All of this drama unfolds in a community that stands some distance apart from the towns that would come to help in times of crisis.

All times taken from the official Incident Report. 
Tuesday, May 29, 2018.
Incident Number: 18-CASLU 005543
Incident Name: PINEWOOD
Event Number: 18007179

It Begins

1:28:56 AM – With a keystroke, an emergency operator connects to an incoming caller, urgently reporting a fire in the Pine Knolls area of Cambria. The operator, well-trained and alert, takes in the information that sets an incident response in motion. 

05/29/2018 1:30:08 ROOF ON FIRE, CAN SEE IT FROM HER HOME, SOMEONE YELLING FOR HELP - from dispatch report

1:30: 28 AM– Based on the caller’s input, the operator executes the dispatch protocol, and the Emergency Services response begins.

On Duty
Cambria Fire Department’s “A” shift was on duty, halfway through a 48-hour shift. The team, under the command of CFD Captain Emily Torlano, is made up of Engineer Michael Burkey, SAFER Firefighter Ian Poelman, and Reserve Firefighter Tim Murdoch.

Their primary response unit, Engine 5792 was parked in the bay, ready to go. Additional response units include an older, backup engine, and a water tender which is a critical unit in areas where water is not always readily available.  An emergency response vehicle, carrying the tools and technology needed to support the often dangerous response and rescue operations sits ready.

1:32:28 AM – Dispatch

Firefighter Ian Poelman walks through his response to the call.

“We had returned to the station from a callout about an hour earlier. I was in my assigned room, resting. We were in the middle of our 48 hour shift, so you grab what sleep you can. I heard the bells coming through the speaker in the room. The dispatcher’s tone was slightly more urgent than usual, and his report of a structure fire with potential injury told me this was a serious incident. The team responded immediately, falling into the process we have learned. Dress and go. As we took our places on the engine, I went through my mental checklist of all the steps we would take during the response.”

1:33:53 AM – Engine en route

“Our mobile GPS was launched.  Maps popped up with a location and route. The incident response binder showed us the locations of nearby hydrants. Captain Torlano went through her routine, devising an initial plan based on the information she had. We train for these events, so a lot of the steps we take are familiar. But you don’t know everything until you get to the scene.”

1:40:56 AM – On Scene

As the ranking officer first on the scene, Captain Torlano became the Incident Commander. The responsibility for directing the response and managing the assignments for all the crews that would eventually join the fight was hers. The Captain describes the scene and her decision-making process.

“I was the incident commander. I did my walk around, sized up the situation, and eliminated rescue. There was an injured resident who was being treated by a neighbor, who is a nurse. I released the patient to the ambulance crew that had arrived on scene.”

1:42:52 AM – Cambria Healthcare District Ambulance on scene
1:43:58 AM – Patient Contact
1:53:10 AM – Patient Transport

Torlano continues. “Neighbors were yelling at us in distress as fire consumed the house and threatened their homes and the other precious exposures – the forest.   After completing my walk around and reporting to dispatch we still don’t have water on the fire.”

Firefighter Poelman describes what the team was doing as Captain Torlano made her assessment.

“We located the nearest hydrant, and Firefighter Murdoch executed his assignment. He grabbed the hydrant bag from the back of the engine and began unreeling the 4” line that would deliver water from the hydrant to the engine. He wrapped it around the hydrant and secured it. The truck then moved forward towards the fire, neatly spooling out the line. Murdoch went through the process of readying the hydrant. Clear any obstructions around the hydrant. Remove the hydrant cap. Open the valve and flush out any debris. Close the valve. Connect and secure the hose to the hydrant. Reopen the valve when the engine was connected at the other end.

Captain Torlano adds, “My firefighter at the hydrant is the one in-town reserve. He is like a Jedi – extremely knowledgeable and methodical. I am grateful he was there.”

The 4” line is connected to the water source. It is now Engineer Michael Burkey’s turn.


As the Engineer on the crew, Michael Burkey’s responsibilities are critical and time-sensitive. He shares his view of the response.

“We knew the call was serious, because the tones kept sounding, indicating a significant event requiring a significant response. As I drove the engine towards the fire, I recalled that I had been on this very street hours earlier responding to a medical assist call. We approached the intersection and got a good look at the fire that was cutting through the light fog and lighting up the night sky.  Priority one was locating the hydrant, and positioning the engine where the supply line and tools could be deployed quickly and safely. Once that was done, I drove the engine towards the fire, stopping just forward of the house. This gave us the best view of the scene and more importantly allowed us to lay out our lines cleanly without unnecessary obstacles. I secured the engine, chocking the wheels front and back. Then, I disconnected the end of the main supply line from its mooring and reattached it to the engine pump. I signalled Tim Murdoch that we were ready to receive water.”

 We all finish getting our scba’s on to protect our airways, and I notice there is still no water on the fire… the neighbors are getting anxious as am I… I see hands raised, yelling, fists- I have no more bodies…Captain Torlano

Let it flow

Connections are now complete, and Engineer Berkey has the engine’s pumping system charged, balanced and ready to go. The Incident Commander instructs Burkey and  Poelman to pull the 2.5” diameter hose and begin attacking the fire. This particular hose has the capability of putting out 500 gallons a minute at high velocity. It is usually managed by two people, but there was nobody else available at that moment. Poelman deployed what is called a “hotel coil” where the nozzle is fed under the coiled hose, and then the operator kneels on it to help control the powerful stream of water. Firefighter Poelman is, as some might describe, a strapping young man. Even so, the level of physical strength needed to manage this task is not trivial.

 “Ian is now our hero as he douses massive amounts of water on the fire. But the cooling does not squelch the flames as I had hoped…” Captain Torlano reports.

Situational Awareness

Poelman realized that he was not getting the best angle on the fire, so he repositioned himself closer to the flaming front of the house and re-engaged. He shares, “We’re trained to maintain situational awareness, and not to get tunnel vision. It can be hard to not lock in on what is in front of you, with flames jumping out, wood popping and cracking, smoke and steam just feet away. Was it hot? Well, I could feel the heat a bit through my boots, and behind my mask.”

1:35:03 AM Cal Fire en route
1:42:01 AM Cal Fire on scene

Firefighters from Cal Fire Station 10 have arrived on the scene, geared up and are given their assignments.

The fire was blowing out the windows at the back of the house. The Cal Fire crew quickly attached one of the 1.75″ hoses to the CFD engine and went down the side of the house to gain access to the rear of the building. They trained their hose on the fire, sandwiching the blaze between themselves and Poelman, who was still engaging from the front.

Engineer Burkey now has two active lines plus the intake hose to manage. Each line has different pressure levels that need to be tightly monitored. Burkey focuses on the controls, adjusting them as needed to ensure the firefighters always have the right amount of water pressure to do the job.

“I knew the Cal Fire team was putting water on the fire when I saw steam rise over the roof where their attack met the flames,” Poelman recounts.  

Captain Torlano adds, “They saved the two houses next door. All of this felt like hours, but it was really maybe 10 minutes.”


The two engines worked in synchronicity and contained the fire safely from the exterior. When the fire volume had been contained enough, Captain Torlano ordered Poelman and Murdoch to take up the second 1.75″ hose and enter the house from the front to continue the fight. The two men quickly connected the hose and did a “buddy check” to make sure they had all their gear securely in place and ready to go. With everything ready, they entered, as the Cal Fire crew continued their efforts from the rear of the house.

As they entered, they were met with a combination of heated smoke, steam, and pockets of flame. They poured water on the fire, advancing steadily into the house, turning right towards the kitchen, where it seems the fire originated. They trained the hose on the ceiling over the stove, where flickering flames still grabbed for something to burn.


With the flames extinguished, they heard the Incident Commander asking if they could find an entry into the adjacent garage, where the fire was still active. Smoke and steam made it difficult to see much, even as the two men got down close to the floor where the air was less dense. With no clear path to the garage, they were ordered to back out and see if they could gain access from the front of the garage. Unable to raise the locked door, they proceeded down the side of the structure, meeting up with the Cal Fire crew who located an exterior door that led to the garage. Upon entry, they were able to find and release the overhead latch, manually lift the door and enable the garage space to vent.

The interior crew did a primary search, confirming there was nobody else inside the house. They faced, as described by Captain Torlano, “a severely destroyed house, with huge amounts of damaged structural members, tangled wires; essentially a very fragile shell.”

They brought out a photo album with burnt but salvageable photos and about 5 items of clothing… grasping to save something…” Capt. Emily Torlano


As the incident progressed, more help arrived from the surrounding communities under the Mutual Aid agreements.

01:30:27 AM - Cal Fire Battalion Chief Dispatched
01:36:05 AM - en route
01:54:01 AM - on scene

Second engine requested by Cal Fire

01:52:34 AM – Cal Fire Headquarters Engine Dispatched
01:59:00 AM –Engine en route
2:20: 40 AM – Engine on scene


1:30:27 AM – Cayucos Fire Dispatched
1:52:35 AM – Cayucos reports unable to find an operator 
for engine

 and Morro Bay

01:30:27 AM – Morro Bay Fire dispatched
01:34:56 AM – en route
02:01:24 AM – on scene

And from over the hill

01:30:28 AM – Templeton Fire Dispatched
01:36:37 AM - en route 
02:09:20 AM - on scene


As the response continued, Captain Torlano dealt with real-time issues. The neighborhood sits near the top of a fairly steep hill, making it challenging for responding engines and support vehicles to get close to the fire. The street itself is one of the wider and well-maintained roads, but it quickly became tough to manage the logistics of each responding agency. The Morro Bay truck and crew had to park a distance away, then grab their tools and gear and walk the rest of the way to the scene. This added minutes to their response. When they got to the fire, they were assigned to work with the CFD team on the interior of the building. Ian Poelman describes the combined efforts. “We continued to search out any pockets of fire that might still be burning. We used our tools to punch holes in the ceilings and the drywall, where fires can smolder undetected for some time. Tiring work but that is what we train for – mentally and physically.” The team ended up crawling through the attic – not the safest task, but critical in ensuring that the fire didn’t reappear later.

Just Breathe

Meanwhile, the response team from Templeton provided a critical piece of equipment that allowed the firefighters to continue working safely. Their emergency vehicle carries what is called “breathing support” – a system that refills the air bottles that the responders use to breath as they do their work. These bottles supply about 30 minutes of air and begin beeping as the remaining supply reaches a critical level. With this tone, the firefighters must withdraw and replace their air supply. The Templeton refill system allows for continuous and rapid resupply, keeping the firefighters in the game.

Keeping watch 

Even with this support, the firefighters are under significant physical duress and have to take breaks to hydrate, rest and be checked by a teammate to make sure they aren’t injured or otherwise unable to continue on the fire. This taxes resources and is an ever-present concern for all responders.

Winding Down

The response continued on for several hours. Constant check-ins revealed all personnel accounted for, and resources were released as they completed their assignments. As 4 AM approached, most responders were on their way back to their stations.

The Cambria Fire Department team remained on scene to continue cleanup and to monitor for potential flare-ups. Cambria Fire also deployed their water tender, which could quickly provide support if needed.

11:34:30 AM – Cambria Water Tender released.

Time from the first contact to final scene departure – 10 hours, 6 minutes.

Back Home

The fire was out, but the work continued for “A” shift. Far from taking a break, the crew went into the next phase of their job – clean up and inspection.

During a fire, a whole host of substances fly everywhere, covering equipment, tools, protective gear, clothes, skin and everything in between. Before leaving the scene, the crew strips off all their gear and bags it, with the goal of keeping as many contaminants out of the truck as possible. Back at the firehouse, that gear goes to the laundry room – a simple term to describe a complex process of decontamination. Every piece of gear is cleaned and checked before being put away. Each hose is unfolded, inspected for damage, pressure cleaned and put back into proper position. The engine is washed, the interior scrubbed with decontamination solutions. 

Preventive Measures

The firefighters must then shower to remove any grime and potentially harmful particles that may have found them during the incident. They must also, within 24 hours do one hour of strenuous, sweat-making exercise to help sweat out any potential carcinogens or other harmful matter. Another shower, then, if the shift has ended, they can relax. Or, if the shift continues, stay ready for the next call.


For Captain Torlano, the shift continued for another day. During that shift, her team was called for an emergency cardiac distress medical response. Captain Torlano, who is also a fully certified Paramedic, found herself cardioverting the patient – (shocking the heart out of lethal rhythm) and her SAFER firefighter, who is also a paramedic, began an IV. An ambulance arrived and transported the patient to the hospital, with the firefighter riding along to continue assisting.

And on it goes, day to day, shift to shift. 

“Catching the 1”


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Music has always been a big part of my life. I’ve spent large blocks of time engaged in the art, as a player, a composer, collaborator and always an appreciative consumer. It touches me all the time and is one of the biggest influences on my emotional health.
As a much younger person, I would occasionally do work around music, including a stint as a sound guy for a concert series at the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden in North Salem, NY. The museum lives in a magnificent mansion that features a great room perfect for intimate events. The artists that perform in this beautiful house range from the exotic – visiting Japanese traditional musicians, dancers, and storytellers to Avant Garde musicians like composer David Amram. Two concerts stand out in my mind, and I think of them – and the lessons I took from them often.


The first mental memento features the songwriter, Bart Howard. He wrote a good number of “standards” that became staples of the cabaret/jazz/smoky hotel club scene. His most popular and successful composition can be heard on recordings by great saloon singers including Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, and by equally gifted singers from different genres, each interpreting the piece in their unique style. The song’s original title was “In Other Words.” It was soon changed to its more recognizable title “Fly Me to The Moon.” Sure, I’ll wait while you sing a few bars…
What sticks in my mind is not so much the song, but the story Bart Howard told. Even more than that, the way he performed it that afternoon. He was getting up there in age, and his voice, soft and polite, was at best passable; he hit the notes but struggled to hold them. He played the piano with elegance and wistful phrasing that painted a whole new picture. It was mesmerizing to hear that familiar love song shared by the person who wrote it, with the inflections and emphasis in places other singers missed. It was genuine, it was real, and it was pure art. I had a brief opportunity to chat with Mr. Howard after the show, and he was as kind, intelligent and engaging as his songs.
My lesson learned – anyone can interpret your words, thoughts, and ideas, but nobody can give it the same true meaning as the original.

Nat King Cole sings the standard, similar in style to Mr. Howard’s rendition.

…and Music

The second concert featured a name that most will recognize, spread across generations. Legendary composer/pianist Dave Brubeck passed along his gifts to his children, including sons Chris and Daniel, who performed their unique blend of sounds in a trio with brilliant jazz pianist Andy LaVerne. The musicianship was stunning, and what took it up a notch was the conversation with the audience, as Chris talked about the music, the inspiration and the unholy alliance of art and science, precision and free-form creativity. During one extended piece, each musician took a turn, soloing around and through the song structure. After a while I lost all count of the time, it was almost irrelevant. Then, as Daniel floated through an incredibly complex drum solo, BOOM – they all came together as one unit and took the tune to the end. After the applause died down, Chris spoke about what had transpired. He described the synchronicity as “catching the one” – meaning that through all the free flight of jazz improvisation, they all could come together on the downbeat – they all found the “1.”
Oh yeah, Dave Brubeck also sat in with his sons that afternoon.

Clip of the Brubeck Laverne Trio from the 1980’s

This lesson comes in handy in more than just musical situations. I look at it as a good reminder that every conversation, every issue, and every complex problem can take on a  fractal pattern, leaving an often morose Michael trying to remember what he was thinking about. Oh yeah – Measure A-18!

I’ve decided to vote in favor of Measure A-18. Coming to this decision was a surprisingly involved and at times confusing process that took me to all corners of the community.


There are legitimate reasons to not like this measure. The tax itself is not, in my view, very fair. Parcel owners will be asked to pay the same amount of additional tax, whether their parcel is empty or full of house. Parcel owners who have little chance of building on their property will be asked to pay for something they may never get to enjoy. People who have multiple parcels will be taxed on each parcel. Parcel owners who do not live in Cambria will have no vote. People who live here and are registered to vote will have the power of the ballot, regardless of property ownership.
This issue, more than any other, held me back from a decision. In the end, I concluded that there might be different ways to split the tax baby, but there is no magic formula that will make everyone happy and whole. As for the argument that renter/residents get to vote to tax others – well, we live in America, don’t have landed gentry anymore, and as citizens, we have the right to cast votes on issues that impact the community we choose to call home. More than that, we have an obligation to use our vote wisely, for the benefit of all as best we can.

It Adds Up

The next issue that held me back is also tax-related. $62.15 a year does not seem like a big deal. But it is $62.15 on top of already meaningful taxes and assessments property owners pay. Utility rates have risen, and additional rate increases are on the table for consideration. The Health District struggles to remain solvent, and they are discussing another tax initiative to go before the community. This cost must be viewed as a part of a broader challenge.
My thought here is simple; we have to make a decision on what is in front of us now, and accept that the other two potential levies are not formed and not immediate. This decision has a deadline of June 5th.


The third issue that I struggled with was determining the real need for the staffing that this measure will fund. There have been very strong and very weak arguments made on this critical issue. I spent most of my time sorting through this one. People I know and respect oppose the measure, and people I know and respect support the measure. I decided to go back to basics, follow my usual process and dig into each bullet on the list, from both sides.


As my journey progressed, I was able to get face time and phone time with multiple people involved in the Emergency Services business that protect Cambria and the surrounding region. I asked what I believe to be tough questions – my own and those raised by various community members. I looked at statistics, read reports and visited with both Cambria Fire and Cal Fire. I spoke with CCSD staff and several elected Directors. I engaged in a detailed back and forth via email. To ensure I was as fair and unbiased as I reasonably could be, I asked a trusted friend to review (with permission) my discussions with the involved parties. I challenged the agencies, and suggested areas for improvement in their communications. They argued their points, adjusted their thinking, and built better arguments. Their initial efforts were not strongly formed or articulated, making their battle tougher than it needed to be.

Fair or Not?

The back and forth led to a few realizations. First, why has it been left to the line troops to fight this battle? It seems unfair. Secondly, they are firefighters, not politicians or lobbyists, yet they are acting in those capacities and taking the shots that come along with those roles.
In spite of all that, they continued with their efforts. The arguments improved. Communications were polished. They actively engaged and listened, responded with reasoned, fact-based information, and maintained their composure and their dignity.

Live and Local

Finally, the second community town hall convinced me that the firefighters’ positions are valid, the needs they have are legitimate, and the support they have received from other agencies, specifically, Cal Fire remains strong.

Beyond the Bullets

The speakers focused on the relevant theme – time and resources. They did a good job of taking the discussion beyond the top-level bullet points and drilled deeper into how the staffing model impacts not just fire response but all the other tasks and duties they perform. They provided real statistics on the decline of the “volunteer” force in Cambria and across the country. They defined – finally – what a volunteer is, and what is required of them to be eligible to serve in that capacity. They cited the law that made extensive training and certification mandatory. A point that they underplayed, but which caught my attention, was the overall effect of losing the three existing firefighter positions. It is an important point that becomes clearer when put into the context of what Cambria Fire and Emergency Services across the country face.

Quick Math

The current reality is that CFD engine is generally staffed with a captain/paramedic, an engineer, a firefighter and a reservist (the equivalent of a paid volunteer.) The reservist pool is pretty shallow, with two in-town qualified and trained people who may or may not be available to respond or pull shifts. With out-of-town reservists, that pool expands to 9 people, who may or may not be available when needed. So,if you subtract the third professional firefighter, then add the uncertainty of reservist availability, it is possible that the engine response team could be just two people. A likely scenario – no. A possible scenario – certainly.

And So…

The community members who attended were engaged, perhaps under-informed, but interested in hearing the arguments from all sides. I thought about the anger over the “fear tactics” being used to influence the community. At the end of the night, I sensed that given the realities of our environment, maybe a little fear is warranted. As I listened to the presenters and the attendees, I went through my list of questions, objections, and arguments and asked myself – were they addressed and answered successfully? For me, an overwhelming number of them were.

So I finally, after a lot of work, the issues came together and resolved in my mind. I “caught the 1.”

And now on to the next exciting movement. Maybe something in a waltz.