It is unusual for me to share my preferred candidates for local office, but hey – it is 2020!
For those who follow the CCSD board, think back to how contentious board meetings and actions were before David’s appointment. A noticeable change started to occur in the short time he served before standing for election. The tone, often bordering on uncivil, gradually softened. Critical issues that had gone through weeks and months of unproductive review, debate, and delay began to get more focused and disciplined action.
David applied his lifetime of accumulated skills – time management, people management, technical project management, agenda management – to improve what was a chaotic style of governance.
David’s natural leadership and dedication to the community led to his selection as Board President. Progress, though never fast, was happening. The change in board composition, which could have introduced more conflict and competing agendas, was managed with firmness and respect for each board member, and for the community. Even when some of us behaved in ways that did not merit respect or patience, David showed both.
One situation in particular sticks with me; Director Howell was uncomfortable with signing off on a financing agreement that had been previously reviewed but had one small modification. The rest of the board was ready to press ahead, but David, sensing Donn’s reluctance, offered the delay Donn needed to be comfortable. He showed Respect, Leadership, and Character.
Due to a public endorsement he did not seek or have input into, David has been “paired” with another candidate,. This goes against what every candidate had asked for at the beginning of this process – judge each as individuals, not as teams or members of a particular group.
David Pierson is a leader, but more than that he is a good and committed community member who deserves the highest level of respect, regardless of individual differences on issues. I know many of us have already voted, but for those still poised over the ballot, please take a few minutes to review what David has done, and what he stands for. And please consider what he says – all of what he says – and not what others may project onto him and his positions. There is a lot there.
In an election where character matters up and down the ballot, Karen Dean stands as a candidate for public office I can support.
Karen demonstrates thoughtfulness, preparedness, and willingness to put in the hard work needed to be entrusted with representing our community.
I have seen first-hand Karen’s practice of inclusion and engagement, beginning with what is referred to, tongue in cheek, as the “Infamous Chinese Temple Blue Shirt Circle Incident,” where the call for open engagement and dialog was belied by an ugly and unneeded denial of same. Karen took the time to share with me the goals of the group, a discussion that has led to several years of good, honest conversations around things we agree on and things we do not.
With her demonstrated hard work and integrity, I can easily see Karen working positively and collaboratively with returning directors Steidel and Howell, and whoever the community chooses to fill the other positions.
Karen can be trusted to do what a good leader should do – listen, learn, argue when needed, and compromise when appropriate. Karen will work across the diversity that is Cambria and use her best judgments when decisions need to be made.
Finally, being for a candidate does not equal being against another candidate.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was driving through town on a beautiful Monday morning, listening to the Bruce Springsteen channel on satellite radio. Youngstown, Bruce’s devastatingly accurate and stark telling of the rise and fall of the titular city, was playing. The version was from his haunting 1995 album “The Ghost of Tom Joad”, which was more of a folk/Americana record than a raucous and defiant rock barn burner. Youngstown is Steinbeck with guitars and fiddles, even more so than the title track.
As I listened, I made a mental leap to a very different telling of the same story – the version of Youngstown that appears on the Live From New York City DVD that was filmed for broadcast on HBO in 2000. Where the original has soft, insistent acoustic guitars and steady, almost shuffling accompaniment, the live version features the E Street Band at the apex of its incredible power. Where the original spools the story with melancholy and resignation, the live version spews it with a rage and denial.
In the first telling, I see a townsman sitting at the counter of the diner, both hands wrapped around the coffee cup gone cold as he tells the tale, flannel shirt over a worn t-shirt, old but still respectable jeans and work boots speaking a plain and honorable truth.
The second version reveals the same guy five years later, now seated at the dark end of the bar, hand squeezing the last drops of beer gone warm out of the brown bottle that will soon join a few too many in the bus box under the bar. Not so melancholy, not so quiet, telling anyone who wants to, or doesn’t want to hear how things were, and how things are. Rage, despair, puzzlement, and pleading done in a voice too loud, too challenging, and too painfully true. Where the original took us out with a sad and ominous violin melody, the live version exploded into the chaos and near mania of Nils Lofgren’s jaw-dropping guitar work. He grabs a beautiful melody and quickly hurls it away, replacing it with quick modal shifts and a machine-gun of notes. Each phrase sent speeding to the end of energy, and finally, exhausted, a repeating question mark of “what has happened to my world?”
Same words, same chords, same artist. Same story, different voices.
We often tell our stories based on what we want the outcome to be, and we use different voices to win the day. We do so with all the usual platitudes, like “it isn’t personal” knowing that for some it is very personal. Cambria, like many vibrant communities, is rich with stories. We are never at a loss for debates and decisions. A single simple issue rarely remains single or simple. Depending on who is telling and who is listening, and who is retelling their own version. Discuss sometimes turn to disgust. Some engage thoughtfully and positively. Others sit hawk-like on the overhead power lines, waiting for something to be turned into a meal.
Fire season no longer a predictable thing. Catastrophic fires and related events have been devastating large swaths of California and straining resources in every part of the state. Cambrians are being asked to fund three firefighter positions through a parcel tax. Voters will need to decide this issue and deserve to hear all sides of the equation. Here are a few duets from the greatest hits collection:
“Our goal is to continue to provide the best level of professional emergency services to the community we serve and meet the standards and objectives of fire service organizations across the country.”
“Their goal is to build an empire, take over all the emergency services, and keep the employees fat with overtime, outrageous pension benefits, and keep the union flush with dues.”
“Cal Fire has a station in Cambria, and they respond to every call.”
“Cal Fire responds to every call when they are in the area and available, which is not always the case.”
“We get mutual aid responses from all the surrounding fire departments.”
“Mutual aid agreements are critical to the safety of Cambria and the surrounding communities, though response times can vary and every minute is critical.”
“Our goal is to create enough revenue to sustain these positions for the foreseeable future, and the tax model was built to meet that objective. Here, look at the calculations. “
“The sales pitch is built on misleading data – it is going to cost way more than they are saying – here, look at this chart!!!”
“Their goal is to instill fear for the safety of our older citizens!!”
“Their goal is to instill economic fear and doubt among our older citizens!!”
“BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID!!!”
Go to a meeting. Read some of the information provided by all interested parties. Think about what you can afford – afford to spend, and afford to lose. What level of risk is acceptable to you? What is won or lost with a yes or no vote? Check your gut, check your heart, check your wallet and check your moral compass. There are a lot of very smart, informed and interested people who can give us the data we seek, the detail we want, and the simple facts absent spin or partisan positioning. Facts are great. Facts delivered with conclusions attached may be less clean, but if you trust the story-teller, well that counts for something. At the end of the day, it will be you and your #2 pencil (or more likely some sort of sharpie) hovering over the ballot. You and your vote matter.
NOTE: There are readers of this blog who don’t live in Cambria but are interested in the successes and challenges of people from all over this wacky planet. So, for my friends in faraway places like Hollis, New Hampshire and Mount Vernon, New York, I will try to do a zippy summary of the current situation and the recent history that brought us here. I will probably miss a thing or two, but no worries. There will be a long line of locals happy to fill in my gaps!
Let me explain. No, it is too much; let me sum up.
From “The Princess Bride”
Cambria fire protection services evolved from an all-volunteer force to a professionally staffed and managed emergency services department that responds to all types of hazardous events. Through the evolution, the community has explored different options to staff and manage this critical function. Several years back the Cambria Community Services District, which has responsibility for the Fire Department, began exploring options that would contract out fire protection to Cal Fire, the state agency that protects much of California. They also provide different levels of local management and staffing to communities that are not in a position to provide those services themselves.
The community was split on how to proceed, so a decision was made to enter into a short-term agreement with Cal Fire to provide management of the Cambria Fire Department, giving everyone time to see if a broader and more permanent arrangement would make sense. The timing of this was right, as the Cambria Fire Chief was retiring, and Cal Fire could fill that role during the evaluation period. In the end, the CCSD determined that it was better for the community to maintain control over the Department. With good data in hand and input from the Cal Fire Chief who served as the interim leader, the board moved forward. After a series of interviews, a new Chief was appointed to lead Cambria Fire.
The CFD continued on a path to modernization and standardization, using the guidelines, principles and best practices of state, regional and national firefighting organizations and regulatory agencies, such as OSHA. They moved to align with the standards for staffing, training, tools, and equipment and applied the rigorous metrics associated with those practices to measure where they were and what they needed to do to achieve those standards.
During this evolution, grant opportunities arose, and Cambria Fire was awarded a SAFER grant which provided funding to hire three additional firefighters. The addition of these three professional/career resources allowed CFD to staff the engine company with a crew of 4 – a captain, an engineer, a firefighter and a reservist. The optimum goal is to staff an engine with four career firefighters, but the reality is that is not a practical or affordable model for most smaller communities, including Cambria.
(The goal for CFD is to have four people on the engine – three career and one reserve. This has caused some confusion as the definitions used have not always been clear. The funding proposal covers the third career firefighter; the fourth will remain a reservist position.)
The Clock Is Ticking
The grant had a life of two years, after which the funding would stop, and the cost of these firefighters would fall back to Cambria. It was expected that during the two-year period funding would be explored through the budgeting process. Cambria receives tax money from the county, with a portion of that earmarked for fire protection. Of that allocation, a part is set aside for “administration and overhead.” Over time that allocation of funds has become a bit murky, perhaps being used for other expenses. During the last budgeting cycle, CFD had budgeted for the cost of the three firefighters. However, that funding was removed as part of the Board’s decision to have a balanced budget. So, as the two-year clock moved closer to expiring, the real possibility of losing the three firefighters drove the conversation towards solving the problem. The CFD requested funding. The board looked at the budget and saw no money to fulfill the request. They determined that the most appropriate way to deal with the situation was to put it before the community in the form of a ballot measure. If approved by two-thirds of the eligible voters, a tax of $62.15 would be levied on each parcel in Cambria (with exceptions for CCSD owned and a few other parcels.) The measure is scheduled for a vote on June 5th.
The Ballot Measure along with the Pro and Con Arguments and rebuttals can be found under the heading Cambria Community Services District Special Tax, Measure A-18 HERE
Debate or Discuss?
As we roll into the second month of discussion the conversation has spread out into different areas and positions become more aggressive. Some citizens are demanding a full-on debate of the pros and cons, with representitives of each side slugging it out (respectfully) under the supervision of a neutral organization. Other citizens (including me) are looking for town-hall style informational meetings where representitives from the involved organizations can share information and take questions from the attendees, with the goal of allowing us all to make decisions based on what we hear and see. Both options have merits, and hopefully we won’t get hung up on an either-or situation.
Where’s My Lamp?
Through this all I have been trying to gather as much information and as many viewpoints as possible, and at the same time maintain my own open-mindedness and neutral position until one clear set of factors tips me one way or the other. Of course, I could also abstain from making a choice on the matter…
Yet I seem to find myself advocating for the firefighters, even though I am not convinced that their argument is the right one. It feels more like an issue of fairness than a matter of fact. And as we know, facts can be very easy to spin.
There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Popular line attributed to former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli
So here are some facts I’ve been able to gather from various knowledgeable sources.
Facts or Fear, or Fearsome Facts?
Responding to a request for data, Cambria Fire’s Chief Hollingsworth sent me some statistics on the number of incidents that CFD responded to between 2007 and 2017.The data represented “fire” incidents, and revealed the following:
From email of 3/5/2017 “During the above-mentioned time frame, there were 157 fire incidents within the primary response area of Cambria Fire. This averages 15.7 fire calls per year or just more than 1 per month. This excludes all automatic and mutual aid responses. Of those 157 fire incidents, they break down as follows:
Residential structure fires 61
Commercial structure fires 24
Wildland fires 28
Vehicle fires 15
Debris/other fires 29
Of the 157 fire incidents, Cambria Fire handled 54 of them alone, with no response from Cal Fire or any other agency. Of that same number, 3 were handled solely by Cal Fire (station 10). These 3 incidents were relatively small and occurred while Cambria Fire units were committed to other incidents.”
Good information. Hard numbers. But how then do we take that data and turn it into information? I could use it as a counter to the position that states “Cal Fire responds to EVERY call in Cambria.” Really? The data says that over the measured timeframe they, in fact, did not respond to over a third of fire calls in Cambria (or 34.39% if percentages as numbers are more dramatic.) Conversely, Cambria Fire did not respond to less than 2% of fire incidents in Cambria.
So I asked a few follow-up questions, including why there would be such a gap in response from Cal Fire, and whether the Mutual Aid agreement with Cal Fire was in place over the measured timeframe.
Chief replied, “Short answer is yes, MA agreement has been around for a long time. We are part of California Master Mutual Aid. The solo responses are most likely based upon necessity. For instance, an oven fire or dryer fire may only get units from our agency. A small roadside spot fire may only get one unit. Additionally, some of those may be single resource responses from our agency because there was no assistance available from station 10, and other MA responders were canceled because they were not needed. However, there is no way as to discern the difference.”
So there are the facts, and there is the information on those facts.
More Fun With Facts
I had a similar experience with the Cal Fire management team responsible for staffing and manpower, and more particularly the process for ensuring that Cal Fire Station 10 was always manned, thereby providing the critical backup and support to Cambria Fire.
First, I called station 10 and spoke with the duty captain. I asked him about how the “move up and cover” process worked, and if Station 10 was left uncovered for extended periods. He was very cordial but said he really couldn’t give me a reliable answer as Station 10 was not his primary assignment. He suggested I call down to the offices in SLO to get more specifics.
Hailed To The Chief
I reached out to the office of Chief Scott Jalbert, the person responsible for managing the resources for Cal Fire in San Luis Obispo. I had a lovely conversation with Janet, a member of the Chief’s staff, who listened to my request for data, asked clarifying questions, and committed to getting me answers. She called me back later the same day and provided me with basic information related to Station 10 calls and responses for 2017. In summary, the numbers showed that Station 10 responded to 796 calls. Of the 796, 545 calls were specific to Cambria. This leaves 251 calls that took them away from the Cambria area.
I asked Janet about the process that Cal Fire uses to ensure that Station 10, which is designated as a “Must Cover” station, is adequately manned. She shared a high-level view of the move up and cover process, and when asked said the gap time generally fell between 15 and 40 minutes, depending on where the covering engine was coming from.
Sensing my skepticism, she offered to connect me directly to Chief Jalbert.
Tell Me More
When he came on the line, I explained again what I was calling about and why. He graciously walked me through in more detail the process of move up and cover, using a cul-de-sac analogy to demonstrate the rotation they follow. He also repeated the 15 – 40-minute timeframe to get a cover engine up to Cambria. Still skeptical (having driven from various places in the county where these cover engines would come from, while also realizing that my driving skill is so weak that Mr. Magoo shakes his head in disbelief) I asked a few more questions. One main one – ok, if 15-40 minutes is the range of time you use, how often are those times met? Meaning, how many move up and cover engines actually got to Cambria within that range? It turns out that number isn’t tracked, so I don’t know if it always happens, never happens, or somewhere in between. Does the percentage really matter? Well, sure, if the assumption is that Cal Fire is always here, or they will always be here almost right away.
I also asked him about the assertion that replacement crews can come from farther away, including other counties throughout California. He agreed that it could indeed happen, but it would be a highly unusual circumstance where all hell was breaking loose across the state, and things were unfolding in a rapid and unpredictable way. Like the Thomas Fire. Or the Chimney Fire. Or the Santa Rosa Fire, or the Montecito mudslides, or…
We also had a brief discussion on staffing and in particular volunteers and reservists. He chuckled and said, ” I’m working on my PowerPoint as we speak, talking about the challenges I face in staffing all the areas we are responsible for, including Los Osos.” All the fire services on the central coast are facing the same problem of finding, training hiring and retaining capable personnel. And they are all pulling from the same resource pool. The Central Coast is an expensive place to live, and the range of coverage types complicates the issue. Volunteers, as known in the past, don’t exist anymore in this area. Multiple departments, including Cal Fire, use reservists, who are trained as level 1 firefighters, to fill staffing gaps. They are contracted in different ways, including scheduled paid shift, on-call, and emergency call out. Many of these folks work other jobs, and may or may not be available to respond. They may also have to choose between their primary job(s) or respond as firefighters, often at an hourly wage that is below what they get through other employment. This problem continues to exist and grow and has been documented and confirmed by multiple fire department leaders from Cal Fire to Morro Bay to Chief Hollingsworth.
Additional reporting by Karen Garcia of New Times on the state of firefighting support for neighboring Cayucos HERE
Miles To Go
So we have the numbers, and we have the “color.” I’ll just add a brief anecdote; when I relayed the 15-40 minute coverage data to a CFD member, the response was basically “OK, but I can tell you that just today Cambria Fire covered all of Station 10’s area as they were out of service. Since they were not on an official call, there was no move up and cover engine.”
To borrow a device that is being used to argue against the measure, I will now deploy what I think of as a “syllogistic hanging chad.” Leave the ominous questions out there, causing people to get really nervous about what might happen. Aristotle wept.
Are non-call activities that take Station 10 out of service for an extended time – be it one hour or 4, tracked and managed? Or are there informal practices and agreements to mutually cover that are normal operational events that work both ways? Does it matter? Only if during one of these times something goes boom and there are bald spots in critical coverage…
One final note on Cal Fire – every member of the service I spoke with was unfailingly polite, willing to answer all my questions and give the best information they had to offer. They all spoke well of Cambria Fire, and they all expressed a real reluctance to become embroiled in any of the politics around the issue. They, like the CFD members, are focused on protecting the communities they serve, and protecting each other from the dangers, physical and otherwise, they face in a tough and unrelenting environment.
Every member of the Cambria Fire Department, from the Chief to the reservists, have been equally polite and committed to open and honest discussion. This really is as local as an issue gets, and while the firefighters are members of a union, this isn’t a union battle.
It would be great if we didn’t turn this into a divide or pit either fire service against the other.
Bits and Pieces
Interesting guidelines that cover Cal Fire”s responsibilities under a cooperative fire protection agreement.
(No. 137 May 2017)
When considering potential Amador Plan cooperative fire protection agreements under PRC §4144, the following guidelines will be used:
The efficiency of ofCALFire’s fire protection system in its primary mission of wildland fire protection, as well as response to major fires or other natural disasters will not be reduced or impaired. CAL Fire’s ability to assign fire protection resources to areas of the state during periods of critical fire weather or major fires shall receive priority over agreements made with local entities pursuant to PRC §4144.
CAL FIRE resources and personnel will be assigned, in accordance with PRC §4144(c), to provide the most efficient protection for both the state and local mission.
Each applicant must submit a statement of fire protection need to the Unit Chief that will include a map that delineates the area to be protected. This statement of need will be submitted to the Director with the initial request for service. A copy will be retained in the Unit file.
As part of my journey to better understand the different factors that have gone into the upcoming ballot measure, I reached out to the CCSD General Manager with questions around some of the things I’ve heard from different parts of the interested community.
One of the primary issues relates to taxation approach to funding the firefighter positions. I took a few questions (formed from reading and hearing thoughts from vocal community members) and posed them to the GM. He directed me to Legal Counsel for specific details. I submitted my questions in an email and received the following response from David Hirsch, an attorney who works with District Counsel Tim Carmel. Mr. Hirsch’s answers are BOLDED.
Parcel Tax – Legal Edition
The questions I posed fell into two buckets.
Bucket A: Parcel Tax
Why was the method of seeking revenue through parcel taxes done the way it has been done?
What law, statute or other governing rules make this approach legal and compliant?
Why would this issue not be addressed through different means, such as a 218?
Mr. Hirsch responded (some editing for brevity)
“The answer to your questions, in large measure, is that the special tax is something that is expressly authorized by and consistent with the requirements of Proposition 218. Proposition 218 was a voter approval protection initiative that added provisions to the California Constitution. It created a requirement that special taxes, such as the CCSD’s parcel tax measure that will be on the June ballot, are subject to a supermajority vote that requires two-thirds voter approval. A provision in the statutes that govern community services districts, Government Code Section 61121, expressly authorizes the CCSD to levy special taxes.”
He continues, ” Proposition 218 also addresses and creates procedural requirements and restrictions on other forms of local agency revenues, such as fees and assessments. Those types of revenues are not an appropriate source to fund the three-firefighter positions that the special tax will address. Fees relate to services such as water or sewer and are restricted to the cost of providing those services. Assessments require that there be a special benefit to the assessed property. The higher level of staffing of fire response vehicles will provide a general benefit to the entire community and therefore cannot easily be funded through an assessment process. Therefore, although it requires meeting the high threshold of a two-thirds vote of the electorate, the special tax was deemed the most appropriate way to provide the needed funding for the three-firefighter positions.”
This second section of questions is less rooted in law and more in the application.
Bucket B: Fairness
There are many views on the “fairness” of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax. The ones that rise to the top of the list posit that all property owners should have the right to vote on issues that directly affect them, and will (if successful) impose costs on them.
Renters are given the opportunity to tax property owners. Many rental properties have multiple tenants, which can dramatically up the number of votes per property.
Taxing those with higher equity in town (homes or other structures) the same as those with much less (vacant parcels).
Parcel owners who reside elsewhere receive no benefit but are burdened with the costs of the proposed tax.
Some citizens have mentioned that in the past they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this. Is that not doable under the approach that has been taken?
“… You note that ‘There are many views on the “fairness’ of taking a path that excluded many property owners being able to vote on the tax.” I can certainly appreciate your point; however, fundamentally the fairness question is a policy issue with regard to how the special tax was structured. The previously noted Section of the Government Code that authorized seeking approval for the special tax also provides that “…The special taxes shall be applied uniformly to all taxpayers or all real property within the district, except that unimproved property may be taxed at a lower rate than improved property.”
“…the CCSD’s Board of Directors looked at options that included only taxing improved property. They ended up deciding, within their sound discretion, to submit a measure to the voters that would assess a uniform amount on all parcels in the District.
“… certainly there are many examples that can be cited where taxes are deemed unfair to some but nonetheless are lawfully imposed. You noted that renters are able to vote on taxes that their absentee, property owner landlords have to pay. Other examples include transient occupancy taxes paid by folks staying at hotels that are voted upon by the communities residents and not those that are taxed. Likewise, owners of vacation homes who reside elsewhere and are not registered voters in Cambria will not be able to vote on the tax, although they certainly will benefit from its passage. Other examples of unfairness include Mello-Roos special taxes, which often are created by one landowner, a developer, but subsequently are paid by the future residents of the property, and school taxes paid by retirees with no children in the school system. Unfortunately, often the nature of taxation is such that there is some element of unfairness, however, how the tax is structured is a policy question best left to the elected officials who must take responsibility for seeking its approval. “
” You also mentioned that some citizens have said that they were mailed a ballot and could cast a vote on issues like this and asked whether that could be done for the Cambria’s firefighters special tax measure. Those folks may have been referring to an assessment district ballot process, which as noted, is not an appropriate mechanism to fund the three-firefighter positions. Otherwise, if they were referring to a mailed ballot election, while there are procedures to have such elections (they are significantly more expensive), Cambria’s measure will be on the regular June 2018 ballot and voters will need to go to the polls to cast their vote or vote by absentee ballot.”
So, there we have it – a detailed response to a sampling of the comments and questions heard around town. Perhaps this will provide clarity to some; maybe it will raise more questions from many. Knowledge is power. The quest for accurate and honest information can feel like the hunt for the Golden Fleece. Accurate and honest answers can keep us from feeling like the fleeced.
In the next edition I sit down with CFD Chief William Hollingsworth to get a better sense of the true need for the proposed staffing levels. I also visited Cal Fire Station 10 and had a brief conversation with the Captain on duty.
The unsuccessful attempt to fill the open director’s seat created a few question marks for the community. Much was made of the chaotic process used in the September 19th special meeting. Many Cambrians felt that process was poorly thought out and unfair to the candidates. A lot of heat was directed towards board President Amanda Rice. As the keeper of the gavel, it was assumed that she would be the person responsible for defining the process and managing the execution. While I agree she owns the hot seat, I’m not in the camp that sees the weakness of the attempt as solely her fault. Governing is a team sport.
President Rice, to her credit, reached out to members of the community to solicit ideas on how to do a better job with the next round scheduled for October 3rd. I don’t know how much helpful input she received, but it wasn’t quite enough to fix it all before the meeting.
Post 9/19, the community was buzzing with thoughts, suspicions, complaints and the odd call for revolution. Business as usual in this crazy, awesome town. Candidates that had submitted themselves to the Circus Minimus that took place between the hills over the skate park and the hills over the Fiscalini Ranch had time to rethink their commitment to service. Many decided to remain in the competition, despite not quite knowing the rules.
Let Us Try Again
I was unable to attend the October 3rd meeting but did manage to catch a portion of the proceedings via the Slo-span.org live feed, and later watched the whole session via the archived recording.
The community came out in force, with different candidates having groups of supporters rooting for their success. There were a lot of the usual attendees and an increased number of citizens who came to speak in support of Aaron Wharton. Aaron is a local business owner who decided that he wanted to contribute to the community that he and his family chose as their home. He bore a different profile from most other candidates. He had acquitted himself reasonably well in the original round of interviews and was one of the six chosen for the bonus round.
To the surprise of some, multiple speakers rose to vocalize their support for Wharton’s candidacy. So many that those not in his camp began to voice suspicions that the whole thing was planned, perhaps in cahoots with one or two directors. The word “puppet” made its way into the conversation. It seemed that some of the regulars, who frequently pack the meeting and regularly speak about this and that couldn’t believe that another group of folks would take advantage of the public comment period to advocate their cause!
I’ve got no strings, so I have fun
I’m not tied up to anyone
They’ve got strings, but you can see
There are no strings on me
Written by Dickie Jones and performed by Pinocchio
After public comment, the meeting turned to the business at hand – fill the seat. Here’s where the whole thing went sideways again. Since no meaningful progress had been made in structuring the selection process, the previous month’s chaos came back for an encore. It was unclear – would candidates have a chance to speak? Would there be more interview questions from the board? At some point, President Rice noted that in her view any member of the community could still submit themselves for consideration. Oh boy!
Suddenly there was a cavalcade of citizen activists marching to the podium to declare their candidacy. It was like a mashup of Bullworth, The American President, Forrest Gump and Waiting For Guffman. Yes, those are four loosely associated films with tenuous plot ties strung together to make an inconsequential point.
Things settled down a bit though candidate DeWayne Lee, a strong contender for the seat, was unsure if he would have an opportunity to present himself again. It was assumed he would, so he deferred his public comment slot with the expectation that he would present later in the proceedings.
Aaron Wharton made his way to the podium for a second round of grilling. He began by referring back to some of the answers he had given in the first round. He inartfully tried to clarify that his answer to the question on how many permits should be allowed wasn’t quite right, and it had been given as an effort to “tell them what they wanted to hear.” Not the best or most thoughtfully constructed statement; it gave the impression that he was just appeasing a few directors.
It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here…
Director Farmer picked up the oven mitts, turned up the heat and started grilling Mr. Wharton. It was clear that he was not a fan, and was using his time to aggressively challenge Wharton’s answers. The exchange got a bit weird, with Farmer rejecting Wharton’s answers by interrupting him and repeating his questions in an even harsher tone. Mr. Wharton, clearly bemused, asked Mr. Farmer “what do you want my answer to be?” – turning his earlier misstep into a humorous and de-escalating jibe.
After the cross-examination ended, Director Bahringer nominated Mr. Wharton. (note: he had also nominated him during the seven rounds at the previous meeting.) The nomination was quickly seconded by Vice President Sanders. Director Farmer looked quite stunned by the quickness of the nomination process, and during discussion asked for clarification on whether he could abstain. That took a few minutes, and then the intrepid clerk called the roll.
Director Bahringer – AYE. Vice President Sanders – AYE. Director Farmer (more clarifying discussion, then…) ABSTAIN. President Rice – AYE.
Aaron Wharton, come on down and raise your hand!
It was me against the world, I was sure that I’d win, but the world fought back, punished me for my sins.
Mike Ness, Social Distortion
How do we view the job of an elected official? Why do we choose one candidate over another? Positions or personality? Values or attitudes? Comfortable or charismatic? Familiar or mysterious?
After we make our choices, how do we expect our chosen few to execute their duties? How long do we stick with them, or more accurately how soon do we abandon them?
A scorpion and a frog meet on the bank of a stream, and the scorpion asks the frog to carry him across on its back. The frog asks, “How do I know you won’t sting me?” The scorpion says, “Because if I do, I will die too.” The frog is satisfied, and they set out, but in midstream, the scorpion stings the frog. The frog feels the onset of paralysis and starts to sink, knowing they both will drown, but has just enough time to gasp “Why?” Replies the scorpion: “It’s my nature…”
I vote for a person with the expectation that they will do what I want them to do because they work for me.
I vote for a person because I believe they have the capacity and skill to make the best choices based on all the facts available, combined with their experience and discernible character traits. I don’t expect to agree with or like every decision or position, but my vote is a sign of confidence in the person.
There is also the question of how an elected official views their responsibility once they assume office.
The proper view should always be “regardless of how many votes I garnered I am obligated to represent all the members of the community.”
What we sometimes see, however, is the view that “I represent the people who voted for me, and I will decide based on their wishes.”
Are We, We Are
During all this tumult it again became clear that Cambria is a community of many tribes. Some are very vocal, which can give the impression that their numbers are much larger than they are. Some, in their passionate zeal, ignore social norms and fall back on volume and venom to move their position forward. Some rely on quiet negotiation, using relationships and positive persuasion to advocate for their views. Some follow along, and some just ignore it all. When hard times hit, or someone needs a helping hand the community frequently drops the animus and acts with a level of unity that reminds me how great this town is. When it comes to the CCSD, and to a lesser extent the CCHD (Cambria’s Community Health District) that unity heads to Costco for a big box of “NOPE.”
Watching from afar and watching from the back of the room are two very different experiences. Being “in the room where it happens” adds dimension to the experience. You can see and hear the murmurs, sharp comments, snorts and quiet affirmations from the audience. You can watch the body language of the crowd, see furious scribbling or iPad tapping, catch the fleeting smiles and nods as well as the darkening scowls and grimaces depending on what is being said from the dais or the speaker’s podium. You can also catch the interaction between citizens as they comment to each other or, frequently about each other.
Occasionally, rude or disruptive outbursts or steady streams of angry chatter cause others to turn around, stare or comment, communicating the request for courtesy so everyone might hear the words of those who legitimately have the floor. This general sense of courtesy and reasonable public behavior sadly falls apart when some citizens feel their right to “free speech” trumps the rights of others to focus on and listen to the rightfully recognized.
This story is not intended to be “gossipy,” but it is meant to shine a light on behaviors and attitudes that sometimes diminish the principle that everyone has the right to participate in the proceedings without harassment or undue disruption.
While getting feedback from people who attended the October 3rd meeting, a few relayed an exchange that happened between two locals. One, a noted activist and frequent disruptor, and the other a local business owner attending the meeting in support of a candidate.
As the proceedings went on, a group of folks stood in the back of the room, talking loudly and distractingly. The business owner turned around and asked for them to quiet down so people could hear what proceedings. The requestor was met with the following response. (stealing a masking tactic from the Megan Amram-scripted hit comedy series “The Good Place) “FORK OFF, BUB.”
After the meeting ended, he approached the disruptor to express his dismay at being treated so rudely. That earned a second “FORK OFF, BUB.”
Now, this type of truculence isn’t all that surprising, but I wanted to be sure what I was told was accurate. I reached out to the recipient of this verbal assault, who after ascertaining that I wasn’t out to cause him grief, agreed to meet and fill in the blanks. Those blanks included a third invitation to “FORK OFF.”
Still, I wanted to understand if there was more to the story, or perhaps gain an understanding of why the responder felt it was appropriate to behave in this fashion. I sent an email to the orator asking if the story was true and accurate and if there was more that could be shared that might provide a different perspective on the exchange. As of today, I’ve not gotten any response.
Next – The new guy takes a seat, just in time to do it all over again.
I’ve taken some time away from my blog for a few reasons. I’ve been a bit busy with “work” writing, and by the time I’m done with that, the last thing I want to do is write some more.
The larger reason, though, is a bit more personal. As an observer of community interactions, I’ve developed some particular views on people, on positions and the intersection of both. It would be dishonest to say I am “neutral,” but I think it would be similarly dishonest to say I am a committed member of a group that advocates one side over the other. I lean, but I don’t believe I fall.
This has made it a bit difficult for me to keep a clear line of sight as I attend the monthly meetings, read the mountain of documentation that surround the major issues, and have conversations with friends and acquaintances around town. So, I took a few months off from the blog but still followed along as things progressed.
And boy, have things progressed!
For those who read from afar, a quick description of how the Cambria Community Services District is structured.
We have a Board of Directors consisting of 5 elected positions. Each elected term is four years, and those terms are staggered with the thought of keeping some level of continuity as terms expire or seats otherwise become vacant.
There are several ways to fill positions that become vacant during a term:
A special election can be called.
An interim appointment can be made by the remaining board members.
Should all attempts to make an appointment in this process fail, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors can make the appointment.
Depending on when in the term a vacancy occurs, the seat will be on the ballot during the next election cycle.
All the options have positives and negatives, and in Cambria, each method has vocal supporters and detractors.
Now It’s Time, To Say Goodbye…
Long-serving Director Michael (nobody calls him Mickey) Thompson announced that he was resigning his position effective the end of August 2017. Director Thompson’s adult life has been dedicated to public service, pre-dating his time in Cambria. He has been an active member of this community, with a broad and loyal base of friends and supporters. In addition to his service to the CCSD, he has been a contributing member of organizations ranging from the Chamber of Commerce, Cambria American Legion Post 432 and more. He has been a faithful supporter of the Sustainable Water Facility, as well as a strong advocate for sensible management of balanced growth and environmental stewardship. (Begin howls of disagreement here…) Over his long career of service, he developed a low-key but clear way of expressing his positions on important issues. He has also demonstrated an open-minded and fair approach to listening and adjusting his views based on new input or information.
His term runs through November of 2018, so the seat was eligible for appointment. The decision was made to follow the previous practice and have the sitting directors select a replacement by unanimous vote. The legally required process was followed; post a notice of vacancy, call for interested candidates, provide an application form and schedule a special meeting where the next phase of the process would play out.
A Baker’s Dozen
Thirteen candidates submitted applications. A read through all of the applications revealed a healthy list of desirable skills and experiences, many in the public sector, and some with previous leadership roles on the CCSD Board.
By the time the meeting began only a dozen candidates had remained under active consideration. There was just one woman on the slate, which, given the makeup of the town and the number of women who are very involved in the community was a bit of a surprise.
“Let’s Get Ready To Grumble!!!”
From the first gavel, it was obvious that the meeting was not going to go very smoothly. There were no clear guidelines that would cover the entire process and there were no objective criteria the Directors could use to fairly and equally “score” candidates. In reality, each member of the board brought personal preferences and biases to the process, and without more structure that ultimately ruled the decision-making process.
The “interview” process had been used in the past, but with a much smaller group of candidates. With a dozen people to work through it became clear that it would be at best difficult to give each candidate, and each director, a decent amount of time to thoroughly explore even a minor few positions. Successive applicants, having heard the previous questions and answers, would have the advantage of adjusting their responses based on what they just saw and heard.
In This Corner…
Two of the sitting directors – Jim Bahringer and Greg Sanders – expressed views that advocated appointing someone with positions similar to Mr. Thompson’s, the rationale being that he was elected with a significant margin, and the citizens who spoke with their votes should have their positions sustained for the remainder of the term. Others on the board had different views.
In That Corner…
President Rice pointed out that over time, Director Thompson’s positions evolved and would likely have continued to evolve should he have served his entire term. Director Farmer pointed to the most recent election, where he was selected over an incumbent, as a sign that community sentiments had changed significantly since the 2014 vote, and those sentiments should be taken into account.
In The Peanut Gallery…
A third position, which makes sense to me, is to appoint someone to fill the vacancy who brings a new energy and outlook, different experiences and a philosophy that is inclusive and open to input but can stand firm on major decisions. More importantly, the appointee should have a set of skills that would add value to the body, rather than just appeasing any given segment of the overall town.
The candidates make their statements. Each established their positions, using different techniques from a classic recitation of resumes to showy flourishes that played to the crowd but didn’t land with much impact. The rounds progressed, with various combinations of probing jabs and slick defenses. After a while, the judges decided to narrow the field, with each member offering their choices. Those that met the on-the-fly threshold of multiple mentions went on to the round of six. At this point, I have to switch to a different sports metaphor.
The Ties That Bind…(Apologies to Bruce Springsteen)
After eliminating 6 of the 12 candidates, the board continued their attempt to select a new teammate. Rather than retelling the whole excruciating story, I’ll go with the Warner Wolfe version. (If you want you can “go to the videotape” HERE)
“Bahringer opens with a strong nomination -picking a seasoned veteran to join the starting five. He makes a strong case for his pick, citing a 17-year career on the CCSD team as a major strength. Sanders nods and agrees, adding a second. Crunch time – the ball is passed around the court, and ultimately the candidate is REJECTED! The crowd is getting into it now.”
The process continues, with nominations, discussions, and rejections. Each round ended as the first had – Bahringer and Sanders on one side, Rice and Farmer on the other. The exchanges got hotter, the arguments more pointed, and the language grew more forceful. “Come on man, take this seriously!” “I’m taking this very seriously, Mister!” Tough stuff!
In the end, seven votes were taken, seven scores of 2-2. Nobody wins.
Let’s Do It Again!
With no selection made, the board agreed to have a second special meeting to try again to fill the seat. We’ll take a look at that in our next episode.
Did I mention that Greg Sanders announced that he was resigning his seat at the end of October?
Elections – our opportunity to make choices and vote our ideals. Or hearts. Sometimes even our rational minds. This past election season was certainly unlike anything we’d seen before. And now we get to look back at the magical 100 days, and see what we have wrought!
Setting the Stage
Not everyone was happy. No matter where one stood on the issues, the general sense was that some soon-to-be made choices would either lead to comfortable stability or radical change. Some traditional affiliations held, but without the rock-solid surety of previous election seasons. New candidates emerged, familiar faces stepped up and fell back, and in the end, it came down to two. One, a familiar and often scrutinized woman with a long and laudable record of public service. The other, a man of some celebrity, known for things other than a firm grasp on the intricacies of complex and serious governmental process and responsibility. Both had ardent and vocal supporters. Both had detractors. Both stepped forward and spoke of their vision for the future. They were different, very different.
The campaigns rolled on, the candidates leaned on their respective bases for the votes needed to win the election. Most observers thought that she would succeed. Her popularity wasn’t as solid and enthusiastic as it might have been; she had been urged to lean in a bit harder and expand her support, but she stayed true to her strategy.
He was a wild card from the beginning. Of course, there was a core group of passionate supporters who shared his views and attitudes. There was also a growing distrust of the established government and of the established governors. The vague discomfort grew into something stronger as the campaign season wore on. More and more supporters of adjacent candidates turned to him, embracing his message. A message that was often hard to figure out, and positions that were more sound byte and vague accusation than firm and verifiable policy positions and governing platforms. It was all, “They’re bad, I’m not” and, “There’s something going on here and I can stop it” slugs.
We all know how that turned out.
Raise your Hand and Repeat…
The oath of office was administered. Some thoughts at the time:
“Well, he won on a wave of passion and desire for something other than the same old, same old… but running for the office and actually being in the office are very different things. He will realize how complex and difficult the role is, and will become more serious about doing the job. There is no way he will continue to pepper other government representatives with vague accusations of corruption, incompetence and elitism… no way he will remain under-educated about how the government works, how public service differs from public criticism, how the mechanics of public budgets and finance differ from simpler tasks of personal financial management… how public works differ from private enterprise, even when both are technically complex. He will grow and mature, and recognize that the words he used as a private citizen with little public accountability must be delivered more thoughtfully and with greater precision when holding the public trust. He will recognize that the other elected representatives are there, as he is there, through the will of the people… he will not need to embrace them, but he will need to work with them in a trusted and professional manner…”
Compromisers may not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies.
Walter Isaacson, writing about Benjamin Franklin and the Founding Fathers
So the clock ticks, and the official record begins. His knowledge is on public display. His questions are now coming from a position of responsibility, and what was ok before is now not so okay. Expectations are higher. Skills are expected to sharpen. Efforts to become more expert in key areas have to be made, and results have to be measurable. Careless and inflammatory remarks made as a private citizen, or as a populist candidate, now have to be challenged more quickly and more forcefully. Attacking others, no matter how “benignly” will draw return fire; he can’t be surprised by it nor unduly offended. This isn’t a game, its people’s lives.
The maturity has not happened. His questions and public comments remain, at best, difficult to follow. The go-to move of repeating the vague accusations and suspicions that enthralled his supporters during the campaign just don’t pass muster now. Certainly, many of his base still cheer him on and marvel at his courage and “stick it to the establishment” attitude. Great. Fantastic. Unbelievable, believe me.
I don’t, and here’s why.
It is easy to declare one’s intention to “bring people together” and “heal the divides that separate us”. But, with every comment to a reporter, every broadcast interview, and every indolent repetition of the same old lines, bridges erode.
Every repeated, simplistic analogy is evidence of a closed mind.
Every play to the base is a missed opportunity for wider connections.
The true test of leadership arrives; the opportunity to really listen, digest and incorporate information and develop a better understanding – well, still waiting.
The hundred day mark has been reached. From where I sit things have gone badly. Sorry, Harry, but that’s my thought from the back of the room.
It certainly has been a challenging few weeks for the Cambria Community Services District employees. They’ve been inundated from every possible direction, with never-ending rain straining every resource. From the well fields to the brine pond, water, water everywhere. The town, the surrounding hills, the beaches and the roads were assaulted by blessed and cursed rain. It was all hands on a flooded deck. Danger. A slip, a missed step, a falling tree, or a power line. Look left, get pummelled from the right. Miss something over there while trying to fix something over here, and bad things can happen.
At the same time, the CSD staff leadership was under a different deluge – one of warnings and eventually notices of violation from the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. Some of these issues overlapped, with the rains exacerbating the strain and driving serious and consequential real-time decision-making, each choice the best that could be made, knowing that the downside of other things put aside could come back to haunt. There is real danger in these times.
Pick up a shovel or spreadsheet? Answer a public request or comply with an agency requirement? Ensure safety or ensure administrative compliance? Ask for help or ask forgiveness? Whatever call is made, another one will be made by someone else. Such is a life in public service. Plenty of support when someone gets hurt, and plenty of told-you so’s when someone comes up short.
Suspicion is the companion of mean souls, and the bane of all good society. Thomas Paine
In the weeks since the last Board meeting, the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board sent Notices of Violation to the CCSD. Each notice contained specific complaints, and each listed infraction carried the potential for fines; the number of instances times the dollar amounts per violation quickly added up to a theoretical fine closing in on $600,000.00 all in. Startling, disturbing and definitely eye-catching. Which is why the headlines led with it in one form or another. Not Fake News, but certainly tone-setting.
A careful reading of the credible news articles revealed a more detailed and nuanced view of the situation. The vast majority of the violations were administrative – late or incomplete reports being the main bloc of issues. The reporting requirements placed on the CSD are not trivial; some would argue they are close to punitive. The reports seem to be required so the Water Board and other oversight agencies can monitor and manage any potential issues that could compromise the health and safety of both citizens and the environment. Important stuff, and each agency seems to take these data points very seriously. Timeliness of the reports likely impact the reporting the respective agencies need to do, and on it goes.
A deeper dive into the reporting and updates from the involved parties reveal that the draconian tone of the notices (and the subsequent headlines) were meant to convey a message – “Hey, guys – we are very serious here. Get it together fast!!!” Further reading offered a more conciliatory and even encouraging posture from agency representatives. While not absolution, it revealed a more pragmatic and less dramatic approach to solving the problems that drove the notices.
The General Manager acknowledged the violations, and accepted that he and his staff had to do much better to win the trust of the agencies and the public. Significant progress has been made against the backlog of late reporting. Root causes were identified, and process changes and personnel realignments were made to better manage the requirements going forward.
Still – those headlines! The most extreme of the stories flew around Social Media like the winning Lottery numbers. To some, I guess, there were.
I never expect to see a perfect work from an imperfect man. – Alexander Hamilton
Throughout the onslaught, some very serious questions were raised around accountability. There is no doubt that the General Manager is ultimately responsible for ensuring the CSD’s obligations are met. He’s The Guy. Responsibilities for individual deliverables fall across different parts of the organization, and many are shared among different, interlocking functions, but when things go boom, people are looking for that “one throat to choke.” He is the one who takes the beating, no matter how fair or unfair. I think he accepts that responsibility, and so far he has stood up and taken the heat. He also stood tall and apologized for his comments at an earlier meeting, directing his words to the individual he scuffled with and the agency he inaccurately represented. Most importantly, he has taken action to correct what needed correcting. Still, there are members of the community who are demanding his head. Some have been taking small snips, others flashing their blades wildly. Still others lay out stones in the road hoping he will stumble over one and knock his own head off. Or lose his cool, speak out of turn, and force the hand of say, oversight agencies.
Others take a more measured view, shut out the noise, and deal with the facts. Not a single dollar in fines has been levied based on the Notices Of Violation. That could change, and maybe it could result in a significant fine. Maybe there will be a nominal fine or penalty. Maybe the oversight will be ramped up and the reporting requirements tightened. Or maybe, with considered review, opportunities to reshape some of the requirements will make it easier to comply while maintaining the correct levels of safety and situational awareness. I struggle to think of a reason an agency would severely punish a community for these types of infractions. I wonder why some community members seem almost gleeful at the prospect. Weird, right?
I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog too! – Margaret Hamilton
You know what else is weird? The incredible swiftness with which some loyal friends and supporters of the Board President tossed her under the Prius and sped away because she did not do their bidding. She (GASP!!!!) voted the way she thought was best. Well, hot damn!! I fear some people don’t quite know how representative government is supposed to work. It is interesting to see some of these folks go on about free and equal, but when they don’t get the specific actions they want they call for the overthrow of their own votes. To quote some bozo in Washington. “SAD!”
With every meeting and every conversation, it becomes clearer that no matter what the explanation, what the reasoning or what the evidence says, some folks simply will not believe anything the Board says about the Sustainable Water Facility. From the conditions that drove the rapid development and build out of the facility, to the funding of the project, the rebranding, and the current status, required changes and ongoing permitting, every position given by the Board is called into question by those who oppose the plant, along with pretty much everything else that is the District’s responsibility. Every question has been answered, and just about ever answer has been rejected. Short of allowing folks to place fingers in wounds nothing will change any mind. This is really too bad. But if the foundational mindset is that there never was an emergency and the facility was always intended to fuel growth, therefore everyone involved is corrupt and dishonest, this will never change. It becomes a game of attrition.
I often question my own view of the facts, so I reach out to different members of the resistance to ask for a better understanding of their positions. Results have been mixed, with some good, open and civil conversations, and some sharp, “stick to the issues and “What do you not see?” retorts, as if coming to different conclusions somehow makes me a dullard.
Men often oppose a thing merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike. – Alexander Hamilton
How Do We Listen?
There were a couple of real head-scratching exchanges during the last meeting. They illustrate our collective differences in how we listen, what we hear through our own filters and biases, and how we respond to what was said. A few quick examples:
The GM went through, in some detail, the actions he and the staff have taken in response to the Notices of Violation. He highlighted a few of the drivers that contributed to late reporting, including samples that are sent to different labs around the country, resulting in uneven and delayed results needed to populate the required reports. He outlined the steps taken to remove this particular stumbling block; later, in public comment a citizen referred back to the GM’s comments as an example of finger-pointing and shifting blame. Now, my initial reaction was “that’s not what I heard.” Director Bahringer’s response confirmed my take on what was said.
Another citizen (and prior candidate for a Board seat) spoke about the loan agreement that funded a large part of the facility, saying we have “hocked everything we own…”and painted a dire picture of having everything in town seized if we default. I wonder if he read a different loan agreement, because I didn’t see anything like that in the one I read.
A third example was an exchange between Directors Farmer and Sanders regarding the work needed to be done to complete the EIR. Director Sanders shared his experienced opinion that documents like the EIR often go through a complicated response process, and at times the information that agencies have requested in their review comments are already in the document, and could be found by a more careful review of the data provided. Director Farmer replayed that back as Director Sanders blaming the Agencies for not doing a good job, rather than the original EIR document being flawed. Certainly not what I heard Director Sanders say, but that’s how Director Farmer heard it.
The last example of what was said versus what was heard – in discussing the excess water in the brine pond, the GM outlined a plan that is under consideration, pending approval and permitting from the appropriate agencies. That plan includes draining much of the rain and floodwaters out of the pond and into nearby fields, lowering the content of the pond to safe, compliant levels. The second piece of the puzzle would be the ongoing removal of the brine produced by the SWF. This would entail pumping the brine into tankers and trucking it south to a facility that would dispose of it safely. The General Manager did some quick math, and estimated that taking everything currently in the brine pond, pumping and trucking it out could cost around a million dollars, and that clearly was not a feasible solution. This was relayed back to me in an email as “The estimate at the meeting was at least $1 million to dispose of what’s there now. “
Perhaps these few examples can highlight why it might be helpful to take a minute or two, think about what we hear, ask clarifying questions, or even replay a recording to validate our thoughts. However, if we all go into a situation with set jaws and contentious minds, not much will change. A war of attrition.
Still a man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest – Paul Simon
Once Upon A Time
A friend shared with me an article by Nathan Welton from July 2004, detailing the multiple environmental groups who engaged in the battles over the Hearst development efforts. I was struck by the sheer number of different and overlapping groups, and the fractures and tensions among them as they battled to find a common voice.
This section caught my attention: “Leading up to that event was raucous name-calling littering editorial pages — one recent letter painted North Coast county supervisor Shirley Bianchi “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Hearst Corp.” for her support of the current preservation and development plan.”
“Meanwhile, a former adviser to the Environmental Defense Center has admonished the group for having the temerity to make a public request for documents related to the Hearst deal.”
“And Sierra Club officials are threatening to kick local board member Tim O’Keefe out of the organization for publicly airing his differences over Hearst.”
Turn on a trusted and dedicated public figure – check.
Get mad about public document requests – check.
Exile individuals for airing differences of opinion – check.