4th District Candidates’ Forum in Independence
By Charles James
9 May 2012
Over eighty voters attended the 4th District’s Supervisor Candidate’s Forum held on Monday night, May 7, in Independence at the Owens Valley School Multipurpose Room. The event was hosted by the Independence Civics Club and was moderated by Rose Masters.
Over the course of three hours, questions were posed to the four candidates, incumbent Marty Fortney and challengers Chris Dangwillo, Mark Tillemans, and Nina Weisman. As expected in Inyo politics, the usual questions asked for their views on how best to deal with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s intransigence on groundwater pumping, sales of real estate, and the recent demolition of the “Hair I Am” building in downtown Independence. It was clear on other questions that complaints on the road closures by the Forestry Service also ranked high on concerns of those present.
Most elections are a referendum on the incumbent; over his or her accomplishments or failures. There was little, if any direct or discernible complaints brought out during the forum by any of the candidates on Fortney’s actions or inactions as Supervisor. If anything, there was surprising level of congeniality and consensus by the candidates on most of the issues. Any significant difference between the candidates appeared over how much more forceful the County can or should be in its dealing with LADWP. Most, but not all of the candidates, also seem to feel there should be greater resistance to state and federal regulations and policies seeking to impose ever more restrictions on public lands, and that more done to protect the economic interests of Inyo County residents.
During the first half of the forum, the following questions were asked:
With the continuing State fiscal crisis, declining revenue bases, and demand for services, it is a challenge to balance the Inyo County budget every year. In view of that, should the City of Bishop continue to receive 30% of the County’s half-cent sales tax, in excess of $300,000? What does the City of Bishop provide to the County in exchange for this funding? What services does the County provide to the City of Bishop in addition to this funding?
Dangwillo stated that he thinks that Bishop should continue to receive the money as it provides services to City and County residents. Weisman gave a brief background of the ½-cent Transactions and Use Tax (TUT). She told the audience that in 1988 the three County Supervisors from the Bishop area would not agree to put the proposal on the ballot unless the ordinance gave the City of Bishop 30% ($523,000 in 2011-City’s share) for public services and programs that benefit residents of both the County and City, including the Bishop City Park and Fire Services. The remaining 70% was to be used throughout the County primarily for solid waste disposal, and if there was any money left over followed by hazardous waste disposal, and the criminal justice system. Weisman feel that it should be reevaluated as TUT revenues have been declining and that not revenue has come in to cover the solid waste program. She noted that for the last six years, money from the general fund has been used to cover the deficiency. Weisman also questioned whether County residents outside of the City, especially the far reaches of the County, benefit from the park and emergency services.
Fortney noted that the TUT ordinance was passed by a mere 2/3rd majority. He also believes that Bishop should continue to receive the funding as it provides services to county residents both in and outside of the city’s borders (including parts of the 4th District) in important areas such as law enforcement and fire protection, as well as maintaining parks within the City used by all county residents and visitors.
Tillemans said the relationship between the City of Bishop and the County in sharing the TUT revenue shows how government can improve services and efficiency to County residents living in the City as well as in surrounding communities. Even so he said, “There should be a reassessment of the services being provided.”
Name your top three priorities for Inyo County. If the fiscal picture worsens in Inyo County, what services would you keep, and what would you let go?
Dangwillo felt that there is too much emphasis on tourism, saying that he feels that “It is not as if visitors will not come here anyway”. He would like to see more focus on those things that benefit County residents. He went on to say that “the County’s economy lacks “sustainability”. He suggested that the local economy would benefit from a portable slaughter house so that cattle raised here, could be sold here. He wondered also about the possibility of local dairy and agricultural products.
Weisman listed public safety, health and public assistance (such as Senior Programs) and education as priorities. She felt that the proposed consolidated County Office building being proposed in Bishop should be looked at very closely and feels that the cost may be unreasonable in this poor economic climate. She also feels that the process should be open, transparent, and that the County’s residents have an understanding and a say in this large undertaking with a full economic comparison of the costs.
She also feels that the County must continue to make a strong case before the California Energy Commission on the Hidden Hills Solar Project to make sure the infrastructure and other expenses imposed on the County are considered. In another area, Weisman suggested looking at the County motor pool for savings and eliminating unnecessary travel, as well as looking at making county buildings as energy efficient as possible.
Fortney listed fiscal responsibility and the importance of basic services provided for those that live, visit and transit our county such as emergency services, clean water, solid waste disposal, building maintenance of county facilities and the Senior citizen meal program. He noted that one-half of the County’s budget comes from state and federal programs but that many are underfunded. He noted that the return of prisoners to county jails by the state will cost the county more and will likely threaten the budget. In the end he said that the buck stops with the Board of Supervisors and that the hard decisions on the budget have to be made.
Tilleman listed fiscal accountability as one priority and that a balanced budget is important. Noting that Inyo County is in better shape than most other counties, he suggested that County staff should provide a priority list of program services for use in decision-making. He also listed water as a priority and that the water agreement should be enforced noting that it is essential to that the County and LADWP have a good working relationship. He also felt that County Supervisors should be accountable and transparent, and that more needs to be done to keep the public informed. Tillemans promised a district newsletter and a district web site, and that he would maintain regular posted office hours so that constituents can meet with him. He also promised to attend as many meetings in the community as possible. He said that more youth services program are needed in Big Pine and throughout the county such as provided by Healthy Communities of Southern Inyo County, which is a beacon of light for the County and should continue to be supported.
The export of resources such as water, electricity, and minerals is both a source of revenue for Inyo County and a detriment to its tourist-based economy. Please describe how you would balance these competing interests.
Dangwillo feels that many of the environmental laws and the water agreement will be difficult to change. He would like to see more mining and a more diverse business environment. If tourism is the only major business to promote, Dangwillo said “let’s just build more hotels and parks for people to visit.”
Weisman noted that while the export of vital resources does bring in a portion of our revenue from royalty payments and property tax. royalty payments from geothermal plants are an unreliable source of revenue due to changing legislation and that we should not rely on it. She said that the state constitution prevents the County from taxing exported resources and that she was concerned that more resource extraction (such as mining or water) could harm the tourism and recreational economy. She strongly feels that tourism needs to be promoted and that services are provided to support it.
Fortney strongly disagreed that the export of resources is detriment to tourism. He noted that visitors come here for many reasons, history and not just nature for example, and that the land should not be locked away from man’s use. He feels that this is our land, not the government’s land and that he promised to continue to fight for access to it. Fortney ended by saying, “No more Wilderness area without a fight!”
Tillemans felt it was a difficult question as he was not sure what the impact of resource extraction has on the county, but he does know that LADWP wants to keep this area rural. He noted the need for more research to guide better decision-making.
The Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) and associated documents govern the relationship between the City of Los Angeles and the County of Inyo. Please assess the success of this relationship, and tell us what you would do differently as a supervisor.
Dangwillo would like to see better attempts at understanding other’s perspectives, noting that many have a very different viewpoint even when looking at the very same thing. He feels that the LTWA needs teeth to it and that it would help to avoid the possibility of litigation if it did. He feels that there should be compensation put into the agreement for failure to meet the requirements stated in the agreement. “Over-pumping of water is clearly detrimental to the environment and to wildlife,” Dangwillo said, and that “Some may have died from the agreement not being followed.”
Weisman wants to take stronger action to enforce the LTWA and said that it is a legally binding document that needs to be upheld. She noted that there has been little movement on major disagreements and that the methods outlined in the Long Term Water Agreement for resolving disagreements must be used: Negotiations, and then mediation, and then if nothing is resolved, take it to the Superior Court. She feels strongly that the agreement has become almost ineffective and that she as Supervisor would work to strengthen it.
Fortney noted that the LTWA and the Green Book have been instrumental in resolving many disagreements and that they are continually evolving to meet new challenges. The Green Book, he noted, is undergoing revisions. He said that unfortunately delays, foot-dragging and denial of issues are common with LADWP but that it is not only their fault as the County’s Water Department has not always worked diligently or in a timely manner to complete studies. He said that as Supervisor, he encourages both sides to work together. “We should remember,” said Fortney, “that the DWP is only here to export water to Los Angeles and that the County must continue to insure that DWP reduces the drying of areas and realize the importance of re-greening projects.
“Over-pumping and other issues are a matter of concern and better communication is needed,” said Fortney. “We must remember that LADWP is in the business of exporting water. We have to recognize that and do what we can to work with them to limit damage to our environment. And we, the Board of Supervisors, need to be more diligent when working with DWP.”
Tillemans stated that, “The LADWP is very good at what they do– for the City of Los Angeles, which often and obviously conflicts with how we feel that they have treated our environment.” He feels that it has been a bad relationship, but one that we must work to repair and improve. “It is taking too long for the release 75 acres of land they promised to release and it needs to be sold at reasonable prices,” says Tillemans, going on to say, “I support an aggressive approach and I advocate upholding the LTWA. At the same time we need to realize there will be a need for reassessment of the agreement involving all stakeholders should be done in the future.”
Openness and ethics are principles of government. Please describe what the Brown Act is and how you would comply with it? What kind of relationships do you have that might be a conflict of interest, and how will you deal with these?
Dangwillo said the Brown Act insures that the public is kept aware of all public matters and that public business is out in the open with only limited exceptions. He said the point of the Act is to avoid conflicts of interest. He promised that, if ever found in a position with other Supervisors, that would violate the law; he would walk out of the meeting and go directly to the District Attorney to report it. Dangwillo declared that he has no conflict of interest whatsoever with any agencies or entities that might do business with the County.
Weisman explained that the Brown Act was enacted in 1953 to prevent backdoor deals and that it prevents items from suddenly being added to a meeting agenda without proper notification to the public. She went on to say that there must also be a quorum in order to conduct business or have discussions, and that only items on the agenda can be addressed.
While she could not think of any conflict of interests that she might have with any of the agencies or groups that have dealings with the County, Weisman noted that, if something ever were to come up, she would recuse herself.
Fortney stated that the Brown Act was an attempt at transparency in government. He feels that it is a good law, but that unfortunately the Governor and state legislators who wrote the law exempted themselves from it. He noted that “It is a way of life if you work in government here in California and you learn to live with it. He went on to say that, “If I have a concern that I might have a conflict of interest, I consult with the County District Attorney. In one instance, I resigned from the Friends of Mt. Whitney Fish Hatchery when I won election as the 4th District County Supervisor as the Hatchery receives grants from the County. More recently I recused myself on a Board of Equalization issue on which I had prior knowledge.”
Tillemans told those gathered that the Brown Act insures that the public is a partner in the public process. He said that “Having been born here, I have deep roots here. I do have family that works for DWP as well as for the County and the Big Pine Tribe. If necessary, I will reduce my role with tribe.” He went on to say that he was not aware of any issues with tribe and that in a small county such as Inyo County; it is not unusual to have relationships. Simply having personal relationships does not mean there is a conflict of interest. He stated that he understood the laws and that he will abide by them.
Other questions were asked of the candidates from the cards filled out by the audience and following are some of the responses:
All the candidates expressed concern about the demolition of the hair shop in Independence by LADWP despite knowing that it was designated as a historic building. Weisman would like to see some legal action taken. According to Fortney the DWP found an obscure state law which exempted municipalities from having to obtain demolition permits on their own building. Even so he is looking for a better excuse from them as to why this was allowed to happen. Tillemans proposed elevated talks with DWP even if it meant going down to Los Angeles to meet with officials higher up in LADWP’s administration or even the City of Los Angeles itself. And if all else fails, pursuing legal action.
The candidates were also asked questions on the sale of 75 acres of land that was supposed to be released by LADWP. Most felt many of the parcels were overpriced and many parcels were undesirable. It was noted that none of the business buildings located on Main Street in Independence were offered.
According to Fortney, LADWP is in the water business, not land sales. They have to sell the 75 acres before they can sell more, but as he stated, “They continue to balk, delay, drag feet, and have more excuses than Carter has pills.” Tilleman noted that timing is everything and hopefully the recent change in local leadership at LADWP might provide an opportunity for a better relationship.” We need to be unified on these issues whether on water or land sales issues,” said Tillemans.
Dangwillo suggest that eminent domain laws be used to force DWP to sell the business properties, although he does not particularly like the idea of eminent domain laws as he feels it is “un-American”. Weisman says that living in Independence and seeing the empty, dilapidated stores , she thinks about this issue a lot. She suggested that is might be helpful to develop better relationship with higher-ups and possibly start attending LADWP commission meeting and have meetings with city councilmen in Los Angeles. She feels that they may really have no idea of what is occurring in Inyo County and of its concerns.
Most of the candidates appeared to be generally supportive of the Adventure Trails Program, which will be first implemented in the Independence area. Fortney said that he has worked with the local committee in Independence to draft the route and that he attributed the legislation’s success to Supervisors Arcularius and Cash, who strongly supported it. Dangwillo did not feel that OHV use or any attendant tourism that came from it needed to be promoted as “people will come here anyway.”
Tillemans also supports the idea of the Adventure Trails Program, although cautioning that it must be closely monitored for safety and to prevent abuse of sensitive areas. He said he did not like to see or hear about local residents being harassed or ticketed by law enforcement just for driving their ATVs short distances from their homes to their favorite trails. Weisman noted that, as the plan is starting in Independence, it should be monitored carefully to insure that it does not harm the environment, and that it does improve local economies and businesses.
Overall the candidates’ forum was informative and the candidates generally acquitted themselves well. The tone in general was moderate, if not mutually respectful. A few eyebrows were raised by the candid; some would call them “entertaining” remarks made by candidate Chris Dangwillo on multiculturalism, the importance of having Manzanar National Historic Site in the County, and his solution to road restrictions and closings in the forest under the Travel Management Plan. His views, to which he is entitled, did make the forum far more interesting than it might have been otherwise.
Weisman felt the process used in the Travel Management Plane was fair and open in allowing for public comment. Fortney noted that a large amount of the designated wilderness was done under a Presidential action and he hoped that its legality would someday be challenged.
Most attending the forum felt that it was done well and that the candidates overall did a fine job in addressing the issues presented to them. Whether or not any minds were changed during the evening on who to vote for is unclear. The candidates shared many of the same values and remedies, but tonight at least many issues and the candidates’ positions on them were publically declared.