4th District County Supervisors’ Forum Held in Big Pine
By Charles James
About four dozen local residents attended the 4th District County Supervisor candidates’ forum hosted by the Big Pine Civic Club last Monday, September 24, at the Big Pine Town Hall. Civic Club President Rick Fields welcomed everyone and introduced the two candidates, current Supervisor Marty Fortney and challenger Mark Tillemans.
Fields explained to the audience that the forum would have two parts: The first part was to be the opening statements by both candidates, followed by answers to prepared questions that they received well beforehand, and the second part would be to answer questions from the audience.
In scenes that in many ways typify Inyo County, both candidates before, during, and after the forum, were in the crowd meeting, greeting, shaking hands, and even sharing a laugh or even a hug with many of those in attendance. Both appeared to be generally well-known and well-liked in Big Pine.
After opening statements from both candidates during which they gave their family history and background on their current and past experiences, as well as what each felt was his qualifications, the prepared questions were asked and the answers given.
Part 1: Given the challenges of the County’s budget, should the City of Bishop continue to receive 30% of the County’s half-cent sales tax? (Transactions and Use Tax) What services does the City provide to the County and what services does the County provide to the City of Bishop in addition to this funding?
Tillemans said that the relationship between the City of Bishop and the County offers an example of how government can improve both its public service and efficiency; just as relationships with the tribes and the county need improvement in working with BLM, the Forest Service, and DWP, so it is with the relationship between the City and the County. Taxes are necessary and useful, and debt should be incurred judiciously; both used only for the purposes for which acquired, with transparency and accountability.
Tillemans went on to say that we need to tailor the County budget over the next few years to anticipate the possibility of a further contraction of the economy. The Transactional Use Tax (TUT) has an important role in providing services to the County and especially for many of the residents of the 4th District through law enforcement, fire protection, and uses of the Bishop City Park. County programs and services should be cost-efficient, service-friendly, and prioritized.
Fortney gave a brief history of the TUT tax, noting that the amount given to the City of Bishop was $523,000 for the fiscal year 2011 and the tax was passed by a 2/3rds majority. He stated that the Bishop City Council said the money would be used for Park, Fire and Police Services, going on to note that the City provides emergency services to the entire north end of county which encompasses one-third of the 4th District and that they also provide mutual aid to the entire county. The Bishop Police Department, he said, does a good job within its city limits and with an estimated 80% of crime occurring in the Bishop Area and that many officers reside in the 4th District.
He went on to say that the County provides all of the same services to the City of Bishop as to the rest of the county and that the people of Bishop are entitled to the same services as any county resident. He finished by saying that the County once again provided a balanced budget for this next fiscal year.
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?
Fortney listed his priorities as fiscal responsibility, insuring basic services are continued to be provided to live, visit, and transit our county are safe, which include, but are not limited to: emergency services; fire protection; law enforcement; clean, safe potable water; solid waste disposal; maintenance to county buildings to prevent catastrophic expenditures, and his biggest priority– the Senior Meals Program.
Noting that nearly one-half of County funds come from state and federal programs–and funding can be uncertain, Fortney said that many programs are already underfunded, state and federally mandated programs, citing as an example the return of prison inmates to County jails with long-term sentences which may end up costing the County a lot of money. In the end, he says, the Board of Supervisor can make recommendations on cuts but it is the department heads that best make recommendations as to where to make them with the least impact to citizens– and often reductions are only temporary. The Board makes the final decision.
Fortney stressed the increasing importance of working with elected officials at state and federal level to exempt and protect rural counties such as Inyo County from cutbacks where possible. These relationships take time to develop and to earn trust and he believes that he has done well in this regard. It is, he says, the reason he has earned the endorsements of Inyo County’s State Senator and Assemblywoman.
Tillemans said his first priority was a balanced budget, which should always be a priority. He noted that the County departments have done a wonderful job and that Inyo staff has not been praised enough. County Supervisors taking credit is a blow to their morale.
His second priority is water and the effect that exporting so much of it to L.A. has on our environment; noting that the County must oversee the process of the long-term water agreement with great detail and persistence. His third priority was Green energy, which he feels must be a priority while ensuring that the county does not end up being a “glass mirror”. No one wants mirrors or wind turbines ruining our viewscape.
Tillemans said there’s no reason to let go of any of the current services provided by the county, but that they be should provided more effectively. He will add services when the opportunity arises, but many services are critical, such as public safety, law enforcement, fire, and senior services. An increase in youth services are also badly needed in Big Pine such as those provided by Healthy Communities of Lo Inyo which he described as a “beacon of light” that should continue to be supported and modeled in our northern part of the county. Our county parks should be a hub of summer activity and opportunity for our youth.
He went on to say that keeping our constituents informed is very important and he would provide a quarterly newsletter and that while posting Board minutes on the county website is a great service, he feels more needs to be done to keep the public informed and promised to do so.
The Long Term Water Agreement (LTWA) and associated documents govern the relation between the City of Los Angeles and the County. Assess the success of this relationship and what would you do differently as Supervisor?
Tillemans noted that the DWP is in the business of exporting water…and that they are very good at it– for the City of L.A., but it conflicts with how we feel they have treated our environment. Describing the relationship as “rocky”, he said we must to positive outcomes and that the County has taken “too soft a position sometimes”. He would be firm with DWP and advocated upholding the current LTWA,however a reassessment should always be of serious consideration.
Fortney felt the LTWA and Green Book (GB) have been useful in creating dialogue and resolution to disagreements, and while not perfect, they are ever-evolving. The GB is currently revision by DWP and has since been he first took office in 2008. Delays, feet-dragging, and denial of issues typify DWP, however the County Water Department has also been guilty for not always being diligent or timely in completing studies. He said that he encourages both sides to resolve issues rather than delaying them. The County and DWP need to work together to resolve land issues as well.
Fortney said he was instrumental in the Board contesting last year’s pumping plan when DWP disagreed with the County study because it used “newer software” than was used by DWP, going on to describe several instances of over-pumping, noting the obvious drying created by DWP’s actions at several locations throughout the County.
Re-greening projects under the Enhancement and Mitigation Project, i.e. the EM memorandum, in Big Pine and Independence he notes, also have value; however the end result has been DWP exporting water from other areas as make-up for lost exported water. He does not want to see further delays, finishing by saying that DWP is not here for anything other than to export water to Los Angeles; that it is in their city charter that they will not give away any water or water rights. The County and Board of Supervisors needs to be increasingly diligent when working with DWP.
Openness and ethics are principles of government. 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?
Fortney explained that the Brown Act is an attempt at transparency in the government process that only applies to local governments, districts, and other boards doing the people’s business. It is a fact of life in public service and that he has for many years had to follow it since first serving on the Fish & Game Advisory Commission.
On conflict of interest, Fortney told the audience that whenever he feels there is a possibility or potential for a conflict of interest, he discusses the issue with County Counsel and makes a decision from there. If there is a possible conflict, he will recuse himself.
Tillemans said that the Brown Act insures that the public business is conducted in public and that it is a minimum standard for public openness and transparency with the public a partner in the decision-making process. He is fully aware of the guidelines and the importance of keeping the integrity of this act to the fullest.
On conflict of interest, Tillemans talked of his “deep roots here”, that he has a “spiritual connection” to the area, and that he cares deeply about making sure this land is protected. He acknowledged that he has family and friends that work with the County, BLM, DWP, and the Forest Service– which is part of what it is like to live in a small town. He noted that he works for the Big Pine Development Corporation and that he has no assurances that he will continue to work for them if elected; however, he notes, if he does it will be in a reduced role to oversee the development of the Travel Plaza Project and that he was not aware of a single issue that has ever been addressed by the Board of Supervisors during the last term or ever had at the historic level that would have presented a conflict of interest.
He finished by saying that he has grown up here, attended school here, and has been a part of the community, playing sports in his youth, and then as an adult volunteering, tutoring, coaching, and mentoring local kids. Anyone that knows him, he said, knows him to be ethical and fair. Becoming a new County Supervisor would not change him. He stated that he fully understands the laws of conflict of interest and recusal and promised that he would strictly abide by them.
A short intermission allowed those attending to enjoy refreshments and to give the candidates a brief break as well. The second part of the candidates’ forum is the most interesting as the questions come directly from those attending. These questions are not known in advance and the answers are far less likely to be scripted and reflect a localized community issue or concern.
Part 2: What are you doing to promote business in Big Pine and Independence? Main Streets are empty.
Fortney answered that he has been working on continuing to insure that the County has put into the annual budget the Grants and Support Program, which provides funding to valuable organizations, including local Chambers of Commerce, to promote business throughout the county, although sadly there is not a currently a chamber of commerce in Big Pine. He constantly talks to business people, noting that Independence for example, does not have a grocery store. He is talking to people there about getting one and a local foundation out of Lone Pine is offering to help with establishing a farmer’s market, which at least moves the community closer than where it is at now.
Saying that he is a business owner himself, Fortney stated that he knows that it is often difficult to just stay in business in this current economy and that it doesn’t help that the state keeps changing codes and adding fees. He encourages other business owners to not give up. Noting that county funds are tax dollars, it is the best that can be done to continue with the Grants and Support Program.
Tillemans he said that the lack of economic development is among one of our biggest concerns and that it is heartbreaking to see empty buildings that become eyesores, although he complimented Caltrans on doing a great job with their improvement projects– and those efforts need to be continued. He said funding needs to be put into volunteer work to improve the facades on the empty store fronts such as done with the Crafters Mall in Bishop. Working with building owners can help to make empty storefronts more appealing.
Regarding stimulating the economy, Tillemans felt the Travel Plaza that he is working on is a key piece in finding a reason for people to stop here in Big Pine and to let visitors know what we have to offer locally. He has been talking to local business owners about how the Travel Plaza project can benefit them and that success is building relationships and promoting all businesses. He noted that Big Pine could use another eatery in town that provides good, healthy deli-style food so he and others have been talking to Matt Toomey, the renowned chef of the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobile Gas Station in Lee Vining, about bringing that concept further down the 395 corridor. Also, perhaps even the Glacier Lodge could become a key piece as well that could be better promoted to hikers, fishermen, and campers.
Tillemans feels that it is important to keep the county seat in Independence as it is a main source of revenue for businesses there, as are the tourists stopping there.
Why is the County Farm drying up?
Tillemans confessed that he did not know the exact water rights issues involved, but the contour of the land is a problem– being elevated, rocky– with water that sinks quickly. He noted there is not a lot of efficient ditching for irrigation; it is mostly flooding irrigation, which in a drought year is difficult when the DWP limits runoff. He says the county can and should do more by mobilizing resources such as finding some money to dig ditches, and using volunteers to help dig efficient ditches. Yet another idea, he said, is to work with the elevation to put in some gravity-based sprinkler systems to hit the lower part that is drying out.
Fortney noted that the County Farm has been a “tough nut to crack” ever since he has been on the Board and it is coming to a head. He had been admonished by County Counsel on this very day to be careful not to say too much about it, but the County is looking into the water rights issues for the property. He has been working on how to make things easier for the lessee, who for thirty years has been doing a fabulous job. Unfortunately, he noted, the lessee has been using a large amount of water (19 acre feet per year) to irrigate the property, whereas the average user uses an average of only 5 acre feet of water per year. Simply put, there is not enough water coming down Baker Creek this year.
Fortney noted that this is one of the driest years that we have had in a long time and having spoken to ranchers up and down the valley, he knows that they are all suffering as well.
Unfortunately, he said the land up at the County Farm is a big rock pile on a slope and it is not easy to move water around. The County Water Department and the Public Works Department have been working together to find solutions, but while DWP is the one cutting back on the water, the drought is the real story. He shared that when he found trees dying, he spoke to the CAO about it, and Public Works went out and tapped into the well at the Animal Shelter, running about 300 yards of garden hose to keep them alive. He apologized for not being able to provide more specifics on what the County is doing.
What have you accomplished for Big Pine and what changes would you like to see going forward?
Fortney said that he is proud of playing a key role in the establishment of the Big Pine Fire Safe Council, which includes Independence. It is huge and it is making our communities far safer. Being in charge on the fire line at the trailer park during the Center Fire, he had to make the tough call to allow some houses to burn to save the lives of his fire crew. It was a position that he never wanted to find himself ever again. He was happy to note that because of the Fire Safe Council, DWP and CalFire have been working around Big Pine to reduce fire hazards by mowing grass in fields and removing “slash” (debris) to the County Gravel Pit. As a member of the fire department, an EMT, and fire captain, he noted that he has worked for this community for many years; this is the community where he grew up and this is the community that he loves.
Tillemans applauded Fortney’s efforts with the Fire Safe Council and his acknowledgment of all the people involved. While he has not been able to be a part of it because of other commitments, he has many close friends on the Fire Safe Council, and as Supervisor he will do everything to support it.
While he did not want in any way to minimize the importance of fire services, he feels the election is about vision in the future– and all the things that we need to do with our youth. For seven years he has played a great part with community youth through the high school football program, creating relationships with almost every kid in town and their parents. Tillemans noted that a lot goes along with coaching, such as coming to know many of the families and the many issues that they are having.
As the education director for the Big Pine Education Center, he feels that they have leveraged their resources to benefit all of the community; noting that they are the only Indian Education Center in the state offering services to the entire community. Those leveraged resources have allowed them to fund and place tutors in elementary classrooms. They have used that leveraging to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the tribe and the community, and they have been bringing everyone together. He would take that experience to the County and to the table at the Board of Supervisors meeting. He wants to address concerns of all citizens and bring all the tribes and communities together in the County to the benefit of all.
Tillemans said that he has helped bring six new jobs through the health and wellness program. The old tribal casino is now the new Wellness Center and it is open to everyone. He further reminded everyone that the Travel Plaza Project will bring many more jobs and give visitors to the area a reason to stop in Big Pine, which in turn will improve the outlook for all local businesses. Referring again to the lack of youth programs at the park and other things; he reminded the audience of his long history and success in developing those types of programs, while also stressing the need to engage seniors, and lauded the new expeditionary learning curriculum at the Big Pine School. He said that more of these things should be happening to bring improvements to our communities.
What will happen to the property where the old (Big Pine) care center was?
Tillemans said he hoped something will be done so that it would not continue to sit there unused. As Supervisor he would definitely be pushing to get “something” done. Noting that the first thing is to have the water rights issues settled, and have that followed by a feasibility study to see what types of projects might be possible by asking questions such as “Which ones will generate revenue and which won’t?” as well as “What is the biggest need?” He stated that “We shouldn’t have a slaughter house such as proposed by one of the other county supervisors.” Noting that a new animal shelter was pushed a lot, he said that we might want to team up with another organization to make it happen. It is clear that something needs to be done; it has been sitting unused for far too long.
Fortney began by saying “I was not one of those supervisors that put out the proposal for the slaughter house!” which prompted laughter and applause. His view is that the animal shelter is in atrocious condition and the Board of Supervisors is absolutely embarrassed about the condition of that animal shelter. He said we have to ask ourselves this question: “Do we put the money out there and lay off employees that are taking care of your roads and your health and human services to rebuild it right now… or keep looking into it in the future and nothing ever gets done?”
The Financial Committee for the County has been looking at how to fund it, but he is not clear on what they have come up with or even that they have made a final determination. Fortney’s vision is to build the new animal shelter on the site of the old care center, making it big enough that it can house the animals safely and humanely, but that it does not need a vet hospital as we already have plenty of very good veterinarians on call in our area with their own care clinics.
Fortney said that there is also plenty of property up there to provide the County with storage space that it needs as well– noting that the Sheriff’s Department needs more storage and that no doubt many had heard of the “pesticide palace” that our County Agriculture Commissioner wants to build so that he has a place to house his equipment. The property can be used by the County for its needs and he doesn’t think it would cost too much to build a Butler building to take care of those needs. He said that this cannot go on year-after- year. His view is that when the county owns property that it cannot use or maintain– it needs to relinquish that property and sell it to the public.
He doesn’t agree that the County Farm property is the proper place to sell for another home tract division. Again, his vision is to build the new animal shelter in front where the old care center used to be.
And the last question from the audience: How would you as district supervisor handle a situation where special favors are being asked such as with county employees and supervisor/managers who are not following proper protocol?
Fortney said that County Supervisors do not have the day-to-day supervision over county employees and that is the job of the department heads, as well as the managers working under them. If there is something untoward going on, he would be upset to hear it, but department heads and staff should be taking care of these problems long before they come to the attention of the Board of Supervisors.
Tillemans agreed that it is job of managers and directors to address subordinate personnel problems and issues, but it could be something that the Board might have to address if something very serious or involves a department head. He noted that in small towns things can often get blown out of proportion, so depending on the seriousness of the situation would dictate how or when you would bet involved with it.
This ended the first candidates’ forum in the 4th District. The next 4th District forum is scheduled in Independence on Monday, October 8, 2012, at 6:30 PM in the Owens Valley School Multipurpose Room. There will be new questions and the County Supervisor candidates will be joined by those running for the Owens Valley School Board of Trustees.
Candidates Forums are useful for voters that otherwise do not know the candidates, the issues, or have yet to make up their minds on how they will vote. Both candidates have expressed a willingness to meet or speak with anyone who wishes to do so, on any matter or issue related to the election.
Supervisor Marty Fortney can be reached at home at (760) 938-2662 or by cell at (760) 258-6817. His email address is: MFortney@inyocounty.us. Candidate Mark Tillemans can be reached at (760) 263-4075, or email at: voteTillemans@gmail.com.