5th District Inyo Candidates: Issues of water, money, economic development

5thdistrict

Inyo 5th District Supervisor candidates with moderator Rose Masters of Independence.

5th District County Supervisor Candidates Forum
By Charles James
13 May 2012

On Tuesday night, May 8, the three candidates for 5th District County Supervisor, current supervisor Richard Cervantes, and contenders Jim Gentry, and Matt Kingsley, met in a candidates’ forum hosted by the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce at Statham Hall. Assisting the chamber with the event was Independence Civics Club members Mary Roper, Nancy Masters, moderator Rose Masters, and timer Annette Wood. The event was attended by over 100 interested voters and supporters.

During the introductions, Cervantes touted his accomplishments and concerns as the 5th District Supervisor over the past eight years. He noted that there are continuing issues with the City of Los Angeles with ever more purchases of land within the County and the 1,200 miles of road and trail closures by the Forestry Service. With the pending closures by BLM in the Mojave Desert, and then the addition of the 420,000 acres of declared Wilderness Area that is now closed to motorized entry, regulatory excess has brought about the death of mining in Inyo County.

He also made the argument that the other candidates had potential “conflicts of interest” based on their past and current employment, i.e. Kingsley’s past with the Forest Service and Gentry’s current employment and pending retirement with LADWP at the end of the year. According to Cervantes, this poses future problems if one were to be elected as County Supervisor. “To add insult to injury,” he said, “Isn’t this the fox guarding the henhouse?”

audienceThe poet William Blake wrote in the Auguries of Innocence that paradoxically, “A truth told with bad intent, is worth all the lies you can invent.” If so, then the look on the faces of the two candidates awaiting their turn at the podium suggested that they likely agreed with Blake’s pronouncement and would clearly be responding.

The questioning of the candidates and their responses followed.

How have you served the citizens of the 5th district? Please describe your community involvement.

Gentry told the crowd, “I served on the school board for 18 years. We remodeled the school while I was there and saved over $3 million in a special reserve to keep teachers from being laid off. We also added two new libraries and a new technology center.” He also mentioned serving as one of the first volunteers with Southern Sierra Ambulance System and that he served as Fire Commissioner and that he has done a lot of behind the scene work in the community.

Cervantes reminded the audience that, “I have served as your 5th District Supervisor for the past 8 years” and then went on to add, “I am also active in community service. I am the current District Chairman of the Boy Scouts of Southern Sierra Council; a member of  the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce;  the Lone Pine Airport Advisory; Past-President of the Lone Pine Lions Club; Southern Inyo Hospital Auxiliary; past-member of the Inyo County Grand Jury; past-President of AARP (and I am dedicated to making sure our Senior Lunch Program continues); member of Great Basin Governing Board; member of Armargosa Conservancy; and I contribute a lot of my time and support to local projects including the film festival, film museum, FFA, Wild West Marathon, Lone Pine Fish Derby”. He went on to list a few other affiliations, accomplishments and his concerns over possible Post Office closures.”

Kingsley wanted to make two points, the first being that it is easy to join a bunch of organizations and then say, “Look at my involvement”. He noted that it takes much more to be involved and provide leadership and to be actively involved in the goals of that group. He went on to say that he tries to be more than just a member of groups with whom he is associated.  His second point Kingsley made was “I think it is the job of the County Supervisor to be actively engaged in all types of community groups and efforts such as schools, hospitals, local fire departments, emergency services, and other community efforts like our swimming pool, fire safety council, and supporting our youth not just in Lone Pine but all the communities within the district.”

According to Kingsley he has been a member of the Lions Club for twelve years and served as its president in 2007 and is the current president. In Lions he focused on building handicapped ramps, eyeglasses and vision testing for needy local residents, and organized numerous fund raisers through the Lions Club for other non-profit groups including the Mural Society, the pool, and the electronic message board at the school. He has been a commissioner for the Lone Pine Volunteer Fire Department for 18 years and under Chief Kritz, they took over the ambulance service. He is also chairman of the Lone Pine Fire Safe Council and it is one of the most successful. He has coached basketball at the high school for twenty-two years. Kingsley was elected to the school board in 2007 and he has served as the board president for the past year and a half. Lastly I was recognized by the Inyo Register as part of their 2011 Citizen of the Year Awards for his longstanding commitment to community involvement.

With its strong tax base, availability of private developable land, lesser control by DWP, and unique visitor attractions, southern District 5 has the potential for economic growth and a sustainable community. Despite these positive factors, it continues to decline and is lacking a vision. What is your vision and how do you intend to realize it?

Cervantes stated that the 5th District generates 60% of the revenue for the County of Inyo and that there is private developable land with water in Olancha-Cartago area. He felt the area was a great place for the manufacture of solar panels that possibly DWP could purchase for their solar ranch project– if ever built.  He said that the extreme Southeast part of the County of Charleston View and Tacopa-Shoshone has the largest amount of private land in the county and that Bright Source Energy planning a billion and a half solar generation plant. Its construction will employ 1,000 workers and up to 120 permanent jobs to do the maintenance. He also noted  that the Catholic Church is building a mission multi-million dollar project and some limited housing in Charleston View along with a columbarium (a place to store people’s ashes in a green, park-like setting). He felt there is still a possibility that land belonging to a Filipino group in Nevada will someday be used for housing for people that work in Las Vegas.

Kingsley noted that he looks forward to visiting the new columbarium as well, just hopefully in an upright position. He went on to say that after meeting with people in the communities of the 5th District, he did not entirely agree with the negative characterization posed in the question of a district in decline. He believes there is a lot of potential economic growth possible. He noted that the recently completed Eastern Sierra Economic Assessment Report identified a number of opportunities such as specialized recreation events, expansion of the broadband network, regional food systems, small scale agriculture and appropriately sited renewable energy production and transmission. It is also important to promote, expand and invest in what is already working. Tourism, recreation and our natural attractions are working. He feels that leaders need to also be supportive and protective of our other tax-revenue streams including mining, agriculture, energy production, and light industries.

Wrapping up Kingsley said “We need leaders that can build relationships and change the Inyo County mind-set from being a speed bump for businesses, residents and entrepreneurs to become a support and information system. With good planning, local participation, involved leadership, sustainable and suitable development will benefit specific regions and the county as a whole is possible. Plans like the Lower Owens Recreation Project recreation plan, combined with the ideas in the Assessment Report, given committed leader, will make a difference.”

As Gentry took the podium, he observed that “It is interesting to me that with all that vision and all that thought that Richard had, he hasn’t done anything about anything in the 8 years.” He went on to stress that it is important to “streamline, streamline, streamline.” He feels that it is government’s role to streamline processes and make things easier for entrepreneurs, businesses, and others to invest and develop business and economic opportunity– not the government.  According to Gentry, “My vision is that you help people who want to do something for us. It is not up to government to do it.”

The current Board of Supervisors is working on and considering going forward with a new county building in Bishop at the estimated cost of approximately $15 million . What is your position on the taxpayer expenditure and why?
“The idea of a consolidated office space that is county-owned rather than paying a half-million dollars in rent to out of town landlords has some appeal,” said Kingsley. “The potential savings in utilities and personnel could make it viable, but it must not increase the financial burden to taxpayer calculated over a reasonable period of time, but not 50 years. The new office must accommodate only county employees that provide services to the Bishop area with no extra offices or dual office spaces. My experience with employees with two offices is that they never seem to be in either one. Any savings should be redirected to parts of the county that are underserved like the 5th District.”

An idea that Kingsley floated was that he felt the County should look into a modular county center built on County property for a couple of million dollars similar to the idea first proposed by the Superior Court judges as an alternative for court services in Independence after the decision had been made to build the new courthouse in Bishop.

Gentry said, “No additional taxes. The County is balancing their budget by eliminating some County positions and I agree with Matt that we do not need two offices for most employees.  No, I don’t want to spend $15 million, but if we are already spending all this money for rent, you don’t rent when you can own. There is never a good time to buy stuff but this might be the best time to do it.”

“The defining issue of our times is debt, massive debt from the White House to the state house we are drowning in red ink,” said Cervantes, noting that California is essentially bankrupt as is the City of Los Angeles. He said, “You’ve heard it said that timing is everything? Well this is the perfect time not to go into debt.” He went on to say that the County cannot afford it, does not have to money to build it, and want to borrow the money to make it happen. “You only have to look to the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” said Cervantes, “a ‘mammoth debt’ would turn us over in a heartbeat.” He stated unequivocally that he is against the new consolidated County building in Bishop. Quoting Shakespeare, he ended his comments by saying, “Neither a borrower or lender be.”

The largest share of tax dollars comes from the 5th District via the Death Valley resorts and the Coso Junction Geothermal plant. What can you do to see that a fair share of that tax revenue is spent on services and improvements in the 5th District?

The audience laughed after Gentry said, “Well the first thing to do would be to elect two new Supervisors down here, but I don’t think that is going to happen.” He went on to say that the most important thing is to insure a fair balance of services and that whatever we can get; he promised that the people of the 5th District will get whatever is available for down here. He ended by saying, “I think I can do more than the one you have had here.”

Cervantes believes that County dollars and basic services are provided equitably and equally throughout the communities of the Inyo County. He said, “Some of my biggest battles have been to get our share; a recent example being the $5.6 million for Lone Pine, Keeler, Olancha, and Cartago, to install over 130 modern wood stoves at no charge to the people.”

Kingsley said he was not sure that he agrees with some of the facts in this question that 45% of Inyo County’s property taxes currently come from 2 sources: LADWP and Coso Geothermal. He noted that there is mining, agriculture, the water bottling plant, and the substantial funds from the TUT from Death Valley which contribute significantly also.” He stated that one of the problems is decisions such as where to apply the road maintenance funds and that they should not be “political” or “pork barrel” fights, but rather  be part of a multi-year plan that looks at many factors such as use, condition, and interval since last maintained . Kingsley said, “That model should be applied to as many allocations as possible to maintain infrastructure in a methodical and efficient approach.”

According to Kingsley, the real answer to fair sharing of tax revenue is leadership that can build relationships and trust among the supervisors. “Simply being out-voted and claiming victimization is not a strategy that works,” he said, adding that “The supervisors can get along and make good decisions that benefit the County as a whole– and that is the model that I will pursue.”

County ordinance 271 says that County employees must disclose any affiliation with such entities as DWP and the Forest Service. Do you have any of these conflicts? How would you handle any conflicts of interest that you have when it comes time to vote?

Cervantes said the he did not make any accusations against his my opponents that they have a conflict of interest, but noted that voters chose to have DWP, Forest Service and others mentioned in the ordinance is because they have a stranglehold on the County with 98.5% of the jobs, land, and water. He said “We should not tighten the noose.”

He then gave an example of a “fictitious” retired DWP employee who might become a supervisor and who receives a retirement check each month from the City of Los Angeles. Litigation comes before the board involving the DWP. The retired DWP worker, now a Supervisor, has only two choices. He can recuse himself or vote anyway. Either way it is a “no-win” for the 5th District according to Cervantes, who says, “By not voting the 5th District has no voice. By voting he opens the County up to a conflict of interest action by anybody.” He said the same issue applied similarly to the former Forest Service using another example.

Kingsley handed out copies of ordinance 271, pointing out to the audience that it was not a conflict of interest ordinance but a declaration ordinance and that he did not have any conflict of interest. He said the issue was a smokescreen by Cervantes. He acknowledged that, yes, he receives a pension check from his retirement 5 years ago, but it does not come from the Forest Service, it comes from a pension fund. He went on to say, “The ordinance is not designed to prevent candidates from running.”  He added that he would consult with the County District Attorney whenever there was the possibility or question of a conflict of interest, and if there was found to be one, he would recuse himself from the discussion and vote.

Gentry stated, “No conflict of interest. I think I told everyone that I was retiring at the end of this year. I will receive a retirement check but it is not from the City of Los Angeles, it from a completely separate pension fund such as Matt was talking about. The big issue here is the supervisor that is in place now. He tried to attack two people running against him because he couldn’t run on his own merit.”

“We have two county supervisors right now that have a conflict of interest with DWP,” said Gentry, “but they have led the fight against Water and Power on a lot of issues. I admire them greatly because they are land leasers from the department. They are good people. And they’ve work hard on the issues. Even as a DWP employee, I am not the guy who would necessarily be on Water and Power’s side. ”

After a ten-minute break, the questioning resumed, this time with questions from the audience:

What good deeds and services have DWP, BLM and Forest Service accomplished in and for Inyo County and what is your opinion?

“Our relationship with DWP is complex,” Said Kingsley, “There are things that DWP does for the valley that are good, such as the Sports Complex here in Lone Pine that DWP put in. They do all kinds of community service things many of which are done to improve their image, but they do good things.” He noted that thanks to DWP we have a lot of open land that might not be open if privately owned.

As for the BLM and the Forest Service, Kingsley noted that they are federal agencies and their mission isn’t to do good deeds. There may some spinoffs from their jobs. Later Kingsley remembered that one good thing both agencies provide is fire protection.

“The City of Los Angeles has delivered on many projects that have benefitted the people that live here,” said Cervantes, “but keep in mind that they have a vested interest in doing so. Remember the sole purpose of the City of Los Angeles is take water from this valley and deliver it to the City. He appreciates all that DWP does and he works with them regularly on Owens Lake Project for the draft master plan for the lake for such issues as dust mitigation. He also sits on Great Basin governing board which he says is the opposite of DWP. Giving them credit, Cervantes said that they have reduced air-borne particulate matter by about 92%. Having said that, the only reason they have done that is they were ordered to do so by a court and lawsuit after lawsuit after lawsuit. When dealing with DWP, you’d better have a dozen lawyers in your pocket.”

“Obviously they gave me a job! And quite a few of my friends as well!,” said an unrepentant Gentry. He went on to say,”The Sports Complex comes to mind, but most of it comes from the employees of DWP.  We have a good power unit here in Lone Pine, changing lights at the ball field I don’t know how many times. I agree with Richard on one thing and that is their prime objective is to get the water down to L.A. – that’s what they bought the land for– that’s what they are going to do. They have tried to be good stewards by leasing land back to most of the ranchers; they don’t have to put a whole bunch of water back on the lake, and other things.” He admitted he was going to say something that some in the audience would likely not want to hear from a candidate for Supervisor. It is that they have kept the area place small…and that’s why he lives here! He likes it small.

How do you plan to protect the water resources of the south County from further export and privatization?

Cervantes said the County has an ordinance on exporting water. Exceptions are the bottling plant– if it’s in a bottle they can export it. He said the problem is the City of Los Angeles continues to acquire land and water rights, and that water ends up in the Aqueduct. He also noted that they are trying to reduce the use of potable water on the lake by pumping water from under the lake for dust mitigation instead.

Gentry admitted that, “I don’t think that I can do that.” He said that maybe we could shut Crystal Geyser down, which is unlikely. The only thing that will stop the export of water from the county is that it costs the City of Los Angeles too much for them to export it from here to there. He thinks that eventually that may happen.

Kingsley said that to stop the continued export and privatization of water takes good leadership, implementing the long term water agreement, and maintaining it so that they are means abiding by it. “We cannot litigate every issue, we cannot afford it,” said Kingsley.

He offered three steps on how best to deal with LADWP:
1) Partnership
2) Negotiate
3) Litigate only as a last option

“Good leadership and building relationships with the City of Los Angeles is our only hope besides enforcing the long term water agreement and the ordinance that Richard talked about,” said Kingsley.

A question was directed at Cervantes about a non-existent fire station and non-working equipment in Tecopa. He responded that he has been working with TerraGen Power to donate a nice metal building along with a 60 foot trailer for the tractor to be hooked up to to move it to Tecopa to serve as the fire station. As to the equipment, it has been kept out in the sun and deteriorates.  Kingsley said it has not been happening for two years and the Tecopa Fire Department is frustrated. If it does happen, he is not sure who should get credit for it. (Cervantes wished to respond to Kingsley’s comments but the rules of the forum prevented it.)

The candidates were asked if they are concerned about the negative effect of children in Olancha being bused to school in Lone Pine and what will you do to make Olancha more welcoming to young families.

Gentry noted that shutting down Olancha was a sore subject when he was on the school board and he sympathized with those that went through it. “If people are going to move to Olancha,” he said, “well they’re going to move to Olancha. A family will take care of the family.”

Kingsley acknowledged that busing is not popular and that it is a long ride, but at the same time he noted that some students live even further out. “When you locate to a certain area, you buy into the lower level of services that are available,” he said. He also said that he was trying to find a way to use the school, perhaps a boot camp to train people on fixing or maintaining solar panels or wind turbines. As far as making Olancha a better community, Kingsley is not sure there is much the County can do other than making sure the area gets its share of county funding. (Supervisor Cervantes had no comment on the question.)

Kingsley was asked how he plans to help small communities such as Keeler with their fight for different water regulations and reform.

He noted that the problem is not restricted to Keeler, but it is an issue for the whole county. He said that we can support the LTWA and maybe a re-greening project is needed that might enhance community.  It is a problem district-wide. The drinking water system is okay, but DWP might be persuaded to put some money into it.

Gentry shared that he knows that they have an issue with meeting new qualifications from the federal government.  He’d like to help but he doesn’t know what can be done. He even owns property out in Olancha, so he’d like to be able to do something.

Cervantes said that they have arsenic in the water and the State has regulations limiting arsenic to safe drinking levels. He noted that the one-size-fits-all regulations for small districts don’t work for everyone and that he is working to have the regulations adjusted to accommodate very small districts.

Someone wanted to know why they did not have residential curbside recycling in Lone Pine.

Gentry said he’d like to have it, but he didn’t know what could be done. He promised to work on it. Cervantes said that solid waste is a big issue and that new regulations are coming down from the state wanting to minimize amount of solid waste in landfills. He said, “We’re all going to have to deal with it.” Kingsley said that all of us support recycling and perhaps someone in town could be encouraged to take up the business. His suggestion was that perhaps the county could help someone start a business through re-zoning and other effort.

The candidates were asked about their vision of broadband communications in the Eastern Sierra.

Cervantes said that digital broadband is on the verge of becoming reality in Inyo County and that local providers will be able to deliver it 100 times faster. Kingsley said that the Digital 395 is disappointing in that, yes, it brings it to the 395 corridor, but the 5th District has many communities that are not close to the main highway. Even so, Kingsley notes there is potential for small business startups with the higher speeds and we will have access to telemedicine and teleconferencing.

Gentry said he was in a meeting last week in Palmdale on the subject and learned a lot about it. He agreed that it will open opportunities and we need to try to get it in all our communities.

Was the Caltrans bypass of Olancha and extra funding justified?

Kingsley said that is it impossible to be “for” bypassing any community in the Eastern Sierra and that if it happens to one town, it will happen to others. “If you are not for the bypass,” said Kingsley, “you certainly are not for spending the money for one.” Gentry said the US highway system was put in for commerce and that by bypassing communities, you are hurting commerce. “Caltrans is mostly concerned about safety, but I agree with Matt,” said Gentry,”If they bypass one community, they’ll bypass others. At the same time I understand Caltrans’ concerns for safety.” Cervantes states that he is vehemently against the bypass and that all that is needed is a simple widening of the 395. He noted that the bypass will cost much more money and it will destroy hundreds of acres of wildlife habitat.

How about a new animal shelter in LP?

Gentry admitted that he just doesn’t know if it’s a possibility, but maybe it is something that can be looked into. Cervantes said, “We definitely need a new shelter in Big Pine far more than a new county building in Bishop. He acknowledged that it would be nice to have a small shelter down here. Kingsley said that it would be a benefit, but he just doesn’t know if the county can afford it. He suggested that maybe a short-term animal care facility or approaching ICARE to have an adoption center in Lone Pine would save having to take some of the animals to Big Pine.

Film production companies are a major part of the local hotel business. They complain the process is slow and complicated.

Kingsley reminded everyone of his earlier comments that we need to stop being a speed bump and do everything possible to support anything that helps our county. He feels it is best to just keep the process simple. Gentry said, “I don’t think the county is the obstacle; the problem is the state and federal government. Cervantes said he is working on this all the time and he would like to see the county departments respond in timely manner. At the same time he said sometimes there are extenuating circumstances but we need to simplify the process.

The 5th District has been economically depressed for many citizens. Some politicians will not end tax breaks for the wealthy. Cutbacks threaten social programs that some depend on for their survival. What would you do?

Gentry admitted that he is not sure how you respond, saying that we certainly don’t want our Senior Citizens and children suffering. The County has so far managed to have a balanced budget and he admires their success. He promised to work to make sure it keeps happening. Cervantes reminded the audience that the State is broke and that the first cuts are always in healthy and safety services and parks; those cuts that hurt the public the most. He promised to keep things going in the County.

Kingsley said that if we lose money, the Board of Supervisors must have a process to prioritize services. He feels it is important to maintain law enforcement, the safety net and Seniors.

How do you define being a part of the team with the Board of Supervisors and how do you plan to create teamwork as a supervisor?

“Contrary to what you’ve heard, on 93-94% of that which comes before the board, we get along well,” said Cervantes, “but on issues harmful to our district, I have to take a stand up for my constituents.

Kingsley reminded everyone that he coached Basketball for 22 years and taught leadership classes for federal government for many years. He feels it is important to build relationships and trust, so that when you make a recommendation or idea, people trust you. “On the school board we do not always agree, but we trust each other,” said Kingsley.  He said they all have a role to play in questioning, working through problems, and making decisions toward a common goal.

Gentry agreed with Kingsley saying that after 18 years on school board, you know that you are not always going to agree with everyone. He also agreed with Cervantes that on 92% or more percent of the time most decisions are cut and dry issue and you just vote on it. He said that you can build trust, but you have to accept that things do not always go your way. Even so, you just don’t slam the door on others.

 
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