A CCSD forum Thursday night that drew actor Ed Asner, about 150 audience members and six candidates — but lacked two of the three incumbents — focused largely on issues that have dominated debate in Cambria: growth, water and infrastructure.
Incumbent Amanda Rice was joined at the table in the Cambria Pines Lodge Peacock Room by challengers Harry Farmer, Tom Kirkey, Dewayne Lee, Jeff Walters and write-in candidate Stephen Kniffen. Each is seeking a four-year term on the Cambria Community Services District board.
Incumbents Gail Robinette, the board president, and Greg Sanders declined to attend.
The event was moderated by Free and Equal Elections founder Christina Tobin, a Cambria resident, along with Asner, who starred in “Lou Grant” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.” In the 2009 animated Pixar hit, “Up,” Asner provided the voice of the elderly widower, Carl Fredricksen.
Asner injected some levity into the proceedings with a few jokes, introducing himself as “a loudmouth” and at one point offering a tongue-in-cheek question to the panelists: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” The comment was apparently an oblique reference to his own history; in a 2010 interview with the Los Angeles Times, the longtime socialist activist said, “I’m always thought of in Hollywood and surrounding environs as the resident Communist.”
The actual questions — there were five of them — were more serious, covering the candidates’ priorities; the subject of growth and buildout; fiscal responsibility; the draft environmental impact report for the district’s Sustainable Water Facility; and the candidates’ plans for earning the public trust.
Each panelist had two-minute opening and closing statements, two minutes to respond to each of the questions and three one-minute rebuttal opportunities. The panelists also took a few questions from the audience.
The subject of growth came up several times during the course of the evening, with Kirkey and Lee — who have been running together — both stating that the growth rate is set by the county.
“I’m not sure if we have any legal obligation to the people on the water wait list,” Kirkey, a retired businessman, said in response to the second question. “If you want to live in Cambria, there are 72 houses for sale in Cambria right now. You should purchase one of those and move the (water) meter to your lot of your choice.”
Lee, also a retired businessman, said he agreed with those comments.
Kniffen, by contrast, defended the rights of people to move to Cambria from outside the area.
The chairman of the CCSD’s Parks, Recreation and Open Space Commission said, “It’s not fair for you to go to someone and say, ‘No one else can come here.’ He added that people on the wait list pay to support CCSD services, even though they don’t live on the property they own. “By not allowing them to build their homes, you are tantamount to stealing their money,” he said.
Walters, house manager at the Pewter Plough Playhouse, described himself as a proponent of slow growth and said he was “tired of seeing water as a wedge issue for stopping growth in Cambria.”
“We actually don’t have an economy that supports our businesses very well,” Walters said in his opening statement. He said he had spoken to experts who told him that “the town really needs to grow by about a third” to 8,000 residents. He said, however, that 10,000 would be too many. About 6,000 people currently live in Cambria.
Farmer, who introduced himself as a former social worker, radio host and an astrologer, lamented that “the money interests showed up, and slowly our town changed — forever.”
Water and wastewater
Rice called for improved infrastructure, saying the Wastewater Treatment Plant needs “a major overhaul, if not a complete rebuild.”
Lee and Kirkey also called for improved infrastructure, with Lee saying it is “old, it’s leaking, and I think we need to fix it.”
On the issue of water, Kirkey called for the district to “reinstate surcharge penalties on water users who exceed their allotments.” (The board voted 4-1 in February, with Rice opposed, to put the surcharges on hold.)
The forum came on the same week that the CCSD began a second two-month tracer test to track how long it takes for treated water to flow from the Sustainable Water Facility to district wells. The public comment period for a draft environmental impact report on the $13 million water-reclamation plant is open through Oct. 26.
Rice declined to comment on the EIR, saying that, as a sitting board member, it would be inappropriate to do so until after regulatory agencies and the public weighed in on the draft.
Other panelists, however, criticized a plan in the document that would convert a pond originally designed to hold brine left over from the treatment process into a freshwater reservoir. Instead, the brine would be trucked to a hazardous waste facility in Kettleman Hills, 85 miles from the project site.
(The pond’s expected capacity would be 6 million to 7 million gallons; board members have said that it would provide an emergency resource and water for fighting wildfires.)
Farmer said the process would require eight round trips a day, at 1,360 miles. “That is like a round trip drive from Cambria to Bend, Oregon, every day,” he said, adding that “tanker trucks go up and down the road, polluting the air” and warning that Cambria would be “incurring a karmic debt with this facility.”
Kirkey expressed concerns about the cost of retrofitting the pond and paying for tankers to transport the hazardous waste, estimating the retrofit cost at $1 million to $2 million and saying transportation could cost thousands of dollars per truckload.
Kniffen, however, said, “There’s no way we can live without water, but we can live with that Kettleman Plant, and that may be what we have to do.”
Walters, who called himself a “techno-warrior,” touted an alternative, as he has throughout the campaign, “a water system that takes water from the air.” He invited the audience to see an example of that system at Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria’s East Village.
Lee made clear that, “I’m not running to shut the plant down,” saying, “We built it, we are in the process of paying for it.” He also said that, as a businessman, he would have done the EIR before building the plant.
Rice said she agreed, but added that there was one advantage to doing the EIR now: “We have data on the ground. … We don’t have to guess.”
Despite some controversy leading up to the forum, there was relatively little drama at the event itself, and the candidates remained civil to one another while many called for more constructive dialogue in the community at large.
“I don’t want to live in a battlefield,” Rice said. “I’m tired of it.”
The only disruption occurred when Kniffen named three community members who have spoken during public comment at CCSD meetings and urged them to run for seats on the board. “If you can stand up in a public meeting and say, ‘I’ve got the answer,’ then get up here and let people decide whether you have the answer,” he said.
One of the people Kniffen named, community activist Tina Dickason, shouted out from the audience, “I’m Tina Dickason, and I object to what you said.”
Kniffen responded: “I object to a lot of what you say,” to which Dickason retorted, “Well, craps, too bad.”
But the main source of controversy surrounding the forum, the absence of incumbents Sanders and Robinette, was not raised as a major issue. Although panelists were critical of decisions made by the current board, they rarely mentioned either sitting director by name.
Walters did allude to the pair, without explicitly naming them, in expressing his support for Rice, who has at times voted with the board majority but at other times has been on the losing end of 4-1 votes.
He added that the incumbents who have formed the majority on the board, “plead for decorum while they create situations that cause rancor.”
Sanders and Robinette took out a full-page ad in the Sept. 29 Cambrian, stating that they believed Tobin, who organized the event, had “disqualified herself from sponsoring and moderating a CCSD candidate forum by repeatedly revealing her biases in this election.”
Tobin has been critical of the actions and positions of the incumbents, particularly Sanders, during public comment periods at CCSD board meetings.
In response to an email from The Cambrian, Sanders issued the following statement:
“I encourage public discussion and debate among the candidates on the issues. I cannot in good conscience, however, participate in a candidate forum where the moderator has publicly denounced me with no facts to back-up her allegations. Candidate forums should be moderated by persons who are neutral and impartial. Christina Tobin is neither. I’m looking forward to the candidate forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters.”
He said a league representative had informed him that her organization plans to moderate a CCSD candidates forum, but that no date had been selected as of Thursday.