Cambrian: Opinion

Definitions not always sustainable from one audience to another

Cambria Community Services District General Manager Jerry Gruber’s (left) last day will be Sept. 28 if a recently signed “separation agreement” holds after he was relieved of duty “without cause.”
Cambria Community Services District General Manager Jerry Gruber’s (left) last day will be Sept. 28 if a recently signed “separation agreement” holds after he was relieved of duty “without cause.”

Sustainable: able to be maintained or kept going, as an action or process. –

Sometimes, a word doesn’t mean what you think it means. Or, perhaps, it means that … and something else, as well.

Take the word “sustainable,” for example. It’s been on a lot of people’s lips in Cambria ever since the CCSD decided to change the name of the Emergency Water Supply project to the Sustainable Water Facility.

The name change happened in late 2015, as the district began sought to convert an emergency permit issued by the county into a permanent Coastal Development Permit (CDP). Community members worried about growth naturally saw a connection and bristled at the new name.

But Dean Florez, the community services district’s consultant/lobbyist in Sacramento, says there’s another reason for the name. Florez was hired to help the community services district obtain that CDP, and he at a town hall meeting Wednesday, April 10 that his job “is probably over when you get your regular permit.”

Nonetheless, he has been working on the district’s behalf toward other goals, as well, foremost among them seeking ways to reduce its debt burden by looking for grants and seeking ways to refinance the loan used to pay for the EWS/SWF.

Florez told the town hall audience that “sustainable” is “not my word,” and the district can call the project whatever it wants. Even so, he said, the word is helpful because it tells potential financial backers that the project isn’t a fly-by-night affair.

“When you’re seeking grants, people generally don’t want to finance periodic, sometimes-on-sometimes-off projects,” he said, but projects that would be “part and parcel” of the community over an extended period of time. It doesn’t mean, he said, that the plant is “going to run 24-7.”

To Florez, “sustainable” isn’t so much a description as a selling point, and if that word can unlock more money to help the community pay for the $13.1 million project, why not use it?

What’s unfortunate is that the district has been using the word for more than two years now, and that reasoning has never, to my knowledge, been shared with the public. If the word itself caused such friction, as it clearly has, the district would have been well served to offer this explanation at the first opportunity.

The misunderstanding illustrates the problem of using the same language when speaking to two different audiences. Depending on the listeners’ perspectives, one person might hear one message, while another may hear something else. By branding the plan the Sustainable Water Facility, the district ensured that Florez’s target audience got the message he’s trying to send: that they won’t be wasting money by putting it into a short-term project that will disappear before its done is job. But it also sent a different message to Cambrians worried about growth.

The solution, to me, seems simple. Choose a name that isn’t based on how the plant will be used (in emergencies or on a sustainable basis), but on what it is. Such a name already exists, and has been used several times by board President Amanda Rice, among others: Advanced Water Treatment Plant.

Using a name like that wouldn’t preclude Florez from touting it as “sustainable” while seeking financial help, but it might help build a little more goodwill in a community still badly divided over the issue.

Words don’t solve everything, but they can improve situations when they’re used appropriately with a given audience. The town hall meeting was a good step in that direction.