Politics & Government

Discord resurfaces in race for Los Osos services district board

The familiar political climate of divisions and infighting in the Los Osos community are bubbling back up in a Los Osos Community Services District Board of Directors race.

Candidates Chuck Cesena and Keith Swanson, who were aligned in past efforts to move the sewage treatment plant out of town, are among seven candidates competing to fill three open four-year seats. They have publicly opposed the two incumbents running, Jon-Erik Storm and Craig Baltimore, for not holding the district’s administration accountable.

In response, Storm, Baltimore and a third candidate, Lou Tornatzky, have teamed up to create a flier — paid for by Storm, saying Cesena and Swanson contributed to the district’s bankruptcy over their past efforts relating to the sewer — and warn voters against their leadership.

Cesena and Swanson supported the 2005 recall of Los Osos CSD board members who favored the project that was ultimately relocated out of town. Cesena won a seat in that election.

The sewage treatment plant is now being built near the cemetery under county control.

Cesena and Swanson have cited issues including problems with accounting and are worried about proper water basin management. They claim that board members don’t effectively scrutinize the decisions of the general manager.

“There’s a lack of efficacy with the district’s meeting,” Cesena said. “Neither of us is happy with the way the district operates.”

But their political opponents say a return to an old style of leadership that they claim cost the district millions of dollars is a bad idea.

“Folks are very weary about the never-ending confrontation, both in the CSD meetings and in anger focused on the county,” Tornatzky said. “They also are very unhappy about the recall, the bankruptcy, and they know which of the current candidates played a key role in those bad old days.”

Storm believes the critiques of the general manager by Cesena and Swanson are a power grab to control district affairs.

The current race’s two other candidates — Paul Malykont and Peter Bresler — haven’t publicly sided with either group of candidates.

Bresler has focused on the buyout of Golden State Water Co., which he supports and says charges exorbitant fees, as a key issue for the district.

Malykont stated in a recent forum that disagreements are OK, as long as the discourse remains civil, because it will help the district reach the best solutions.

Even though the sewage treatment plant is being built by the county, and the district has since moved out of bankruptcy, the opposing groups of candidates acknowledge that the old sewer history has surfaced in this year’s race.

The Storm, Tornatzy and Baltimore flier claims Cesena contributed to legal fees related to the bankruptcy of nearly $1 million and unnecessary settlements that cost the Los Osos community $4.9 million — and that Swanson supported Cesena’s “financially damaging, destructive and detrimental actions.”

But Cesena and Swanson said the recall showed the community didn’t want to build a sewer at the mid-town site, and the sitting board at the time of the recall shouldn’t have initiated construction with an impending vote a few weeks away.

The construction was ultimately stopped, yet it locked the district into financial obligations to pay the contractors and sent the district into debt.

“I sincerely care about Los Osos,” Swanson said. “I’m proud that the sewer was moved out of town. But I think this is a sad avenue that they’re taking against us, and we’re not bringing it up. Moving the sewer was what the people wanted.”

Storm moved to Los Osos in 2007 and assumed a seat on the board in February when director David Vogel moved out of the area.

“We’re asking people to compare our records,” Storm said. “… I don’t see myself as part of the old sewer battle. But these guys have targeted me, and I don’t know what I did to draw their ire. It breaks my heart that some of the old battle lines are being drawn.”

Storm has faced criticism from his opponents for his reaction at an advisory committee meeting in September in a heated discussion with a fellow committee member.

At the meeting, Storm used an obscene gesture in a verbal outburst, for which he has since apologized in community forums, on Twitter and in person to the committee member.

“I personally apologized to the man, and he accepted my apology,” Storm said. “I’m not making any excuses.”

That said, the election should be focused on the issues, he added — not “mudslinging about character.”

“I think we need to let the voters decide based on our records,” Storm said.

Another subject that became a political talking point in recent weeks was the airing of a forum organized by Swanson and Cesena and sponsored by the El Moro Democratic Club.

The forum — attended by all candidates except Baltimore and Storm — was not aired on Channel 20 in Los Osos, a government education channel operated by the district through the cable provider AGP.

Though the forum has aired on AGP Channel 21, which airs countywide, Swanson and Cesena felt the district tried to block the forum unfairly.

“The candidate’s forum was conducted as a community benefit to the electorate who are not familiar with all seven candidates,” said Swanson. “There was no other reason.”

But the district requests that AGP follow its guidelines, which include that the sponsor must be a “community-based organization” and the El Moro Democratic Club is a “registered political action committee,” said Kathy Kivley, the district’s general manager.

“Our district legal counsel issued an opinion that LOCSD policy regarding the use of Channel 20 does not include political action committee-sponsored events,” Kivley said.