When North County voters go to the polls June 7 for the primary election, they will be able to choose between two very different candidates for District 5 San Luis Obispo County Supervisor.
Incumbent Debbie Arnold, a Republican, and her challenger Eric Michielssen, a Democrat, have differing views on a variety of issues, including the Phillips 66 rail spur project, the management of the Paso Robles groundwater basin and whether humans are contributing to climate change.
The two candidates recently sat down with The Tribune Editorial Board to answer questions about their views on the issues. Both are residents of Pozo, where Arnold is a rancher and Michielssen is an organic farmer. District 5 stretches from northern San Luis Obispo to east Templeton and east to the Carrizo Plain.
Arnold is running for re-election on a platform of pragmatic leadership, creating jobs and enhancing local control. Her top priority is providing a safe water supply and fair distribution of it.
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Michielssen is running on a platform of building the county’s economy and protecting jobs. His top priority is providing more affordable housing.
One of the most contentious issues the Board of Supervisors will face is a proposal by the Phillips 66 oil company to add a rail spur to its Nipomo Mesa refinery that would allow the facility to accept five large oil trains a week. Opponents have said they fear one of the trains could derail and cause a fiery crash that would endanger neighborhoods near the railroad.
Michielssen said he opposes the project, but Arnold has not made up her mind. Communities along the main rail line all over the state have opposed the project. The project could go to the Board of Supervisors later this year. If that happens , Michielssen will not have an opportunity to vote on the project, if elected.
“I give a lot of weight to other communities, such as San Jose, that have said they are against it,” Michielssen said.
Arnold said safety is her main concern and she is working to learn more about the project, noting that the refinery is an existing facility that has been safely operated.
“There’s a lot to think about,” she said. “When it does come to the board, I will be looking at a lot of things, but mostly safety.”
Management of the Paso Robles groundwater basin is another contentious issue that will come before the Board of Supervisors. On March 8, residents of the basin voted overwhelmingly to reject the formation of a special district to manage the basin — deferring management to the county and possibly the state.
Arnold opposed forming the district, preferring to have the county manage the groundwater basin. She said the county’s Flood Control and Water Conservation District has effectively managed the basin for 70 years.
“The county is the one entity that is not in competition for the basin’s water,” she said. “I anticipate that the county will be the grown-up in the room.”
Michielssen supported the district formation because it was recommended by a county-appointed blue ribbon advisory committee and the county Local Agency Formation Commission.
“Now, I think we have to regroup,” he said. “No one has a solution, but we need to start working together and stop fighting one another.”
Arnold said she thinks it was a mistake for LAFCO to bypass the normal way of forming a special district, in which landowners petition to put the issue on the ballot.
Instead, the Board of Supervisors voted to have LAFCO review the structure of the district before the supervisors put the question on the ballot, as allowed by Assembly Bill 2453. The state legislation had authorized the formation of a special district.
Both candidates said the Paso Robles basin is one of five basins in the county that are in overdraft — Paso Robles, Edna Valley, Cuyama Valley, Los Osos and Nipomo Mesa — and that the focus should not be solely on managing the Paso Robles basin.
Climate change is another area of disagreement. Both candidates said they think climate change is happening but disagree whether human activity is exacerbating the problem. Arnold thinks human-induced climate change is debatable, while Michielssen thinks humans have a great deal to do with it.
Arnold said she wants to take a balanced approach to the issue. She is all for technological innovations that reduce vehicle emissions and traffic congestion but not to the point where it hurts the economy.
“We don’t want to drive people into poverty,” she said. “Reducing congestion is really going to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Michielssen, on the other hand, supports reducing sprawl and promoting smaller, more energy-efficient housing to reduce global warming gases.
“I think a lot of our problems are in nonurban areas where everyone drives everywhere,” he said.