Editorials

Not so fast, Board of Supervisors. Let the public weigh in on major policy changes.

San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors Adam Hill, Lynn Compton, John Peschong, Debbie Arnold and Bruce Gibson meet March 7, 2017.
San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors Adam Hill, Lynn Compton, John Peschong, Debbie Arnold and Bruce Gibson meet March 7, 2017. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For now, forget the question of whether the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors did the right thing when it reversed a policy that required property owners to pay for studies of overdrafted groundwater basins under their land — including a couple of basins listed in critical condition.

Instead of looking to landowners to foot the bill, by a 3-2 vote, the supervisors on March 7 decided that the county will pay for the basin management plans now mandated by the state. Those plans, which would cover five and possibly six basins in the county, could cost as much as $2.2 million per year for the first three years.

We have many questions and some serious concerns about this policy change, but we’ll leave that discussion for another day and focus on the stealthy way this major decision was made.

It came during what appeared, on the surface, to be a routine informational item.

This was how it was listed on the agenda: “Receive an update on the implementation of the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) Strategy. All Districts.”

Normally, updates are just that — informational items the board hears and discusses, then perhaps offers some minor direction to staff.

In this case, though, Supervisor Debbie Arnold kicked off the board discussion by mentioning that she had “just a couple of changes.”

“Just a couple of changes” implies minor tweaks.

Instead, Arnold proposed and eventually won support for a significant policy change that will cost county taxpayers millions of dollars.

What’s more, this was no spur-of-the-moment proposal; Arnold came prepared with a marked-up version of the policy.

By a 3-2 vote, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors decided the county should foot the bill for expensive groundwater basin plans required under a new state law. Now it’s being accused of violating the Brown Act.

It would have been helpful if everyone — including the public — had the opportunity to see an advance copy of her proposal, hear county staff’s analysis and, at the very least, have some advance notice that this change was to be discussed and considered.

Instead, many residents were caught off guard. Some are accusing the Board of Supervisors of violating the Brown Act, which requires public agencies to give advance notification when they are considering major policy changes.

Paso Robles resident Laurie Gage wrote to the county, asking that the vote be nullified and the item reheard. The County Counsel’s Office is reviewing the request.

Regardless of any legal decision — which may hinge more on the letter than the spirit of the Brown Act — we believe this was absolutely the wrong way to conduct business.

Groundwater has been a critical issue in parts of the county, particularly in the Paso Robles basin, where wells have been drying up, forcing residents to sink thousands of dollars into digging ever deeper wells. Some have decided to form their own water districts to develop and implement management plans, which they would fund themselves.

This change in policy is going to affect them, as well as general taxpayers who may want to weigh in on how their money is spent.

We don’t mean to imply there are no valid arguments in support of the decision. Arnold, for example, pointed out that the county pays for many other planning documents without asking property owners to contribute a dime.

But whatever its merits, this change was made with such an appalling lack of transparency that it makes it look like the board majority was trying to sneak something underhanded past the public.

If the policy change is allowed to stand without further consideration, it will forever be tainted.

We strongly urge the Board of Supervisors to set aside its decision. Reconsider it only after the public is notified and fully informed of a significant change that affects all residents of San Luis Obispo County.

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