Tom Fulks

Even with a do-over of groundwater management vote, Big Grape could come out on top

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

You’ve got to hand it to the hard-right majority on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. This trio’s got some serious brass.

After pilfering some $6.6 million from the county’s General Fund to solve their friends’ groundwater woes, Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold and John Peschong were chastised by the public Tuesday for allegedly violating the state’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.

The rebuke resulted in a 5-0 vote to reconsider the earlier 3-2 vote after a bona fide public hearing with proper public notice is conducted. At issue: who pays for water management in six stressed, rural groundwater basins, the worst being the Paso Robles Basin.

Last year, Paso Basin water users voted against paying for their own water management. So this trio — wanting to shield ideological soulmates from a state takeover featuring water meters, pumping limits and attendant costs — stepped in March 7 and bailed them out. This gift of public funds was delivered without public notice or proper hearing.

The Tribune called the stunt “stealthy” and “underhanded.” Refusing to admit violating the Brown Act, the trio relented and agreed to a redo, without hint of contrition.

Compounding the drama, the trio was accused of a separate Brown Act violation in setting up their money grab: making a predetermined decision out of public sight. It’s illegal for a quorum of supervisors to make policy decisions in private — whether they meet face-to-face or negotiate via carrier pigeon.

The board scheduled reconsidering the funding issue for April 4, when supervisors also could ask District Attorney Dan Dow to investigate the alleged second violation. If three votes pull that trigger, Dow is on the spot.

Peschong’s firm managed Dow’s campaign in 2014. In turn, Dow endorsed Peschong, Arnold and Compton for supervisor. Peschong also performed campaign consulting for Arnold and Compton. So there is that.

After having their knuckles rapped Tuesday for brazen skullduggery, the trio now exhibits true chutzpah. All three — a board quorum — are headliners Thursday at a fundraiser for COLAB, a secretive group of pro-oil developers masquerading as farmers and cowboys.

If this board majority cared a jot about public opinion, they’d avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

A nonprofit group, COLAB has never published a list of directors, officers or the names of dues-paying members. Based in Santa Maria, COLAB’s SLO County mouthpiece is Mike Brown, who frequents public meetings claiming to represent … exactly who, we don’t know.

The agenda for COLAB’s event: “Celebrate Success – Reinforce Reform.” The fete includes Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, seemingly a sideshow to far-right ideological proclamations and “filet mignon dinner with wine.”

While the Brown Act doesn’t prohibit a voting majority from attending an ostensibly social gathering, the optics of the COLAB event — and its agenda — appear more than social.

The public is welcome to attend and find out, at $120 per head, or the COLAB discount of $1,200 for a table of 10 — a sweet deal.

Many of the county’s largest water users, including a host of North County grape growers, no doubt will be there to toast their publicly financed windfall. There should be plenty of ticket takers.

Meanwhile, Tuesday’s vote to redo the money grab may be satisfying for believers in open government. But that outcome shouldn’t be considered a victory. The wrong has not been righted.

The trio’s vote still stands to take up to $6.6 million over three years from the county’s treasury to pay for water management in areas where users refuse to pay.

City dwellers in Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach, Atascadero and Pismo Beach — and those in community service districts who already pay for water management — now must pay for that plus $24 in property and sales taxes to underwrite shirkers’ water profligacy ($2.2 million ÷ 275,000 county population = $8 per person/year x 3 years).

The board trio may or may not overturn this odious decision. Big Grape beneficiaries of this corporate welfare — this government largesse — surely will be looking to protect their new entitlement.

The Central Coast Taxpayers Association, “watchdog” of the people’s purse, should be watching. On whose behalf it might act — taxpayers or Big Grape — will be telling.

All the energy and agitation the public exerted getting the board majority to do the right thing last Tuesday will have to be replicated thrice-over April 4 if there’s to be any hope for justice.

That’s when the hard-right trio just might see who else has got serious brass.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.

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