Friday, July 19, 2013

Faustinos says programming is 'meat and potatoes' but continues to push for big box water museum

The former head of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority and the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, Belinda Faustinos, delivered a report from the water museum's foundation to the authority board at the latter's July 11 meeting.

The report was revealing in the contrast between what even she concedes is of highest value at Whittier Narrows and what she insists is the unchanged goal of the authority.

Judging from the lack of emphasis on the fundraising accomplishments of the foundation -- ostensibly its raison d'etre -- it's clear that the organization has secured little, if any, funding beyond what the project received out of ratepayer and taxpayer dollars years ago -- and which has by now been spent with little to show for it.

Instead she emphasized two other things.

First, she emphasized the foundation's support for programming at the wildlife sanctuary, which she called the "meat and potatoes."

It is through programming that "children in the community" are helped to understand that which they vitally need to understand regarding nature and natural resources, she said.

It was truly heartening to hear Belinda Faustinos, champion of the big box water museum, say that.  

But then . . .

She returned to the actual reason for the foundation's existence -- and perhaps the reason for her continuing involvement: construction of the 14,000-square-foot big box water museum.

It's tragic. She cites Richard Louv's theory of "nature-deficit disorder" to prop up the goal of replacing trees, shrubs and soil, and the fauna they support, with a building that no one wants -- apparently not even the authority board, which is exploring far smaller alternatives.

Perhaps she mis-hears herself when she speaks and thinks Louv was concerned about "building-deficit disorder."

People who suffer from that ailment are called developers.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

National recreation area: When the person behind the desk doesn't match the name on the door

A recent article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune noted that backers of a national recreation area for the San Gabriel Watershed are trying to build support among area cities for a larger recreation area than the one proposed by the National Park Service in April.

Without getting into the merits of a national recreation area, large or small, for the area, the park service's plan leaves open the question: "Who will be in charge?" With the park service offering at most coordination services and planning assistance (per the agency's own documents), the public should be concerned.

The likeliest candidate appears to be the state's Rivers and Mountains Conservancy -- and this should raise alarms, both for the agency's own history of questionable financial practices and for the financial wrongdoing that appears widespread among agencies of its parent, the state Natural Resources Agency.

The RMC was taken to task in a 2009 state audit for the conflict of interest inherent in the fact that the same people staffed it, a grantor agency, and the Watershed Conservation Authority, the grantee. "This lack of arms-length separation compromises the state's oversight of bond funds," said the Department of Finance.

But such bad behavior isn't unique to the RMC. It appears endemic to the Natural Resources Agency, of which the conservancy is part.

In January, the Los Angeles Times reported that the state attorney general had determined that the California parks department had "deliberately stashed away" $20 million. According to the paper, the AG's report said officials made a "conscious and deliberate" decision not to reveal the existence of the extra money.

Later that same month, the newspaper reported that "the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection [Cal Fire] hid $3.6 million rather than depositing it into the state's cash-strapped general fund as required, interviews and documents reviewed by The Times show."

Another question that should be top of mind for residents and taxpayers: "Who will pay for the national recreation area -- and how?" Will the new boss turn to the lucrative method used in the Santa Monica Mountains by the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority: stop-sign cameras?

In 2005, before the cameras went in, MRCA rangers wrote 315 tickets total. In 2008, after installation of the cameras, the authority issued 13,004 failure-to-stop violations -- a truly massive increase.

One anti-camera activist, speaking to the LA Weekly, described the executive director of the MRCA as being "like one of those Southern sheriffs who set up speed traps."

Again, this is not about the merits of a national recreation area. This is about governance and accountability -- and the fact that crucial questions are being deferred. And it all boils down to that question raised during the age of Rome: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Indeed: Who watches the watchmen?

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

State Sen. Ron Calderon sets up legal defense fund -- which, unlike a campaign, has no limit on giving

The Sacramento Bee reported June 21 that state Sen. Ron Calderon, who represents the Montebello area, has set up "a legal defense fund to cover expenses related to his 'public corruption investigation,'" according to a letter he filed with the secretary of state.

The FBI raided Calderon's Sacramento office June 4 and carted off several boxes. Although the agency has not said what it's investigating, it appears that the issue involves the senator's relationship with Central Basin Municipal Water District, for whom his brother Tom, a former state legislator, worked as a consultant.

Central Basin is a member of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center Authority.

Calderon's letter, the Bee continues, says that the funds "will be only to pay the attorney's fees and other legal costs related to the defense of the candidate as well as administrative costs directly related to compliance with recordkeeping and reporting requirements."

This isn't the senator's first experience with a legal defense fund, as the Bee noted.

He raised more than $150,000 after the legal issue was resolved, and his "expenditures from the account included more than $10,000 at the Bandon Dunes golf course in Oregon, $11,000 at the Edgewood golf resort at Lake Tahoe and $400 on restaurant tabs in Hawaii."

The rules were later changed, but one great irony remains regarding defense funds for elected officials: Unlike campaign contributions, "donations to legal defense funds remain free from the limits on how much individuals and interest groups can give to political campaigns."

In politics, money = influence.  And when the amount a contributor can give is unlimited, and the issues in play are whether the official will be found guilty of a crime and possibly go to jail? That, dear reader, is the potential for massively corrupting influence.

And all through a tool intended, in this case, to help an official defend himself in a public corruption investigation.

It's a looking-glass world.
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Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Judge halts Whittier Hills oil drilling project; FBI raids local state senator's Sacramento office

Here at the Friends we follow events that impact the environment or governance, locally and beyond. Last week brought news of two events, one a long-hoped-for court decision on a local environmental matter, the other an unexpected federal law enforcement action targeting a local state representative. 

The environment . . . 

It appears the plans of the city of Whittier and its petroleum company partners to exploit taxpayer-purchased open space in the Whittier Hills for oil and profit will not go forward.
"When the parties say we want this for open space, that is inconsistent with having an oil derrick on it." -- Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant
The Whittier Daily News' Steve Scauzillo reported June 6 that Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant "halted the controversial oil and gas exploration project under way in the Whittier Hills, ruling the city of Whittier is acting against the wishes of Los Angeles County voters who paid for the land to be preserved in perpetuity as open space."

"When the parties say we want this for open space," Scauzillo reported the judge saying from the bench, "that is inconsistent with having an oil derrick on it." 

Scauzillo reported that local opponents celebrated the decision. The project had been opposed by organizations and officials such as Whittier Hills Oil Watch, conservation groups, the county, and the state attorney general since 2008.

The decision could leave things hot and contentious for Whittier leadership. Scauzillo reported June 7 that the city may have opened itself to lawsuits stemming from the decision.

WHOW representatives said the plaintiffs might sue for damages, and the city's oil industry partners might also sue.

WHOW representatives also said their group was looking at the possibility of a recall of city council members. 

. . . and the FBI raid 

Also last week, the FBI raided the Sacramento offices of state Sen. Ron Calderon, who represents the Montebello area and is part of an influential political family dynasty. 

The family has financial ties to one of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center partner agencies, Central Basin Municipal Water District.

The feds are keeping tight-lipped on the raid and investigation. The Los Angeles Times reported June 4 that a FBI spokesperson "said all information related to the nature of the search was sealed and the agency could not discuss it."

On Monday, the Times reported that Calderon had broken his silence regarding the raid, saying that he would focus on doing his job. 

"My intention at this point is to do my job that I was elected to do," he said, "attend my hearings, get my bills passed out of committee to the floor, and do the work of the state."

Based on information from other Southern California officials, the Times said it was possible the investigation was looking at "a group of healthcare companies that have fought restrictions . . . and have paid Calderon's brother Tom, a former lawmaker himself, tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees since leaving the Legislature."

The paper also said "officials have said they've been interviewed by the FBI about contracts that had been awarded by the Central Basin Municipal Water District to Tom Calderon."

Monday, June 3, 2013

$25 billion for state's proposed water fix

Last month here we discussed the politicking required to put a pork-laden $11 billion water bond before the voters. Last week, the Los Angeles Times' Bettina Boxall reported that the larger plan of which that bond is part is projected to cost $25 billion.

The state proposal to make dramatic changes to the "hub" of California's water system, Boxall writes, "calls for habitat restoration and the construction of two enormous tunnels to divert water from the Sacramento River and carry it under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to southbound pumps."

The costs--as currently projected--and who will bear them seem clear. As the San Jose Mercury News reported last week, "About 68 percent of the new Delta plan would be covered by water users through higher rates, while about 15 percent would come from taxpayers by way of two future water bonds, including one set for 2014."

Really, the 68-percent and 15-percent figures should be added together since they point to the same pocket. Which means that the ratepayer/taxpayer should expect to end up footing almost 85 percent of that $25 billion bill--if there aren't any cost overruns.

And, according to critics of the project, urban water users--that would be most people in the state--should expect to bear a bigger percentage of the costs than has been projected. That's because agriculture won't be able to afford its share. 

"They're irrational costs for a subset of San Joaquin Valley farmers to bear," said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. "Urban users are going to pay much more for this than they've been told and the usual cost overruns will just make the problems worse."

Who stands where on this proposal? The Mercury News reports that supporters "include farm and business leaders, along with labor unions and many of the state's largest water districts, from the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles to the Westlands Water District in Fresno." Opponents "include environmentalists, fishing groups and a dozen Bay Area members of Congress."

Perhaps the most interesting note in the Mercury News story was the suggestion that Gov. Jerry Brown may be suffering from "administration envy" and entertaining "hopes of going down in history as prolific as his governor father in creating lasting, visible signs of his political craftsmanship on California's landscape."

Clearly, it's not just questions of policy that get addressed when policy is debated and made. 
Useful links

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Water legislation according to the dodo principle: 'Every legislator has won, and all must have prizes'

Even as California voters and taxpayers are staring down the barrel of a controversial $11 billion water bond scheduled to appear on the 2014 ballot, legislators gathered May 10 to discuss the possibility of pushing for yet another water bond.

State Senator Fran Pavley led a Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee hearing on the campus of Pepperdine University to discuss what the Malibu Times called "a number of regional water solutions and a possible statewide water bond."

We have to ask what the senator and other legislators are thinking in trying to get the public to support even more borrowing while they've kept slapping away the hand of the public on the $11 billion bond. (The legislature has postponed putting the bond before the people a number of times since 2009.)

What does the public get for its money with these bonds? That perhaps is the wrong question. The better question is what legislators get for their votes in support of them. 

In 2009, the Los Angeles Times' Patrick McGreevy reported that of the $11 billion in borrowing for that bond, "more than $1 billion of the money is earmarked for projects that have little or nothing to do with quenching the state's thirst.

"The bond proposal includes funding for bike paths, museums, visitor centers, tree planting, economic development and the purchase of property from land speculators and oil companies -- all in the districts of lawmakers whose key votes helped it pass the Legislature."

One legislator who voted against the bond said that "so many pet projects were put in that it has just created a Christmas tree out of this bond, and most of them don't produce one drop of water."

What those pet projects sometimes do is threaten or destroy the very resources the public is told will be protected through these bonds.

It's water bond money that the RMC and the Discovery Center Authority have been gulping down in their effort to build their nature-destroying "Discovery Center" in the Whittier Narrows Natural Area.

It was water bond money that State Parks used to demolish Malibu Lagoon and completely remake it--nature as man intended.

In the end it seems that the point isn't good governance, it's chalking up a legislative win.  And to do that it takes the wisdom of the dodo in Alice in Wonderland. Legislators must be convinced that "everybody has won, and all must have prizes."

That our state, its resources and its people might all come out losers seems to be beside the point.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Friends in the community--an evolving mission

Jim Odling is the president and chair of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area. He recently sat down with RFTC to talk about the organization, its current activities, and what the future holds.

The Friends and its mission have evolved over time, Jim said. The organization was started specifically as a community response to the problematic nature of the San Gabriel River Discovery Center water museum project--destructive of the very thing it was supposedly intended to showcase, driven by agency agendas rather than community needs. But since then, Jim continued, the mission has evolved to prioritize also the public's access to outdoor recreation and to protecting the public's money from wasteful spending. 

Many on the group's board and among its supporters are longtime volunteers at the Whittier Narrows Natural Area and Nature Center, or simply enthusiastic visitors. Yet much of the group's work has extended to uncovering and bringing to the attention of government officials the more troubling details of the project that its proponents, perhaps out of their own enthusiasm or perhaps at times from more cynical motives, have glossed over.

For example, the Friends alerted State Parks officials to the grave inaccuracies in the Discovery Center Authority's application for $10 million in bond money for nature education projects--which would have thrown away on the ill-conceived water museum. Jim and others believe that it was the Friends' communication with State Parks--in combination with the Friends' lawsuit at the time--that convinced State Parks to reject the application and send the money to other, more worthy and promising projects.

Today, because of the efforts of the Friends, as well as others,the public still enjoys free access to the natural area and to the cherished nature center. The wildlife sanctuary, recognized by groups like Audubon and the county as a rich and important biological resource, is, as Jim says, "close and free, and the trails available to the public as long as the gates are open."

It's important for people, especially kids, "to get dirty, to see things that are not repeatable," Jim says. Judging by the numbers of student groups--including even preschoolers--that have been visiting the natural area and nature center recently, the community may be experiencing just those things.

As for the future, Jim said that the group is continuing its efforts to protect the natural area. A proposal made by the volunteer docents association for a renovation of the existing nature center or a new center of the same size was well received by county recreation department officials, he said. And the group continues to communicate with local and state officials about the problems with the current Discovery Center proposal.

And the group is also engaged in the processes surrounding other proposals tied to nature and outdoor recreation that could have significant impacts on the local community. These include the Emerald Necklace trails project and the National Park Service's San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Resource Study.

Involvement on the part of the Friends in such conversation is the common thread that ties the organization and its priorities to the community and its well being.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

After federal turf battle, Park Service proposes 'skim-milk' national recreation area for local area

The National Park Service announced April 10 that it was recommending to Congress that it adopt a "national recreation area" designation for the San Gabriel foothills, San Gabriel River, Rio Hondo, and Puente Hills. Missing from the recommendation were the hundreds of thousands of acres of the San Gabriel Mountains/Angeles National Forest--an area that more than 95 percent of public comments received for the San Gabriel Watershed and Mountains Special Resource Study recommended including in the NRA.

 As the Pasadena Star-News' Steve Scauzillo reported, the "Forest Service won the jurisdiction battle. The largest urban-interface forest in the country still would be managed only by the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture."

The Los Angeles Times' Louis Sahagun summed up the larger effort and the way it fell short: "The National Park Service spent nearly a decade researching alternatives, conducting public hearings, developing a 316-page report and evaluating 12,000 public comments that led to Wednesday's announcement."

Including the national forest, he said, "would have emphasized recreational use and brought new environmental protections to a region now designated as a national forest charged with managing multiple uses including mining, hunting, logging and other activities. The 655,000-acre portion of the Angeles National Forest suffers from illegal campfires, crime and pollution."

Whatever your feelings about the proposed national recreation area--and we at the Friends continue to have significant concerns about the authority that agencies other than the park service would have under the new designation--it's pretty clear that the park service has proposed (to borrow from a Supreme Court justice) a skim-milk national recreation area for the San Gabriel Mountains and Valley.

But the process isn't over. Former Secretary of Labor and U.S. Rep. Hilda Solis, who launched the study in 2003, said that the NRA boundaries could change as the proposal works its way through Congress. We hope that also means that the roles of various partners could be clarified and the overall values that would guide management of the national recreation area would be made clearer.

No, not over by a long stretch of the imagination.
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Monday, April 8, 2013

It's not just about bicycle trails and horse paths -- it's about democracy and accountability too

A scoping meeting April 3 reintroduced Southern California's proposed Emerald Necklace project to communities near the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers. According to environmental reporter Steve Scauzillo, the proposal was greeted with some skepticism.

The project is a plan for "interconnected bike, running and equestrian paths along the two rivers, from Peck Road Water Conservation Park in Arcadia on the north end to Whittier Narrows Recreational Area on the south end," Scauzillo writes. 

Such greening of heavily industrialized areas it can be agreed is, in and of itself, a good thing. So, Scauzillo asks, "how can people be against connecting bike lanes to river trails? Or adding a small park near the San Gabriel River?" 

He wonders whether the resistance he observed was a matter of "people conditioned to being against everything in CEQA." 

We at the Friends have tremendous respect for Steve, his reporter's eye, and his great writing. But in this case we wonder if he missed the larger issue at play -- that of concerns about democracy, transparency and accountability to the people.

People have come to understand -- rightly, in our experience with the Discovery Center project and other environmental matters -- that the CEQA process and other such meetings are often little more that ways in which government serves the interest of the powerful while either taking advantage of communities or tossing them a few easy scraps.

The Emerald Necklace is a project of the Watershed Conservation Authority, one of four supposedly independent agencies all run by the same individual. The state's department of finance criticized such arrangements in 2009 in these same agencies but the situation hasn't changed. Except to show a lack of accountability and consequences.

But the WCA and its parent Rivers and Mountains Conservancy are only two examples of power getting farther and farther away from the people. As Kevin Uhrich, of the Pasadena Weekly pointed out regarding the powerful county MTA, it is "but one of many such boards that make monumental decisions, recommend spending lots of money and forward critical recommendations to other governing boards, yet are populated by nothing but already elected officials, who are paid stipends and other perks for their 'extra service.'"

More paths along these rivers is a good thing, but you could hardly do further damage to the rivers at this point, encased as they are in concrete for much of their courses.

Not so for natural stretches of the Santa Clara River in the north, which developers and their allies in government want to channelize so they can build more houses, make more profit, and exchange more campaign and lobbying dollars for access and influence.

The question isn't "Why are people opposed to bike trails?" The question is, as Uhrich wrote, "how to use the instruments of democracy that we have available to make our present system stronger, more inclusive and representative, and better.

We wish the Emerald Necklace project great success. And we wish the communities it is supposed to serve the representative and responsive government that is so often lacking.

Monday, March 18, 2013

County DA looking into potential wrongdoing at Discovery Center Authority and parent agency

The Los Angeles County District Attorney is looking at allegations of wrongdoing by Rivers and Mountains Conservancy staff.

In January, the Friends sent a letter to the state attorney general, copied to the county DA and the state office of audits and evaluations, outlining the numerous likely illegal and unethical activities of RMC staff.

Last month, the Friends received a reply stating that the DA's Public Integrity Division is "reviewing the allegations and submitted documents to determine if further investigation is warranted."

In our January letter we outlined our concerns--and backed them up with numerous public, official documents produced by RMC and the Discovery Center Authority.

For example, we drew attention to the troubling likelihood that RMC and the Discovery Center Authority--one and the same, really--had spent $100,000 in state bond money on ineligible fundraising costs.

We also brought attention to the fact that the RMC/authority have been claiming to have 11 acres of federal land leased for the Discovery Center project--but the RMC director has known for at least a year that the responsible federal agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has not approved the project or the lease of land.

We'll be posting these letters to our website soon, so check back.

Even more troubling is that the questionable activities at the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy seem to fit and extend a growing pattern of wrongdoing under its parent, the state Natural Resources Agency.

The LA Times reported in January the state attorney general found that state parks officials had for years deliberately hidden $54 million from the state officials "until it was exposed by a new staff member who described a culture of secrecy and fear at the department."

And later that same month, the paper reported that its own investigation revealed that "the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection hid $3.6 million rather than depositing it into the state's cash-strapped general fund as required."

Given such a pattern, two conclusions can be drawn. First, it suggests that RMC activities have crossed a line--as they have at State Parks and Cal Fire. Second, it suggests that the problems being identified are not isolated occurrences. Instead, they might indicate a problematic and troubling culture within the larger agency.

That too might need some scrutiny by officials.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Land grabs: Monied interests and their government allies turning public lands into private gold mines

It's easy to get so caught up in your own community's fight to protect its resources and quality of life that you forget that the problems you perceive locally are sometimes part of something much larger.

Recent news items put plans to build a water museum in the Whittier Narrows Natural Area into what looks like a campaign by monied interests and their allies to turn public lands to private benefit.

In west Los Angeles, the Ballona Wetlands Ecological Reserve has been selected by the Annenberg Foundation as the site for a pet adoption center and interpretive center. If that sounds familiar, it's because the foundation had originally selected public land in Rancho Palos Verdes for its project. Annenberg withdrew its project after opposition from the community and federal officials.

In the east, areas of wildlife habitat -- purchased with county tax dollars for parks and open space --  were being cleared by Texas-based Matrix Oil and the city of Whittier, for a proposed drilling project in the Whittier Hills even though the project is facing lawsuits and there are questions regarding Whittier's authority over the land and whether the city would see any money from the deal.

What all these stories -- Whittier Narrows, Ballona Wetlands, Whittier Hills -- have in common is the exploitation of public lands for what is essentially private benefit.

In the case of the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary we see agencies, which have little or no background or interest in place-based nature education, seeking to build a monument to themselves. The better to announce to everyone -- the public, their rivals and partners, their superiors and subordinates -- that they are powerful and influential.

The Ballona case is an almost pure example of rent-seeking. Here we have a powerful organization, which is already receiving preferential tax treatment as a 501(c)3 charitable organization, seeking valuable public land at little or no cost to itself, for a project that, by rights, belongs in a heavily trafficked urban area. But that, of course, would entail buying or leasing land at market rates.

Take note, reader: Not only would Annenberg get precious public land for a song, but in the process it would deny a local city and its residents a legitimate contribution to the common good.

What is clear in all these cases is that powerful interests and their allies in government -- sometimes they are one and the same -- are trying to turn our public lands into their own private gold mines. 

Which seems like not such a new story at all. 

News links: 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Army Corps destruction in SF Valley preserve a preview of agency treatment of Whittier Narrows?

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the land management agency ultimately in charge of most of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, including most of the 11 or 12 acres the Discovery Center Authority needs for its water museum project. The corps' clear-cutting last month of 43 acres of land rich in plant life and wildlife in the San Fernando Valley's Sepulveda Basin wildlife preserve offers a cautionary tale for those of us concerned about the fate of our own wildlife sanctuary on the San Gabriel River.

As Los Angeles Times journalist Louis Sahagun wrote on Dec. 29: "An area that just a week ago was lush habitat on the Sepulveda Basin's wild side, home to one of the most diverse bird populations in Southern California, has been reduced to dirt and broken limbs — by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers." 

Sahagun reports that the corps had reclassified the preserve as a "vegetation management area," with a new mission to replace existing plants with new vegetation in order to "improve access for Army Corps staffers, increase public safety and discourage crime in an area plagued by sex-for-drugs encampments." The agency declared that no environmental impact report was necessary,  posted a Finding of No Significant Impact to its website for 15 days of public comment, but according to the Sierra Club "informed no one of its existence."

By Dec. 28, Sahagun wrote, "nearly all of the vegetation — native and non-native — had been removed. Decomposed granite trails, signs, stone structures and other improvements bought and installed with public money had been plowed under."

Reaction was swift and utterly predictable -- except by the corps apparently. Local chapters of Audubon, Sierra Club, the Native Plant Society, local neighborhood groups, state and federal representatives all voiced their shock, disbelief and disapproval of the corps' actions. And while the attention brought to the destruction of wildlife habitat and recreational resources and the failure to consider, inform and include the public in any meaningful way won't bring back those 43 acres, it might help to prevent such destruction of other areas managed by the corps and by other agencies.

That includes the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary.