Saturday, November 8, 2014

Wednesday, November 19th 2014, at 2 p.m. at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center (1000 Durfee Ave. South El Monte, Ca 91733 ~ Phone 626 575 5523)  the Nature Center's Docents docents will have a meeting with the representatives of the parties who manage the Natural Area, the water in the aquifer, the sanitation district,  the Regional Water Control Board, the Army Corps of Engineers,  the Greater Los Angeles Mosquito and Vector Control, and Mark Stanley of the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy over the plan to build a 100+ car parking lot and an artificial wetlands where the Aedes sp., has been found, which is a public health issue for the communities of the County especially near the Natural Area.  The Public is welcome to attend.

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.