There's a sentiment frequently cited in public documents from Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee's AB-2701 all the way down the trough that goes something like this: The process of building a sewer in Los Osos will require a great deal of trust.
In the interest of building that elusive stuff, Public Works Deputy Director Paavo Ogren organized a "townhall" meeting for Dec. 18 at Los Osos Middle School. The forum featured little in the way of public input and much public presentation. Ogren, admittedly, drew the masses with promises of an announcement on the county's willingness to pursue an effluent STEP collection system over a gravity system the hot topic of the hour.
At the meeting, well-dressed public works engineers, hydrologists, and financial types unveiled a process and a timeline aggressively rigorous compared to former plans. To the chagrin of many, the docket displayed an assessment vote date via a mail-out ballot approving the property lien required to fund the sewer long before the actual selection of a project. Thus the leap of faith.
Unfortunately, trust in Los Osos remains in short supply. Many locals are wary of what they see as a decade of derailed projects, allegedly incestuous bonds between deciders and profiteers, and teeming schools of misinformation. Supervisor-elect Bruce Gibson lamented the possibility of another procedural collapse, which would almost certainly burden the county taxpayers with all of the district's liability.
"If this sewer project does not come to fruition, we enter a place of deep uncertainty," Gibson said at the meeting. "I ask you to bring an open mind and patience."
A tenuous relationship between the county and the CSD has much of Osos on the edge of its seat, as the two public bodies shake over sewer solutions with one hand and thumb wrestle in court over district assets with the other.
"There's been some bumps in the road, but we're committed to work with the CSD," Ogren said at the Dec. 18 forum.
Three days prior, state attorney Bill Abbey, beside county bankruptcy counsel, vehemently protested a decision by standing judge Robin Riblet to award stewardship of the controversial properties known as Tri-W (a once-and-future potential sewer site) and Broderson (set aside as potential mitigation) back to the CSD. In the ruling of the court, the county tried to put the cart before the mule seizing assets under AB-2701 before the public body had actually agreed to adopt the project.
A source of confusion and irritation seemed to be a series of proposed amendments suggested by various players in the Los Osos saga this past spring that apparently never landed on the AB-2701 draft before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made his mark.
"I think [the old language] was left in purposely for leverage, and [now] it is backfiring," local attorney Gail McPherson commented.
Assemblyman Blakeslee's office couldn't account for the purported language leak and referred to the county for its intentions in interpreting the active code.
"We talked to both parties, and we're confident both parties can work that situation out," Blakeslee legislative aid Christine Robertson said.
CSD president Lisa Schicker, fresh from scoring the bankruptcy win in Santa Barbara and frustrated by the county's attempted land grab, disclosed plans to discuss voluntary dissolution of the district on Dec. 28. Board members complained that they need all assets to keep the district solvent.
Director Julie Tacker commented that the county's efforts on multiple fronts belied its stated desire of establishing a partnership with the CSD.
"The June 19 [county] staff report talks about an interagency agreement. There is no interagency agreement, and the project moves forward," Tacker said. "Where's our voice? We don't have one."
The county's perpetual interest in the district's property continues to arouse suspicion that Ogren wants to resume work with major elements of the deposed board's project, which stalled following a 2005 recall election. He maintained a desire to keep a STEP collection system on the table, but expressed the need to "break the chain" of endless revisions and project redrafting.
As far as the litigation, "that aspect of the legal environment is normal," he said.
Naturally, project specifics and timelines mean a great deal to the general citizenry of Los Osos, but to 45 households, they mean the world.
Hanging like a sword of Damocles over 45 prohibition zone homeowners since March, the water board's threat of cease-and-desist orders (CDO) continues to frenzy the already well-stirred bedroom community. The adopted version of the drafts requires the periodic pumping of septic tanks and mandates connection to a sewer system by July of 2011.
Failure to comply could trigger fines as high as $5,000 per day, which, recipients contend, would render their homes unlivable and unmarketable. The possibility also exists that a sewer will not exist by the compliance date.
Yet, when the first actual CDO came down on prohibition zone resident Chris Allebe on Dec. 15 in San Luis Obispo, the retired police officer didn't even know it happened.
"For myself you haven't decided as yet if I get a CDO yet," Allebe said after what he interpreted as an innocuous procedural vote.
"We just voted on that," water board chairman Jeff Young related to a visibly confused Allebe. "We just issued a cease-and-desist order to you."
Throughout the two-day hearing, questions abounded as to the constitutionality of the hearings. The administrative proceeding, bearing potentially criminal ramifications for homeowners, was founded on the water code, which affords little in the way of criminal due process.
A frustrated David Duggan, arguing on behalf of CDO recipient Cynthia Coleman, likened the process to the dark days of Joe McCarthy. Board members responded by rolling their eyes, declining to dignify Duggan's complaint with a response.
Other recipients, many of whom defended themselves, also griped over what one woman dubbed "a guess and check process." At one point, a board member queried if the panel possessed contempt powers.
"This has never been done in the history of California they're basically winging it," attorney McPherson said of the ad hoc trials.
McPherson spearheaded an attempt to bring water board executive officer and lead CDO drafter Roger Briggs back from a six-month absence. That issue is still up in the air.
Beneath the procedural complaints, the collective defense objected heavily to a mountain of evidence barred by the board. Most of the excluded information pertained to the state and regional water boards' role in last year's collapse of the State Revolving Fund loan the event that prompted the water board staff to pursue prosecution of individual homeowners in Los Osos.
Residents also protested an admitted lack of evidence by the prosecution linking their homes to basin-plan-violating septic discharges. Reportedly unable to sample individual wells, Matt Thompson of the prosecution team relied on a blanket assertion that any home using a septic tank in the prohibition zone must be dumping nitrates into the groundwater table. The debate cut to the crux of the issue as to who, in such a case, bears the burden of proof.
In a cross-examination, Thompson and co-prosecutor Reed Sato asked Allebe if he, in fact, discharged. The retiree chose to plead the Fifth Amendment.
Calling the possibility of future criminal proceedings "remote and speculative," board counselor John Richards sternly reminded Allebe that he remained under oath. Young concluded that the board would not force him to respond, but warned that a non-statement could constitute an admission of guilt.
"If Mr. Allebe wasn't discharging, he didn't bring that forward as a defense," board member Gary Shallcross concluded. "I think a reasonable person would have if they were not discharging."
Most of the challenging residents followed suit, and, so far, all have been issued CDOs. The hearings will resume in January for the final three homeowners challenging the prosecution team.
Staff writer Patrick M. Klemz can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.