Opinion » Commentaries

Why the Los Osos vote matters

Lessons from citizens in action - working for local democracy

by

comment

Anyone in SLO County who still wonders why the natives in Los Osos are loud and restless, please read on.

Of course you are tired of hearing about us and our problems with our waste, so no details about the merits of "this-or-that" plan will be found here.

So what gives, what the heck is happening out here? I offer some observations on the workings of one local government and its ties to issues of statewide significance, and what I have learned as a citizen volunteer and novice politician in one of the craziest fights in county history, with a showdown set to occur on Sept. 27, less than one week from today.

It should be about water, affordable housing, and sustainable development (but it's not). Realizing we had been duped once by a CSD "marketing plan" instead of an actual "buildable plan" (offering complete wastewater management, conservation, and recycling), the citizens of Los Osos found themselves with an uncomfortable "bait and switch" on their hands. We had been tricked by the "pretty pictures," only to learn that the CSD's "real plan" was destined to economically cleanse, to get the "riffraff" (i.e., poor people) out of town - upwards of 35 percent of current residents couldn't afford the solution and would be forced to leave their homes, friends, and jobs behind.

The current plan fails miserably - it's incomplete, costs are out of this world ($205+ per month so far), and it doesn't solve our water shortage problems at all. Vacant-lot owners are still hung out to dry. Many of us began to see that the dream of our own government and our desire for "local control" had turned into the nightmare of having only a few "locals in control" instead; the rest of us excluded and even more out of the loop than before. This was about to change.

Denied both information and power, the ranks of the disenfranchised increased, to include not only the hardest hit (the retired, disabled, and fixed-income residents), but the working professionals and young families who had been too busy to pay much attention. After politely calling, writing, and speaking repeatedly to their government, with deaf ears all around and no results, the demands for change in leadership escalated. Many of us "sideliners" jumped in with both feet; and began demanding professional accountability.

We asked, Why all those sole-source millions-of-dollars-contracts? Why are ex-board members also in line for almost another million in PR contracts? Why the missing financial files? Why no affordability study? Why a proposed fire tax three times higher (defeated) than what was needed? Why all those budget mistakes, and why all those closed doors and blank stares?

A Technical Task Force and many citizen groups formed in response to the troubled government, and alternatives to the most expensive per-capita sewer system in America were brought forward, ignored again by the same resistant few - who just happened to be a generously paid general manager, his gang of sole-sourced consultants, and the "CSD Three."

When two of us were swept into office last November, we had great optimism for what we could accomplish as elected officials. We came armed with facts, figures, science, and engineering experience, with goals for turning things around for our constituents. Convinced that by holding a large vote majority, surely changing past Board actions would occur quickly; the people had spoken, the mandate was clear: "Change direction now." But again, this did not occur; instead "the screws" were tightened down hard.

Meetings were reduced to one per month, citizen committees were cancelled, and private citizens were sued by the CSD for speaking out. Despite the fact that several hundred people regularly attend our meetings (where else in this county will you find this?), this Board made citizens wait until after midnight for public comment; meetings go 12 hours or more; often until 3 a.m. - hard on just about everyone and hardly any way to run a government.


If your community were faced with any of these dilemmas, what would be your choice?... After you ponder some of these happenings, maybe it will make more sense what all the fuss is about out here.

The people became frustrated while being ignored - recall signatures were collected and an initiative ballot qualified quickly. Concerned about the budget and obvious financial waste, they uncovered many problems with CSD business and those who had hijacked the town and the people's money. They were not able to accept that one paid employee and a band of hired consultants could be allowed to run the whole town into the ground, or that so much authority to spend so much of their money had been delegated to so few, with almost no oversight! Missing files, credit-card craziness, back-room lawyering, canceling committees, restricting meetings, and numerous Brown Act violations violating the people's right to be heard have been brought forward over and over again, falling on deaf and defensive ears. And how did every darn agenda item about Board financial accountability end up at the bottom of the list, carried over month after month, never to be heard?

All of the citizens of Los Osos are currently in the process of taking back ownership of their town on all sides of the issues, and it is a healthy sign. Citizens are awake, aware, and informed and are using their collective voices to be heard loud and clear - "Change direction now, or we must change it for you." They understand the current regime is in the throes of their own demise, that it will fall from its own weight. With each attempt to scare the citizens into submission, they only grow stronger. By attempting to use fear, they fail further with each and every move, and people's trust in their decisions decreases day by day. Consider this:

In just the last few months, this board (3-2) accepted sewer bids 46 percent higher than estimated, while two other plants are being built right now in SLO for one-third the cost! They scheduled the recall/initiative elections six weeks later than they could have, in the last possible week, in order "to educate the people." They made blatant attempts to "spend the people into submission," using our money of course, flying in the face of the free election destined to take place. They destroyed the trees, and they illegally (allegedly, this is now in court) set up construction offices and staging areas without all permits - in a residential area and school zone. If that weren't enough, they hijacked the public television channel and began running scare tactics, excerpts out of context, and selective information - clearly propaganda and electioneering; also illegal. Formal complaints from public advocacy group Cal-Aware and others have been filed against the district for these strong-arm tactics.

Citizens in Los Osos clearly understand that government agencies like our water boards are their public servants, not punitive masters of the universe. These professional employees have a charge to work cooperatively, not punitively, to help all citizens, including Los Osos, to find ways to keep water clean for the good of all us. State law and their mandate is not to "fine people out of their homes," but to work for the benefit of the people who pay their salaries - all of us: That is the real definition of a civil servant. Scare tactics about fines that are being used against the people can be very confusing, but the people now know where to read about the truth - and they know that we are the government - and we intend to keep it that way.

The people in Los Osos understand democracy well and they're working to improve it. People are taking back their town, and it feels great. Next week's vote will be the culmination of a rising tide of citizen involvement and activism like none that has been seen on the Central Coast in many years, and it's attracting statewide attention and talent because of these efforts.

Citizens show up - they come to our meetings, often after long workdays, hundreds each time, and demand to be heard. Protesters hail signs on the street corners daily, getting mostly the thumbs up, and one of the most respected public law firms in the state volunteers its services pro-bono to citizens - they say they have never seen a group of citizens fight so hard to save their town, and for such a noble cause. Nonprofits and newspapers debate our issues - many in our state are watching very closely what happens in Los Osos: Will the citizens get their chance to be heard?

So, after all is said and done, please ask yourself these same questions. If your community were faced with any of these dilemmas, what would be your choice?

After you ponder some of these happenings, maybe it will make more sense what all the fuss is about out here. The sewer plant location was just the largest of our problems - it is the proverbial tip of a very large iceberg. Bad government reared its head in Los Osos, but the response by the citizens is amazing - good people are ready to step up to the plate and work to make things better.

Citizens in Los Osos understand the honor and the power of the vote, and they intend to use it. With one of the highest voter turnouts in the county last year (87 percent), we expect that on Sept. 27, the 10,000-plus registered voters of Los Osos will finally have their say in their future, and it will come none too soon.

Lisa Schicker, LOCSD board member, can be reached through Arts Editor Jeff Hornaday at jhornaday@newtimesslo.com.

Add a comment