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Private Desal Meeting - Report, Photos, Background
Public officials from the past and present filed into the Museum of Art and History Monday night as Mike Rotkin and Cynthia Mathews, describing themselves as part of "the Sustainable Water Coalition," hosted a private, invite-only informational meeting in support of the proposed desalination plant project. The desal project, which so far has cost $6 million dollars to be studied, has been aggressively promoted by officials, and this private meeting has brought up issues of governmental transparency. This meeting punctuates a new era of suspicion concerning local politicians: during the planning of the desal project there have been conflicts of interest, including the selection of the URS Corporation to author the EIR, as well as recent ethics violations on the part of city officials.
I arrived at the museum about 15 minutes before the 7:30pm starting time for the event, with the intention of photographing those who attended, and to report on the scene outside. At that time approximately 20 people were quietly protesting at the Front Street entrance. The bulk of the group was comprised of people distributing printed information on behalf of the organizations Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives and Transition Santa Cruz. Paul Gratz, one of the leaders of Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, was among them. Also in attendance was a handful of other observers and protesters who were not affiliated with those organizations. Attorney Ed Frey was handing out small fliers imprinted with his web address, and Attorney and city council candidate Steve Pleich was also outside. He made it clear that he was not invited to the meeting, and he was not protesting; he was there to observe. He left rather quickly to attend that same evening's ACLU meeting, for which he is a board member of the local chapter. One man was using a hand held video camera to videotape the people entering the museum.
Reporters from Santa Cruz Patch, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and KION TV were there, as well as at least one freelancer. There weren't any picket signs outside, just people handing out printed alternative information, and the main group did not appear to attempt to enter the meeting. Someone involved with the event communicated that the patio in front of the museum was rented, and that protesters would have to leave the area, but no one left and no police or security ever arrived to address that. By the time the meeting actually began, most of the protesters had left, except for Paul Gratz and one other woman with Santa Cruz Desal Alternatives, who had also been handing out fliers. They suggested I should go inside, and I asked them if they planned to enter, and they said no, because they had heard it all before. I then decided to attempt to go inside and observe. I gave the attendants at the front door my name, they wrote it down on the list, and allowed me to go in.
Inside, Cynthia Mathews was introducing Bill Kocher, director of the Santa Cruz Water Department, and Laura Brown, director of the Soquel Creek Water District. The pair then shared the duties of presenting the basic desal information concerning the proposed project that has already been introduced to the public multiple times and in various forums. I was struck by how repetitive the information seemed to me, and their presentation always seems like a hard sell, as opposed to a more neutral communication of information. Bill Kocher continually punctuates the presentations with salesperson-like affirmations such as, "We need this!"
Mike Rotkin was nowhere to be seen inside, and it was unclear if any of those at the meeting were also members of the "Sustainable Water Coalition." When questioned through email, Rotkin and Mathews have so far not disclosed who has funded the group (and paid for renting the museum) and they have not disclosed the names of any of the other members of the coalition, or if there are even any other members at all. At times, the meeting had the feel of a private club filled with public officials, and clearly a group of them there had politically bonded over the issue and were using the event to further those connections.
Approximately 50 people were inside of the meeting. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that some of the public officials that were in attendance included county supervisors Ellen Pirie and John Leopold; Cabrillo College President Brian King; Santa Cruz Vice Mayor Don Lane and members of the city commissions; Gary Griggs, director of Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, geologist, and columnist for the Santa Cruz Sentinel; Jess Brown, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau; and Cleo O'Brien, a local government relations committee member for the Santa Cruz Board of Realtors. Also there was Mark Primack, the former Santa Cruz city council member and architect who is currently working on the Delaware Avenue live-work project. The presentation itself was taped for Community Television.
This meeting adds to a list of inappropriate activities and outright ethics violations committed by public officials with regards to the desal proposal.
In a stunning appearance of conflict of interest, the URS Corporation was chosen to author the desal proposal's Environmental Impact Report (EIR). URS Corporation was also one of the authors of UC Santa Cruz's 2005 Long Range Development Plan (LRDP). That LRDP created a quite a controversy for the rate at which the Santa Cruz campus was projected to grow, and at the time of its inception, the city sued UCSC over it. In 2008, however, the city and UCSC came to an agreement which would essentially clear the path for the university's big growth plans through 2020. In the Notice of Preparation (NOP) for the desal project, it was stated that the project would not be growth inducing, and the proponents of the project often assure the public that it is not a plan designed to increase the size of our community, it is for emergency use. Did that agreement in 2008 between the city and UCSC include a secret desal deal?
URS Corporation is an engineering firm which is one of the top 100 governmental contractors. At the time of the authoring of the LRDP, on the board of directors of URS Corporation for 30 years was Richard Blum, who was at the time and still is a UC Regent. He also presently manages a multi-billion dollar portfolio for his firm Blum Capital in San Francisco, and he is the husband of Senator Dianne Feinstein. That URS was chosen for the desal EIR is certainly a conflict of interest, and the company also has a sullied building record. The URS Corporation is known for having conducted a fatigue evaluation for the I35W Mississippi River Bridge in 2003. The bridge famously collapsed in 2007, and URS wound up paying out a settlement. URS was also involved with UC Merced's LRDP, as well as parts of UC Berkeley's. In 2007, Senator Feinstein resigned from the Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee when it was discovered that she had approved military construction projects which were awarded to her husband's companies, one of which was URS Corporation. Also of note, Dianne Feinstein made headlines in 2010 for choosing one side during a water issue that would have had the effect of increasing the water supply to Southern California at the expense of Northern California in a California Delta water issue.To accomplish this, she urged President Obama to loosen restrictions that protected an endangered species, and it was revealed that she had received a letter encouraging her to do so by one of her big campaign donors, Stewart Resnick. He is a wealthy, Californian corporate farmer who owns Paramount Farms, and he donated $29,000 to Feinstein's senatorial campaign.
To develop any tidelands area of the California coast, a license from the state is required, and The California State Lands Commission (CSLC) is the governing body. The CSLC has requested that the issue of growth be addressed in the EIR. Members of the commission include the Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, the State Controller and the State Director of Finance. In one interview concerning state water issues, Newsom stressed conservation as the primary method of dealing with water shortages, but he also pointed to the desal plans that San Francisco and Contra Costa Counties have partnered to create as also necessary. In his bid for the office of San Francisco mayor, Newsom was listed as having received $27,000 from Stewart Resnick and his associates, and this may give a general indication of the type of water interests who have access to Newsom's ear.
These EIR issues join other issues of ethics with regards to the behavior of public officials and the proposed desal project. In August the Santa Cruz Sentinel reported that the state had found that Mayor Ryan Coonerty, Vice Mayor Don Lane, and Water Department Director Bill Kocher had been involved in a second ethics violation regarding a desal flier that was mailed out to 24,000 residences, and was signed by public officials.
In January of this year City Attorney John Barisone wrote a controversial letter to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) which oversees a lot of the growth issues in the area. He wrote the letter without the direction of the city council, and though the LAFCO decision did not go his way, at least one city council member alerted the public that he was not authorized to do what he did.
To email the Santa Cruz City Council about these issues:
citycouncil [at] cityofsantacruz.com
For more information:
http://www.slc.ca.gov/ California State Lands Commission
http://www.scwd2desal.org/ The official government website for the project
Bill Kocher (left), Don Lane (center), Meeting Attendee (right).
Vice Mayor Don Lane was chatting with Water Department Director Bill Kocher shortly before the meeting, while eating his dinner on the steps of the McPherson Center.
This is one of the three photos of Lane that inspired his throwing a sandwich at me, which was reported on at Santa Cruz Patch:
I will be publishing my full account of what happened with the food throwing soon.
Gary Griggs, attending the meeting.
“Santa Cruz’s future is not just about numbers and progression,” Gary Griggs said in a November 13, 2008 interview with UCSC's City on a Hill press. “It’s also about potential.”
Griggs is the well known UCSC professor, geologist, and Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist who heads the Institute of Marine Sciences. He was once named a "rockstar of science" and he has a history of local environmental-related activism dating back to the early 1970s.
Most recently, Griggs was part of what was called a "hostile takeover" attempt at altering the make-up of the leadership of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. Though he had only become a member of the Sierra Club last year, Griggs joined with Cynthia Matthews, Fred Keeley, and others in an attempt to "broaden" the scope of the Sierra Club's vision by addressing certain specific issues, which included the proposed desal plant.
Long Marine Lab's gorgeous coastal location was the site of the $4 million dollar test desal plant, which operated until 2009 as a pilot project for the larger local plant proposal. UCSC and the Santa Cruz Water Department were reported as working closely together for the project.
In late 2010, Griggs gave his support to a desalination plant planned for Moss Landing by Moss Landing Water, which is a partnership between the Calera Corp. and Desal America, and he officially joined an advisory board for the project.
In 2004, Griggs aligned with the pro-growth projection of UCSC's LRDP. He was a member of the Strategic Futures Committee, which was one of the UC Santa Cruz campus committees that served in an advisory capacity during the writing of the 2005 LRDP, and the committee echoed the recommendation that the campus plan to accommodate up to a 21,000 enrollment, which at the time was seen as a dramatic increase in growth by local public officials, and of course we know who helped author the EIR.
In 2001, the Long Marine Laboratory began to consider the expansion at Terrace Point. Leaders of the marine science campus went through different design plans for the site, and at one time hoped for 80 units of apartments to be built. The design was scaled down and later the campus sought to expand by 12 acres and hoped to add a new wing that would include lodging for 9 or 10 faculty members. The project required a sign off by the UC Regents, of which Richard Blum was a member. The Santa Cruz Chapter of the Sierra Club urged the California Coastal Commission to reject the plan in 2006, and the Coalition to Limit University Expansion also objected to it. At the time, Griggs criticized the environmental groups who wished to protect the wetlands that the marine campus addition would be built on top of, and he claimed they were arguing whether the "soil was damp." The plan was projected to cost tens of millions of dollars.
Architect and former Santa Cruz city council member Mark Primack (left), protesters (right).
Meeting Attendee (left), Cabrillo College President Brian King (right)
Cynthia Mathews, inside, greeting attendees.
Meeting Attendee (left), and in the background on the right is Attorney Ed Frey, who was handing out fliers promoting his website:
Meeting Attendees, and Paul Gratz on the right.
Meeting Attendee (right)
County Supervisor John Leopold enters (center), flanked by protesters.
Protester (left), Meeting Attendee (right)
Meeting Attendee (center) Cynthia Mathews (right)
1- I neglected to mention that there was a question and answer period after the main presentation at the meeting. Attendees were invited to write their questions down, and Kocher and Brown chose which ones to answer.
2- Here is the original email invite for the meeting:
Dear Community Leader,
As you know, the need to address our community's water challenges could not be more urgent. While there are differing views about the proposal for the City of Santa Cruz and the Soquel Creek Water District to build a local desalination facility, there is no doubt that maintaining the status quo is not a viable option.
We are vulnerable to major community disruption in the event of a severe drought.
Our groundwater aquifers are threatened with saltwater intrusion
Federal officials working to restore endangered species will limit our use of existing surface water supplies in the future
The Sustainable Water Coalition has come together to help the community understand our vulnerability to water shortages in the years ahead and to ensure that all options - including desalination-remain on the table as we search for the means to achieve a sustainable water future.
We are writing to invite you and other community leaders to join us at a special briefing to get a complete update on our community's water situation and learn what you can do to ensure an adequate water supply in the years ahead.
Bill Kocher, head of the City of Santa Cruz Water Department, and Laura Brown, head of the Soquel Creek Water District, will discuss the water districts' challenges, research conservation efforts, and critical decisions ahead; the Sustainable Water Coalition will describe opportunities for community members to get involved, with time for Q & A.
Please join us:
Community Water Issues Briefing
Monday, September 19, 7:30 pm
McPherson Center for Art and History - auditorium
705 Front Street, downtown Santa Cruz
We promise an efficient, information-filled meeting, with plenty of time for your questions. We'll also provide desserts and coffee. This is an invitation-only event, and space is limited. Please reply to let us know if you will be able to join us. We look forward to seeing you September 19.
Mike Rotkin SUSTAINABLE WATER COALITION PO Box 8305, Santa Cruz, CA 95060
Bruce Bratton published it a couple of weeks ago at: http://brattononline.com/
3- During the radio interview with Robert Norse I talk about the cost of the project being $6 million so far, and how that could translate to a lot of social services if spent that way....I'm obviously speaking philosophically about that, and as if the money spent could all be used for services, which it technically could not, of course.
4- Conflict of Interest - While it is possible there has been a conflict of interest with regards to the desal plant and the growth of the City of Santa Cruz, and UCSC, and the involvement of Blum, the UC Regent, and former board member of URS Corporation, which has authored portions of the 2005 UCSC LRDP Environmental Impact Report, and also is currently working on the desal proposal's EIR, I have not provided enough research material to support that, and I do not allege that it has occurred. It is important to note this, because it is certainly possible to show conflicts of interest through extended background research, but I have not completed enough research on these interconnected issues to ascertain any true and direct conflicts yet. Please add to the research if you can, though.