Sunday, July 03, 2005

Sooooo Screwed Up

On her great blog, Los Osos writer, Ann Calhoun asks, "How in hell did such a project get sooooo screwed up in the first place? "

Ann, I know the answer to that question. And, now that I think about it, I may be the ONLY person that knows the answer to that question.

How did it get so screwed up in the first place? I can sum it up with one line:
"Out-of-the-box thinking"

As some Los Osos residents might remember, when the CSD was formed under less-than-clear circumstances, the initial CSD Board was very proud of itself, and was sure that other communities would look to Los Osos as a "model" on how to develop public policy through "out-of-the-box thinking." Mission partially accomplished. Other communities ARE looking at Los Osos, alright, but to see how NOT to develop public policy, and, something tells me, other communities will be looking at Los Osos' examples for decades to come.

Without a doubt, the LOCSD's interpretation of "out-of-the-box thinking" is why the project is "sooooo screwed up." Without a friggin' doubt. Follow me on this, you'll enjoy the ride:

I want to focus on one amazingly excellent example of the LOCSD's "out-of-the-box thinking" that has led directly to today's mess.

In the document that details this ridiculous project, the Facilities Report, there's a set of five criteria that was used to prioritize site alternatives. Four of the five criteria were reasonable. They were things like "Cost" and "Regulatory." But it's that fifth one that I have a HUGE problem with. It's called "Community Acceptance," and it was the initial CSD board's "out-of-the-box thinking" that created that critical siting criteria. The "Community Acceptance" criteria essentially says that any sewer project in Los Osos is going to have to reflect the "strongly held community value" of including a park in a sewer plant. The problem is, that "strongly held community value" is completely unsubstantiated. And to worsen the problem, the "Community Acceptance" criteria made Tri-W #1 in the site rankings. (At least that's what I remember from a meeting about five years ago. I have to rely on memory because, as I reported last September -- both the site rankings and the method used to spit out the numbers, are missing from the Facilities Report and no one knows where they are! That just blows me away -- something as important as the site rankings is suspiciously missing from such an important document. And I still want to, just out of curiosity, redo the "model," but this time leave the deeply flawed "Community Acceptance" criteria out of the equation. Does Tri-W still come out number one? I've got $20 that says it doesn't. Then what? "Oooops?")

When I was researching Three Blocks Upwind of Downtown, I asked LOCSD General Manager, Bruce Buel if a version of the siting model was conducted with the "Community Acceptance" criteria removed from the equation. He said, "No."

Now that I am looking at that phrase -- "Community Acceptance" -- it reminds me of something else that has always bothered me about that particular wording: It's a gigantic, misleading euphemism!

"Community Acceptance?" Which "community" is it referring to? Certainly not Los Osos in 2000, because THAT community had recently voted not to be taxed $10 a year for public recreation. THAT community was so worried about massive sewer bills showing up in their mailboxes, that they weren't in any mood to shell out another dime of tax money for parks anywhere in Los Osos... LET ALONE IN A SEWER PLANT! That's why Measures E-97 and D-97 FAILED, remember? The first CSD Board, apparently, forgot.

I have two questions: 1) Why was "Community Acceptance" a siting criteria in the first place? And 2) Why wasn't it titled something more accurate, like "Parks and Recreation?" I can't even venture a guess to that first question (but I WILL get that question answered. I promise... just give me a little more time), but allow me to take a stab at answering that second question: Because Los Osos taxpayers had just voted that they did not want to be taxed for parks and recreation. So, if "Community Acceptance" had been titled "Parks and Recreation," it would have been easily spotted and immediately removed, therefore leaving no rational for the "project objective" of "centrally located amenities" at the "centrally located" Tri-W site. But if you call it "Community Acceptance," then it's all smiley-smiley, nicey-nice. Who doesn't want "community acceptance?" Then, the end-around is complete. Circumvention of taxpayer's will accomplished. The cost of the park is now tucked into your sewer project. And the consequences of that park, in that project, have been disastrous!

Another thing that bothers me about calling that criteria "Community Acceptance" is the perfect use of doublespeak. How did that meeting go? "O.K. Here's what we'll do... let's call the criteria that contains stuff that the community does not accept, community acceptance." Perfect. If at first you don't succeed at the ballot box, then hide the cost of your park in your sewer project. I would love to know who, specifically, a name, came up with those two words: "Community Acceptance?" Those two words are infuriating and insulting.

So, there's your answer, Ann. The LOCSD's "out-of-the-box thinking" led to the "project objective" of "centrally located amenities." And those amenities (a.k.a park) led to the "centrally located" Tri-W site, and, because of its central location, tens of millions of dollars of visual, environmental and odor mitigation has to be added to the project. ALL of that cost is on the park -- a park that Los Osos has already voted it does not want to be taxed for. That, is how the project got "sooooo screwed up in the first place."

According to, Trever Cartwright's book In the Box Thinking, "Out-of-the-box thinking is now a thing of the past." After watching the LOCSD's act for the past six years, I understand why.

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(Incidentally, at the last CSD meeting, it was revealed that the cost of the amenities is now over $2 million, on top of the tens of millions of dollars needed to accommodate them.)

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'til next time


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