Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Briggs' Blown Opportunities

(Note: Did I hear something about a "letter writing campaign?" I don't know if it'll help, but here's my contribution... as always, SewerWatch style.)

TO: Roger Briggs, Executive Officer of the Central Coast Water Board
FROM: SewerWatch
SUBJECT: Blown Opportunities

Dear Mr. Briggs,

Let me see if I have this straight. Now you want to start fining Los Osos.


In your October 6 letter to the Los Osos CSD you say, "I remain hopeful that each of the Los Osos CSD directors will solemnly consider the long-range economic, social and environmental impacts to your community that would result from halting the wastewater project." Then you call for fat and crippling fines from the Central Coast Water Board.

Roger, I have one question. Where in the hell was that attitude six years ago? If you would have played that brand of hardball six years ago, I guarantee you, I am not writing this letter today.

In case you don't remember (and I know that you do), allow me to give you a quick refresher course:

Throughout 1998, you and your staff worked closely with the Solution Group. You tell them over and over again, that the sewer plan they whipped up over cocktails in a living room is not going to work in Los Osos.

Then, you sit on your hands and watch as the Solution Group's marketing campaign, developed by Pandora Nash-Karner, bamboozles Los Osos into believing that the deeply flawed project they whipped up over cocktails is "better, cheaper, faster" than the county's just about ready-to-go project.

In the run-up to the 1998 election that formed the CSD, the Central Coast Water Board staff -- that you were in charge of, Roger -- barely lifts a finger to counter Nash-Karner's aggressive, prolific, and less-than-accurate marketing efforts -- no community meetings, no flurry of badly-needed press releases, almost nothing from the Water Board staff. Just some wrist slapping, at best.

The Community Plan forms the CSD and gets Pandora Nash-Karner, Stan Gustafson and Gordon Hensley elected.

Roger, I want to give you an example of one of your slaps when you should have thrown an overhand right.

On March 4, 1999, just two months after the official start of the CSD, the CSD Board meets and unanimously dumps the county's project and begins their futile pursuit of the Community Plan -- a project that you already know isn't going to work in Los Osos.

Did you get an enforcement order "in front of their noses" at that meeting? No!

Instead you throw up this softball:

"The County's project remains the most feasible and timely project."

Nice one Rog. Thanks for that. I'm sure Los Osos really appreciates that effort. Scared 'em there, huh?


Here's what you should have done on March 4, 1999:

    You should have shown up at that meeting with enforcement action in hand, and said something like:

    "Look, guys, I'm going to be frank. We -- and by "we" I mean the Water Board staff and you CSD Directors, because it's obvious that the rest of your community has no idea what's going on due to the Solution Group's confusing and less-than-accurate marketing campaign -- "we" all know that your gimmicky little "Community Plan" is not going to work. It will not be better. It will not be cheaper. And it definitely will not be faster. It can't be any of those things, because it is not going to work, as we, and a bunch of other water quality types, have been telling you for the past year.

    So, with all that in mind, I'm just going to leave this enforcement order with you, and if you still want to pursue your unviable little fantasyland, you've been warned.

    Now, I want you to listen to me very closely. If there is one friggin' nanosecond of delay due to your pursuit of that paperweight you call a sewer project, we are going to start fining you, hard and fast."

Roger, if you would have had that attitude at the March 4, 1999 meeting, similar to your current attitude, I'm not writing this letter today.

As you know, the initial CSD Board, that included former Solution Group members Pandora Nash-Karner, Stan Gustafson and Gordon Hensley, promptly ignored you at that meeting, then wasted the next two years chasing their ridiculous project before finally dumping it in favor of their next ridiculous project that also, fortunately, just got dumped.

That's three -- count 'em, three sewer projects (1. The county's plan, 2. The ridiculous Community Plan, 3. The Tri-W fiasco) -- that flamed out, in large part, because you chose to play softball with the initial CSD Board six years ago. If you would have played the same hardball in 1999 that you are playing today, none of this happens.

To make matters worse, you even had a couple of chances to slightly redeem yourself a year later, in 2000, but you blew both of them, badly.

Allow me, again, to refresh your memory on those blown opportunities:

In 2000, after already wasting more than a year chasing their dim plan that you knew was not going to work, the Los Osos CSD finally sends you a project for consideration. You look at it for about 10 seconds and see that it calls for partial sewering of the prohibition zone, after you specifically told the CSD that partial sewering is unacceptable.

Let's pause for a moment and think about what transpired there, Roger. You tell Pandora and crew that partial sewering is out of the question, then, after wasting a year chasing a plan that you already know isn't going to work, Pandora and crew send you a version of that terrible plan and it calls for partial sewering.

Talk about a snub!

The moment that first project report/waste-of-paper landed on your desk in 2000, you should have calmly picked up the phone, called Buel, and said, "fines are a-comin'."

Unfortunately, instead of making that phone call to Buel, which could have finally knocked some sense into the initial CSD board, you opted to pop out another softball letter reminding them that partial sewering of the prohibition zone is unacceptable.

That was your second blown opportunity to avert this disaster.

Amazingly, as you know Roger, there was one more.

After reading another softball letter from your office, Pandora, Stan, Gordon and Bruce promptly waste even more precious time chasing their dim plan and then sent you almost the exact same flawed project, that included partial sewering.


Roger, when that second project report hit your desk, I have no idea how you resisted the urge to immediately grab a crow bar, drive down Los Osos Valley Road, walk up to the CSD office, pry open the door, ransack the office until you found the petty cash box, hold that box up to the faces of Pandora, Stan, Gordon and Bruce and say something like, "Consider this payment for fine number one-of-many, a--holes!"

At that time, the Water Board could have levied the largest possible fines at the earliest possible moment, and no one outside of Los Osos would have blinked. Your rationale for heavy-duty fines then would have been understandable, to the extreme:

  • In 1998, you and your staff tell the Solution Group that their sewer project/paperweight is not going to work. They ignore you, and aggressively market the Community Plan as "better, cheaper, faster" throughout Los Osos. It gets the CSD formed and Solution Groupers Pandora Nash-Karner, Stan Gustafson, and Gordon Hensley elected.

  • In 1999 and 2000, you and your staff tell the inital CSD Board that their sewer project/paperweight is not going to work. They ignore you, and waste two years chasing their dim plan.

  • In 2000, you and your staff tell the initial CSD Board that partial sewering of the prohibition zone is unacceptable. They ignore you, and promptly send you a project that contains partial sewering... twice!

The arrogance that the initial CSD board showed in jerking around the Water Quality Control Board from 1998 to 2000, blows me away to this day. I've never seen anything like it (well, of course, other than the way the Los Osos CSD treated the California Coastal Commission). And Roger, that entire time, after all of that, you did nothing but a little wrist slapping.

And NOW you want to start fining Los Osos? Right when they can finally undo six years of Solution Group "out-of-the-box thinking" fantasyland?

Los Osos can finally, finally start cleaning up the mess of the Solution Group by building a reality-based sewer system, with an out of town sewer plant, without expensive amenities like an amphitheater, tot lot, $5,000 drinking fountains, and all of that other crap, and now you want to start fining them, jeopardizing that glorious process.

I'm having a tough time wrapping my mind around that logic. Considering how you allowed this issue to fester over the last five years, Roger, how can you possibly justify your recent actions?

Look, Rog, I understand your frustration. You and I, buddy, belong to a select group of people that actually know what happened seven years ago in Los Osos. That group includes you, me, your staff members, Sorrel Marks and Gerhardt Hubner, SLO County engineer, George Gibson, and California Coastal Commission staff member, Steve Monowitz.

Trust me, we all understand your frustration, and you have our sympathy. But of all the people I just mentioned, you were the only one that had the authority to avert this disaster, and you failed at every opportunity, and now you've released the dogs just in time to attack the rescue team.

Memo to the Central Coast Water Board:

Please don't fail Los Osos this time. It's not the current CSD Board's fault. Pull off Briggs' dogs.

Ron Crawford



  • Ron - Mighty good as usual. You have a way of making the long, drawn-out saga understandable. Keep up the good work.

    The comment section will work better if you enable the "word verification" item in the Settings section for comments.

    That way you'll eliminate the spambots! Take care and keep on investigating.

    By Blogger NewsstandGreg, at 2:56 PM, October 18, 2005  

  • Ron,

    Good to have you back and especially good that you've turned the comments section back on.

    I understand your point of view. I hope that Roger Briggs does as well and I hope that he doesn't fine the CSD. Are you going to actually send the letter?

    I do wonder one thing, though. Do you really think this new CSD board will be able to accomplish their "move the sewer" goal in a way that won't raise the monthly bills for Los Osos residents? The primary reason I like the current project is because I can't see an out of town project actually costing any less money after one includes inflation and financing. If you can explain why it would be less expensive, I would be very happy.

    I guess that on the whole matter of fines, I have mixed feelings. If fines or the threat of fines causes the CSD to adopt the least expensive project (which I am convinced is TriW even with the various problems) more quickly, I would support the fines.

    Along those lines, if Pandora and crew did such a bang-up job because of their inexperience and hubris, what makes you think this new group is any more likely to get the job done right? They certainly seem rather quick to act (witness the stopping of construction before they even heard opinions on the question of whether this would cause the SRF loan to be called in) and they don't have a general manager who appears to have the experience necessary to help them make wise choices.

    You've pointed the finger at the past group quite effectively. Why not tackle the question of what the current group should do?

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 1:37 PM, October 19, 2005  

  • If the Solutions Group knew BEFORE the November 1998 CSD formation election that the Ponds of Avalon WOULD NOT WORK, then "inexperience and hubris" wasn't the problem: DISHONESTY was. If the new CSD is committed to honesty and getting accurate info and costs on whatever project they propose, then "inexperience and hubris" again won't be a problem, HONESTY will be.

    By Blogger Churadogs, at 7:40 AM, October 20, 2005  

  • Hey, Shark... good to have ya (you too, Ann), and thanks for the comment.

    You said:

    "what makes you think this new group is any more likely to get the job done right?"

    Because they don't live in fantasyland.

    They do not have a "project objective" of $2.3 million worth of "centrally located community amenities."

    They have not identified a "strongly held community value" that the sewer plant also double as a "recreational asset," and therefore must be downtown so all the "tots" can get to it.

    They do not have plans for $3,000 park benches, $5,000 drinking fountains, and $30,000 stainless steel gates (What? They couldn't diamond encrust them?).

    In other words, they are based in reality.

    Will they get the job done right? I have no idea. Are they "more likely to get the job done right." Without question.

    By Blogger Ron, at 10:20 AM, October 20, 2005  

  • Perhaps I should have phrased my question differently.

    Do you think there is much hope (even if there were no fines) that the new group could get a plant built for less than $200/month per household? While not thrilled with the previous plan, it did cap my costs somewhere near $200/month.

    I am afraid that the new group who has promised to "move the sewer no matter how much it costs" frightens me because I think they actually mean it. I get the sense that they would prefer $300/month as long as it is near the cemetary. To me, an extra $100/month for 20 years (net present value is some $15-18k) is a big deal. Even if Chuck doesn't care, I suspect that many of us would rather fix our bills at $200/month than even higher.

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 1:44 PM, October 20, 2005  

  • Ann,

    You claim that the Solutions Group knew in 1998 that their ponding plan and partial collection system would not work.

    The very same people who told the solutions group about the problems with their ponding plan are those who are telling the new group that the loan will be shut off and fines will be coming due to a lack of progress on the previous project. Those same people have told this new group that a step-steg collection system won't be acceptable and that a ponding system won't lower nitrates.

    It seems that both the solutions group/initial CSD and the current CSD are doing the same thing ... hoping that the RWQCB and the SWRCB doesn't really mean what they say. You call Pandora, Stan and Gordon liars because they should have known better. Shouldn't Julie, Lisa and Steve know better now than to continue to play chicken with a locomotive? What if their game ends badly? Will you blame them too?

    By Blogger Shark Inlet, at 1:50 PM, October 20, 2005  

  • Hello Shark,

    I want to respond to a couple of things:

    You said:
    "What if their game ends badly? Will you blame them too? "

    Absolutely, and they know it. I've already told them as much. But they would have to show the same horrible decision making as the previous board, and, I do not see that happening... I don't think it's possible.

    You said:
    "Do you think there is much hope (even if there were no fines) that the new group could get a plant built for less than $200/month per household?"

    I admit, I'm no wastewater engineer (although I feel I'm getting closer by the day), but if we were to use some general, ballpark, hazy figures, like the cost of the CMC facility, the cost savings of not having the expensive logistics of siting a sewer plant downtown, and a bunch of other stuff, it kinda-sorta begins to look like the cost of an out of town facility would be about the same, if not a little cheaper, than the Tri-W fiasco. But only because of the six years of fantasyland by the previous board. If they were to have pursued a similar reality-based project from the get-go, you'd be looking at about $80 a month.

    But the huge upside of all this, is that you won't have a sewer plant in the middle of your beautiful town, for no reason whatsoever, other than Pandora demanding a centrally located park in her sewer project, of course.

    By Blogger Ron, at 11:53 AM, October 21, 2005  

  • Falling down a rabbit hole was never so entertaining .... Fascinating and frightening at the same time. Collect the entire set of planning documents, published articles, blogs, other scattered collaterals and i-net ditritus and this has the makings of a best seller. Any way to add a little romance and maybe some international espionage? You guys are great writers .... go for it. [sigh] If this could only be taken so lightly.

    Recognizing that this affair now seems to be highly indeterminate and who knows how pending decisions may define (or re-define) the game, sooner or later somebody has to put down some well founded numbers so the real costs of any plan can be comprehended and, hopefully, compared. $80/month, $200/month, $300/month ... are any of these numbers derived from a legitmate cost analysis of a defined development, construction and maintenance plan? For the life of the facility? Comprehending future community needs? Even with line-item guesstimates a simple speadsheet would do much to describe reality. Until there is such a thing it seems any decisions are being made based more on hope than facts. And these are expensive quanta of hope. Seems only sensible to explore and know as much possible about these now than to make assumptions and continue down a path with so many uncertainties. If in the near future some otpions are bleaker than others then a more informed decision can be made then. Emergencies are seldom as emergent as they seem.

    Simply put there is no way this can end in anything but a train wreck. The wreck has already happened. It seems the best that can be done now is to build a train wreck that Los Osos can live with. Face it, the costs are going to be large. And abusive. So what do you want to buy with this abuse? And remember, some things are priceless and cannot be bought. Beaches, coastlines and beach communities are priceless. There's much than a few miles distance separating Long Beach from Laguna. What does Los Osos want to become? In the long run Los Osos is buying more than just a sewer with this decision.

    By Blogger NewArrival, at 11:39 AM, October 24, 2005  

  • Good points. I personally would rather have the treatment facility outside of towm if the price comes in the same or (could it happen?) lower. I don't think that it should be located on a sand dune designated as ESHA property; it should offer the opportunity for AG exchange; and it should address serious water issues in this town, for example, the possibility of having to buy state water. I could care less about a park, amenities, etc . and do not want to pay for them. We live in the midst of some of the most beautiful parks in the world!!! We should carefully consider what we want to buy with our "sewer money." Let's hope the new board can come in with a decent price tag.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:27 PM, November 01, 2005  

  • Dear Mr. Inlet,

    I guess you weren't at the last meeting last Tuesday night?
    You opine "what makes you think this new group is
    any more likely to get the job done right?" It seems that Mssrs. Briggs, Gustafson, and Madame Nash-Karner created the storm front to ensure that the right people would be put in place. You weren't there to listen to John Fouche's elegant and accurate explanation of both the fix the current board and the previous board found themselves in. John Fouche MS PE who in his "real" job
    works with storm / waste water solutions for CalTrans.
    And how about the impassioned speech by Mr. Blesky?
    Who was in charge of hundreds of millions of dollars of hardware and hundreds of lives?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:56 AM, December 09, 2005  

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