Thursday, July 01, 2010

O.K., Let's Try This Again: The SLO County Grand Jury, Revisited

[NOTE: In January 2006, I asked the SLO County Grand Jury to investigate the circumstances (detailed below... again) that led to the siting of the mid-town Tri-W sewer plant in Los Osos. They responded by telling me that they "didn't have the time" to look into the matter. HAD they investigated my complaint in early 2006, the Tri-W project would have died then -- in 2006 -- for the exact same reasons why SLO County officials didn't even come close to choosing it as their preferred project... in 2010! It'll be interesting to see what the SLO County Grand Jury's excuse is this time.]

Dear SLO County Grand Jury,

Thank you for the opportunity to file this complaint against a local government agency.

If I were to bottom-line my complaint in one question, it's this:

Whatever happened to the so-called "Tri-W sewer project" that the Los Osos Community Services District (LOCSD) spent some seven years and $25 million developing from 1998 - 2005?

That "project" simply vanished, without a word -- AFTER $25 million of taxpayer money and 7 years was spent on it... it just went away.

Furthermore, that project simply vanished very recently, so, even though some of the facts in my complaint date back to 1998, the Statute of Limitations clock on my complaint, seemingly, just started ticking about a month ago, when the Tri-W project was finally, and officially, ruled out as an alternative by the California Coastal Commission. So this complaint, although some elements date back more than a decade, is as fresh as one month old.

So, what happened?

Why did the 1998 - 2005 Los Osos CSD spend some seven years and $25 million developing an "infeasible" (according to official SLO County documents) sewer project with a "mid-town" sewer plant, yet, that same project, in the end (which was just about a month ago), didn't even come close to working?

The unique aspect of this complaint, however, is that, after reporting on this story over the past 20 years with various publications, and then, later, on my blog, I already know the answer to my question.

What I am hoping to accomplish with this complaint, is to get the SLO Grand Jury (and therefore the people of Los Osos, SLO County, and California) to know the answer to my question, because the answer to my question is amazing.

And, because I have investigated this story since the 1990s, I can also save your Grand Jury a lot of time.

Here's how your investigation should proceed:

Start with a 2001 LOCSD document known as the "Statement of Overriding Considerations" (SOC).

I've made that document available for download at this link:

http://www.slocreek.com/Statement_override.pdf

That document is the smoking gun to why the 1998 - 2005 Los Osos CSD spent (read: wasted) $25 million and seven years on an "infeasible" project.

Here's why:

As I first reported in 2007, at this link:

http://sewerwatch.blogspot.com/2007/11/what-ought-to-be-law-part-ii-oh-wait.html

... California environmental law (CEQA) allows for a government agency to "override" the findings of an Environmental Impact Report for a public works project through a SOC, however, ALSO according to State Environmental law, the SOC must be "supported" by "substantial evidence in the record."

In their SOC, the 2001 LOCSD Board overrode the entire environmental review process for the Los Osos wastewater project -- a process that pointed to a project almost identical to the County's currently proposed project, that recently gained final approval by the California Coastal Commission -- using only two reasons.

In their SOC, the 2001 District Board writes:

    "An in-town site (Tri-W) was chosen over other locations because:

    - It results in the lowest cost for the collection system by centrally locating the treatment facility within the area served: and

    - It enables the treatment plant site to provide open space centrally located and accessible to the citizens of Los Osos;"

And that's it... the reasons stop there. Just those two are listed for why "an in-town site (Tri-W) was chosen over other locations."

And that's all it took to toss the entire 2000 - 2001 environmental review process for the Los Osos wastewater project out of the window, a process that showed that sites out of town and downwind of Los Osos were "environmentally preferred," and therefore the District was legally obligated, through CEQA, to choose one of those sites -- just like the County recently, and successfully, did -- unless, of course, they decided to pop out a SOC... which they promptly did.

The problem?

That SOC was fabricated, and what really strikes me about that 2001 SOC, is that not only is it fake, but it's over-the-top obvious that it is just made-up.

Neither one of those two reasons even comes close to holding a drop of water.

For example, the LOCSD writes, "It (the mid-town Tri-W site) results in the lowest cost for the collection system by centrally locating the treatment facility within the area served."

Not even close to being true.

According to numerous official SLO County documents, building a sewer plant in the middle of Los Osos ADDS tens of millions of dollars to the project.

In their 2007 "Pro/Con Analysis" of the various project alternatives for Los Osos, county officials write:

"(Tri-W's) downtown location (near library, church, community center) and the high density residential area require that the most expensive treatment technology, site improvements and odor controls be employed."

and;

"The (Tri-W sewer plant) has high construction costs..." ($55 million. The next highest treatment facility option is estimated at $19 million.)

and;

"(The Tri-W project has) higher costs overall"

See the obvious problem there?

The 2001 LOCSD overrode the entire environmental impact report for their wastewater project because they claimed that the Tri-W project would "result in the lowest cost... by centrally locating the treatment facility within the area served."

However, careful county analysis (six years later) shows the exact opposite to be true.

Which means, had the 2001 LOCSD not overrode their own EIR for no reason whatsoever, what SLO County officials just accomplished in 2010 -- a wastewater project with a sewer plant out of town -- would have happened starting in 2001.

To make matters much worse, here's what the 2007 Pro/Con Report also says about the Tri-W project:

    - "(Tri-W's) downtown location (near library, church, community center) and the high density residential area require that the most expensive treatment technology, site improvements and odor controls be employed."

    and;

    - "Very high land value and mitigation requirements"

    and;

    - Tri-W energy requirements: "Highest"

    and;

    - "Small acreage and location in downtown center of towns require most expensive treatment"

    and;

    - "Limited flexibility for future expansion, upgrades, or alternative energy"

    and;

    - "Source of community divisiveness"

    and;

    - "All sites are tributary to the Morro Bay National Estuary and pose a potential risk in the event of failure. Tri-W poses a higher risk..."

    and;

    - "NOTE: It was the unanimous opinion of the (National Water Research Institute) that an out of town site is better due to problematic issues with the downtown site."

    and;

    - "ESHA – sensitive dune habitat"

Gets worse.

According to the March 2009, "Los Osos Wastewater Project Community Advisory Survey," conducted by county officials, "Only (9-percent) of (Prohibition Zone) respondents chose the mid-town (Tri-W) location (as their preference for the treatment facility)."

... and worse:

In a June 2009 letter to the California Coastal Commission, the SLO County "Project team," states, "The Project team, given the clear social infeasibility issue associated with Mid Town (Tri-W project) and the infeasible status of the LOCSD disposal plan, believes that if either of those options are deemed by decision-makers to be the best solution for Los Osos, then serious consideration should be given by the Board (of Supervisors) to adopt a due diligence resolution and not pursue Project implementation."

... and worse:

I recently asked SLO County environmental specialist, and Los Osos wastewater project planner, Mark Hutchinson, to, today, put himself in the shoes of the people that were responsible for the $25 million Tri-W embarrassment.

He just laughed... out loud. That was his answer to that great question; laughing.

So, look at the amazing question that all of this presents:

Why did the 2001 Los Osos CSD fabricate a brief, 3-page document -- the SOC -- and then use it as the only rationale to lock in a wildly unpopular, "infeasible," laughably embarrassing mid-town sewer plant project that had "higher costs overall" than all other alternatives?

Like I wrote above, I also already know the answer to that amazing question.

The answer to that question dates back to 1998.

In 1998, the County of SLO actually had a wastewater project for Los Osos "ready to go," however, a small citizens group, known as the "Solution Group," objected to that project, calling it "ruinously expensive," so the Solution Group developed an alternative wastewater project, that they heavily marketed to the community throughout 1998 as "better, cheaper, faster" than the county's "ready to go" project.

The problem was, throughout 1998, every governmental agency involved in the matter was telling the Solution Group that their alternative project simply wasn't going to work in Los Osos.

However, that didn't stop the Solution Group from heavily marketing their project to the voters of Los Osos, and telling those voters that if they established a Community Services District in Los Osos in November of 1998, and voted in Solution Group members as the initial Board, the Solution Group-turned-LOCSD Board would kill the county's then-"ready to go" project, and implement their "better, cheaper, faster" project -- a project that proposed a series of "drop dead gorgeous" "odorless" ponds, on "50 -70 acres" as the project's treatment facility at (and here's the kicker) the mid-town Tri-W site.

The Solution Group also advertised their project at "a maximum monthly payment of $38.75."

Los Osos voters bit, and, in November 1998, more than 80-percent of the town's voters established the Los Osos CSD, and elected several Solution Group members to its initial Board.

In early 1999, that same Solution Group/CSD Board officially killed the county's "ready to go" project (that county officials had spent some four years developing and county taxpayers had spent some $6 million paying for), and began work on their "better, cheaper, faster" project.

Again, the problem?

Every single one of those government agencies that told the Solution Group, throughout 1998 (before the LOCSD election) that their project wasn't going to work, were 100-percent right.

After a nearly two-year (futile) pursuit, the Solution Group's "better, cheaper, faster" project failed, as predicted.

In the summer of 2000, I authored a New Times cover story, Problems With the Solution, that showed how the Solution Group's "better, cheaper, faster" project -- a project that was solely responsible for forming the Los Osos CSD in the first place AND killing the county's 1998 "ready to go" project -- was on the verge of failing. One month after my story was published, that project failed.

So, why did the 2001 LOCSD fabricate a Statement of Overriding Considerations, and then use it as the only rationale to lock in a wildly unpopular, "infeasible," laughably embarrassing mid-town sewer plant project that had "higher costs overall" than all other alternatives?

There's no other plausible answer: To cover-up the fact that the project that they heavily sold to voters as "better, cheaper, faster," with "a maximum monthly payment of $38.75," and was the ONLY reason the Los Osos CSD was formed in the first place, AND that killed the county's 1998 "ready to go" project, had failed.

Beginning in late 2000, the Solution Group-turned-LOCSD Board needed something to keep the treatment facility for their second proposed (and entirely different) sewer project at the exact same location as their first "better, cheaper, faster" failed project, and their fabricated (and therefore, illegal) SOC was that "something"... and it worked.

Gets worse.

As I first reported at this link:

http://sewerwatch.blogspot.com/2009/07/exclusive-sewerwatch-investigation-how.html

One of the co-founders of the Solution Group, Gary Karner's bio reads:
    (Gary Karner) "was in private practice with The SWA Group, Planners and Landscape Architects, with an international practice and eight offices nationally, as a Managing Principal and Senior Project Manager of the firm. He specialized in project management and risk management with SWA for 27 years and is currently retained by SWA to consult on risk management."


The other co-founder of the Solution Group, Karner's wife, Pandora Nash-Karner, was elected to the initial Los Osos CSD Board of Directors.

Almost immediately after she took office as the District's "vice-president," official LOCSD documents associated with the Solution Group's "better, cheaper, faster"/dead-on-arrival "project" (and, later, the District's vastly redesigned second project) began containing the words, "SWA Group."



Incidentally, the second reason given in the 2001 SOC for why "an in-town site (Tri-W) was chosen over other locations:"

- "It enables the treatment plant site to provide open space centrally located and accessible to the citizens of Los Osos"

... simply makes no sense whatsoever, obviously.

Think about it... the 2001 Los Osos CSD Board overrode the entire EIR, and added tens of millions of dollars to the project, just so the people of Los Osos could easily get to their mid-town sewer plant so they could "picnic" in it?

Huh?

In other words, there isn't a shred of "substantial evidence" anywhere "in the record" that supports the 2001 Los Osos CSD's Statement of Overriding Considerations, as required by State environmental law.

Another question that I'm hoping your Grand Jury can answer is:

"How did an EIR that was based solely on a clearly fake (and therefore, clearly illegal) SOC get certified in the first place?"

That question, I don't already know the answer to, and that illegal certification led to 10-years-and-counting of very, very expensive, and environmentally costly, delay.

Thank you for your time,
Ron Crawford

P.S. On your official complaint form, you state, "Be specific; include names..."

The people that were associated with the Solution Group AND the Los Osos CSD are:

Gary Karner: Solution Group co-founder, whose company's name began showing up on official Los Osos CSD documents, almost immediately after his "Solution Group" was responsible for forming the District in the first place.

Pandora Nash-Karner: Solution Group co-founder, and initial Los Osos CSD Board of Directors vice-president.

Gordon Hensley: Solution Group member / Former LOCSD Director, 1998 - 2005 (recalled from office in 2005)

Stan Gustafson: Solution Group member / Former LOCSD Director, 1998 - 2005 (recalled from office in 2005)

Bob Semonsen: Solution Group member / Former LOCSD Director

Frank Freiler: Solution Group member / Former LOCSD Director

People that were Los Osos CSD Directors between 1998 and 2005, with no (documentable, that I'm aware of) attachment to the Solution Group:

Richard LeGros: Recalled from office in 2005

Sylvia Smith: Elected to the initial Board of Directors in 1998

###

[26 weeks down... 26 to go... halfway there... a-boo-friggin'-yeah!]

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