Friday, November 19, 2010

"Entirely Visible Floatables," "Unrealistically Low" Numbers, and Withheld "Fatal Flaws" -- How the Karners Deliberately Created a Sewer Disaster

For this "At Least Weekly," I want to re-publish a story (below) that I originally published on 11/7/2005.

The reason I want to republish that particular story at this time, is because 1) it's great -- I mean, just look at all the names that come up in that piece: Neil Farrell, Steve Monowitz, Norm Hantzsche, Ann Calhoun, Stan Gustafson, Gordon Hensley, ME! -- 2) it's entirely relevant today (in fact, it's even better today than when I first published it), and 3) it's where I (again) expose that Los Osos residents, Gary Karner and Pandora Nash-Karner were directly responsible for deliberately creating the Los Osos sewer disaster.

As you read through the (2005!) story below, it's important to keep in mind, that throughout the first half of 1998, the Karners literally, and repeatedly, begged SLO County Supervisors to fund the "Questa Study," which the Board ultimately, and reluctantly, did in a non-unanimous vote.

Now, also keep in mind the letter I recently exposed from the Regional Water Quality Control Board that shows that the Karners' fake "better, cheaper, faster" project was a complete disaster, and it showed that to them in January of 1998!

In that great letter, the RWQCB couldn't have spelled it out any clearer for the Karners (a husband and wife couple that, starting in 1997, threw together a sewer "project" for their town [I'm not making that up]): Their "plan" was a right-out-of-the-gate DOA disaster, and the RWQCB showed that to the Karners less than two months after the Karners first rolled out their fake project, in November 1997.

According to that letter (addressed directly to the Karners), their dead-on-arrival, fake "plan" included treating straight septic tank crap in the middle of town, in a series of sewage ponds, that, according to the letter, would have included "entirely visible" "floatables," "50 feet from residences," and relied on "unrealistically low numbers," a theme that would become common with all Karner/Nash-Karner-influenced scams.

(I DO wonder: Would the Karners STILL have been able to trick the town's voters into approving their fake project in 1998, had Nash-Karner's slogan been:

"Entirely visible floatables, 50 feet from residences"

... instead of the oft-repeated:

"Better, Cheaper, Faster"?

I say, "Uh... no.")

So, look what happened there, it's great: Not only were the Karners, throughout the first half of 1998, demanding that county taxpayers fund a side-by-side comparison (the Questa Study) between the county's then-"ready to go" sewer project and the Karners' DOA disaster, the Karners were demanding that comparison -- and telling their community "better, cheaper, faster" -- at the exact same time they ALREADY had a letter in their back pockets from the RWQCB telling them, "entirely visible floatables, 50 feet from residences," and "unrealistically low numbers."

(Oh, the size of her stones! I'm so impressed. None larger in the history of anything.)

Wait... as hard as it is to imagine, this story actually gets better... MUCH better!

Remarkably, as you'll see in my piece, the very next thing the Karners did after they tricked SLO County Supervisors into throwing money -- and MUCH more importantly, time -- at their disaster, was lie to the person that was selected to conduct the comparison, Norm Hantzche, when they immediately, of course, withheld the information that would have allowed him to instantly kill the "better, cheaper, faster" project in its tracks, in mid-1998, where the county's "ready-to-go" project would have instantly moved forward, right then, in the summer of 1998 -- HAD the Karners not lied to Hantzche, all the while the Karners had "entirely visible floatables, 50 feet from residences," and "unrealistically low numbers" stuffed deep in their back pockets.

As you read through the story below, be sure to pay close attention to the part where I talk about what happened with the "fatal flaw." Intensely fascinating. Los Osos was that close -- THAT CLOSE -- to averting this disaster altogether. Awesome stuff.

Oh, and then, of course, the Karners (and their consultant friends) went on to immediately cash in on their self-created disaster, as I show here, and here.

And today? Right now? Nash-Karner is a SLO County Parks Commissioner, "appointed by Supervisor, Bruce Gibson."

And when she was begging Supervisors for the Questa Study in 1998? Yep, you guessed it! SLO County Parks Commissioner, appointed by then-Supervisor, Bud Laurent.

The story is absolutely amazing, and the ONLY place it's ever been covered like this, is here, in the good ol' U.S. of SewerWatch (well, here and in my two New Times cover stories on this subject, of course).


Originally published: Monday, November 07, 2005

Solution Group Accountability Would Heal Los Osos

The Solution Group needs to apologize to Los Osos.

Nothing heals past failings in this country faster than accountability, and if someone from the Solution Group were to step up and simply say, "We're sorry," the healing process in Los Osos would begin immediately.

The Solution Group has already publicly admitted their failure, they just haven't publicly apologized for it. That's a big difference, and a difference that needs to be resolved.

The apology could take many forms, but it should go along these lines:

"Los Osos, we are very sorry for our actions back in 1997-98. We now realize (thanks to SewerWatch) that our futile, two-year pursuit of the Community Plan is the reason the town is so torn apart today. We screwed up, and for that we deeply and sincerely apologize, but now, you can either continue to hate us, or allow us to work this out with you."

If a former Solution Group member like Stan Gustafson, or Gordon Hensley, or Pandora Nash-Karner, or Gary Karner were to come forward and offer that apology, the brilliant town of Los Osos would come together and solve their wastewater problem, fast.

In the course of my extensive research on this story, I have come across only one person that has shown even the slightest bit of accountability for the situation in Los Osos.

That person -- of all people -- is Neil Farrell. Many in Los Osos and Morro Bay know Farrell as a long-time newspaper reporter in the area. He was working for the Sun Bulletin back in 1997 when that newspaper published a favorable series of reports on the Solution Group's Community Plan. The series lent the unviable, and ultimately disastrous, Community Plan much needed publicity and credibility. The editor of the Sun Bulletin at the time, Richard Palmer, lived in the prohibition zone in Los Osos. Also on staff, was current Tribune Opinion Page editor, and Los Osos resident, Bill Morem. The Sun Bulletin series would eventually play a significant role in the 1998 election that formed the Los Osos Community Services District and launched the ill-fated Community Plan.

Farrell recently told me that he now regrets working on that series of reports. I applaud him for that.

In 1997, I was the editor of the small Los Osos newspaper, The Bay Breeze (now The Bay News). I received the exact same press packet outlining the Community Plan from the marketing director of the Solution Group, Pandora Nash-Karner, as the Sun Bulletin, except I made the editorial decision to hold off publishing anything from that press packet until I could get the information confirmed by an outside source. Good thing. Almost everything in that packet would prove to be false, as the Questa Study exposed in the summer of 1998.

The Questa Study is a great part of this entire controversy. As readers of this site are aware, the Questa Study was a side-by-side comparison of the County's proposed project at the time and the awful Community Plan. It was ordered by the California Coastal Commission in 1998.

Aware that the Questa Study was forthcoming, I held off publishing much of the Solution Group's information on the Community Plan until I saw the study's conclusions. It was a blowout. The Questa Study showed that the County's plan was superior on every point in the study, and that the Solution Group was grossly fudging their figures -- on both cost and technical aspects.

Through the duration of the 1998 Questa Study, I contacted the president of Questa Engineering, Norm Hantzsche, several times for updates. I was the only member of the media to contact him personally. When the study was completed, due to my extensive contact with Hantzsche, I was able to scoop every media outlet on the Questa Study's findings -- a scoop that I am still very proud of today.

Unfortunately, the Karners, after spending thousands of dollars out of their own pocket and hundreds of hours on their deeply flawed Community Plan, did not share my enthusiasm for my scoop. They freaked out, and launched into full-on damage control mode. Spin cycle on high. They bashed me, The Bay Breeze, Norm Hantzsche, the Questa Study, Questa Engineering and anything else that went against them in the run-up to the November, 1998 election. Two years later, the Questa Study would prove to be highly accurate. Norm and I are still waiting for our apologies.

On the topic of the Questa Study, the following chronology has never been reported anywhere, and it will blow you away, as it does me. The snippet is from a story I sent to New Times just before the California Coastal Commission meeting last April. (New Times did not publish the story.) At that meeting, the Commission had the opportunity to revoke the CSD's Development Permit. I was arguing in the story that the Commission needed to do just that, and fix what they broke in 1998. What happened throughout 1998 in Los Osos is amazing, and applies directly to the mess today.

Before I get to my chronology, I want to start with a recent post from Los Osos writer, Ann Calhoun. It's from the comments section of her great blog.

Ann writes:

  • I liken the mess we're in to the Tar Baby: Lie one begets Lie Two, which begets Lie Three, until Br'er Rabbit is stuck tight.I would put Lie One back to the Solutions Group that campaigned for a CSD on the promise of a $35 million ponding system when they had in hand the Coastal Commission Staff Report stating that best estimates put the sytem under review at $78 million, and the Solutions Group said nary a peep about that number or that report, which, was Dated October 1998 (The election was Nov. 1998) From THAT lie, everything is linked.

That is dead-on-accurate. "From THAT lie, everything is linked." That is why the history of this story, specifically from 1998 on, is SO important.

From my unpublished story, Fix What's Broke, sent to New Times, March, 2005:

    Throughout 1998, the California Coastal Commission postponed issuing the County a Coastal Development Permit for their Los Osos wastewater project. The reasons the CCC gave for postponing the County's permit seven years ago were baseless (more on that later).

    The County should have been granted a Development Permit in January, 1998, but that process was derailed by the Solution Group, a small, yet vocal, community group comprised of 16 Los Osos residents that was, at the time, proposing an alternative sewer plan that they developed called "The Community Plan." It relied on "risky," and virtually untested technology, but that didn't seem to matter to the Solution Group. They lobbied their alternative plan aggressively to Los Osos and to the California Coastal Commission. The Solution Group was persuasive, calling their plan "better, cheaper, faster" than the County's project. The Commission bit, and voted, in January of 1998, to delay the issuance of the County's permit, and ordered that an independent study be conducted that compared the viability and cost of the two projects — the Community Plan vs. the County's project -- side-by-side... just what the Solution group had been begging for from the County for months.

    That County-funded study, known as the "Questa Study," was to have been completed by June of 1998, in time for the next Coastal Commission meeting, but the Solution Group, according to the engineering firm that conducted the study, Questa Engineering, failed to supply crucial information that would have shown that their project was simply not viable in Los Osos. If the Solution Group had supplied the information, Questa would have immediately spotted something called a "fatal flaw" -- the fatal flaw clause was put into the study specifically to save time. If Questa had spotted a fatal flaw in the Community Plan, the study would have wrapped up quickly, and the Coastal Commission would have likely granted the County a Development Permit at their June, 1998 meeting. There would have been no reason not to.

    But the Questa Study did not wrap up quickly. Instead, the study pushed up against the Coastal Commission's June meeting, where, AGAIN, the Commission delayed issuing the County a Development Permit. The main reason for the continuance: "The failure of the consultant (Questa Engineering) to identify the technical problems with the alternative (the Community Plan) earlier in the process as a 'fatal flaw'."

    Wow. Los Osos was that close, that close, to averting this disaster.

    An interesting note here is that Norm Hantzsche, president of Questa Engineering, didn't even know that the Coastal Commission staff was calling him a "failure" until I told him during a recent phone interview. "You know, Norm," I said, "that is their word: 'failure'." I reiterated: "... 'the failure of the consultant to identify the technical problems with the alternative earlier in the process as a 'fatal flaw'."

    "Huh," he said. "And I thought they were happy with the study."

    Apparently, Hantzsche, upon learning (from me) that the Coastal Commission was essentially blaming him for the mess in Los Osos, was quickly jarred into remembering a document he just happened to have archived that addressed the "fatal flaw" issue in the summer of 1998... nearly seven years ago (just a guess; but it seems Hantzsche has had that document locked and loaded and ready to go for quite some time). Not surprisingly -- and in a great cover-your-ass moment by Hantzsche -- he quickly e-mailed me that document, and, well... what-d'-ya-know?

    It turns out there was an interesting reason why Hantzsche did not spot the "fatal flaw" "earlier in the process"... just so happens that the Solution Group neglected to offer up a little bit of information, a tiny nugget of supporting data, that, if supplied, would have "immediately" led to the "fatal flaw," and ensured that the Questa Study would have lasted about 10 seconds, and allowed the Coastal Commission to issue the County its Development Permit in June, 1998.

    The following is straight from the Hantzsche document (he's responding to Coastal Commission staff's questions):

    • Relative to the "fatal flaw" step in our review, we had to initially accept much of the information in the two plans at face value until the completion of more detailed review; this was due to the shear volume of background material that had to be reviewed. Specifically, in regard to compliance with the Regional Board policies we proceeded under two assumptions that we later found to be unsupportable (SewerWatch Note: bolding is mine because that is an extremely important point). The two assumptions that we ultimately brought into question were: (a) the nitrogen removal performance data for AIWPS facilities; and (b) reduction of nitrogen content in wastewater from septic systems to 12.0 mg/L, based on percolation through 30 feet of sandy soils.

    Then he says (and here's where it gets good... really good):

    • The supporting data for the (Community Plan's) facility was not found in any of the literature provided by the Solution Group or through any other sources that we researched independently. Had the Solution Group indicated that there were no supporting data at the outset, we would have immediately identified this as a possible "fatal flaw" (again: bolding mine).

    Wow, again.

    Clearly, this is Hantzsche's big "Screw you!" to the Coastal Commission for pointing the finger at him for failing to identify the fatal flaw "earlier in the process." Allow me to translate what Hantzsche is telling the Coastal Commission by supplying me, in less than five minutes, with a seven-year-old document that absolves him of the sewer mess. Translation: "I didn't spot the 'fatal flaw,' you idiots, because the Solution Group withheld the information that would have allowed me to spot it. You want to point the finger at someone? Point it at the damn Solution Group!"

    The Development Permit item was continued to the Commission's October meeting. However, a letter from the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, signed by former supervisor, Mike Ryan, interestingly, asked that the Commission reschedule the item to their November meeting. That meeting was held three days after the election that formed the Los Osos CSD, when the County's plan was all but dead and their Development Permit moot.

    According to Coastal Commission staff member, Steve Monowitz, the 1998 Commission seemed less interested in ensuring that a viable wastewater project be developed in Los Osos, and more concerned with giving the town a shot at local control through a Community Services District. "The Commission had an interest in giving the community self-determination," Monowitz said.

    The options for Los Osos at the time were clear: "Vote for the CSD and the CSD will implement The Community Plan that the Solution Group has promised, through an aggressive marketing campaign, is 'better faster, cheaper' than the County's plan," or "Don't vote for the CSD and let the County move forward with its $80-million project that the Solution Group has labeled "ruinously expensive." The CSD passed with 87-percent of the vote, riding heavily on the coattails of The Community Plan, and the ill-fated sewer project was officially underway.

    The problem? The Community Plan, as you may have already guessed, was never going to work. It crashed and burned the moment it came under official scrutiny. It was loaded with many "fatal flaws," and, in the end, after a futile two-year pursuit, it never had a chance... not even close. Furthermore, the Coastal Commission, it appears, knew all along that the Community Plan was dead on arrival. Several sources were confirming this in 1998, including the Coastal Commission's own staff and the Questa Study that eventually showed that the County's project was superior on every point in the study.

    Yet the 1998 Commission chose to ignore all those competent, credible professionals, and in essence, made this decision:

    "Ah, what the hell? Despite what all these credible agencies, with credible, competent staffs are so convincingly telling us, we're going to ignore them and give these lovable lugs, these feisty underdogs from Los Osos, led by the Solution Group, a shot at local control, and just to make sure that we get you get started off on the right foot -- right out of the gate -- we're also going to make sure that you are saddled with a massive public works project that we already know isn't going to work."

    "Let the record reflect," Monowitz said, "That was against staff's recommendation."

    The decisions by the California Coastal Commission to postpone the County's Development Permit in 1998 were completely baseless (In fact, in hindsight, it seems absurd that the Questa Study was even ordered in the first place). Not only were they baseless decisions, they were also careless decisions, tens-of-millions-of-dollars decisions, neighbor-screaming-at-neighbor decisions, and terrible decisions with terrible, terrible consequences.

    The California Coastal Commission needs to right its wrong and revoke the the LOCSD's Coastal Development Permit at their April 14 meeting, and give the entire community, not just a handful of citizens with questionable motives (the Solution Group), the opportunity to steer the town's sewer project.

As we all know now, the Coastal Commission did not pull the permit last April, and the previous CSD Board majority proceeded to needlessly pound multi-millions of dollars into the ground and shred the community to pieces before they were finally recalled six months later.

If Gustafson, Hensley, the Karners, and/or any former Solution Group member were to show the same accountability as former Sun Bulletin reporter, Neil Farrell (however, to a much, much greater degree), the healing process in Los Osos would begin immediately. I guarantee it.


(By the way, according to Farrell, the Sun Bulletin won awards from California Newspaper Publishers Association for their 1997 coverage of the Community Plan. Those awards should be revoked by the CNPA. You can contact the CNPA here.)

[46 weeks down... 6 to go.]


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