“The truckers get notoriety.... Eighty-thousand pounds of muscle, blood and steel in a pile. It's spectacular.” —Gary Williams
“With that, I'll be quiet.”
County Supervisor Ron Roberts had just wrapped up a blistering dress-down of board colleagues and staff of the California Air Resources Board (CARB), upon which he has rested his political keester for nearly 15 years.
This was happening last Wednesday in Sacramento, the same day the remainder of the Board of Supervisors also had gathered in San Diego to slog through a lengthy land-use hearing over the proposed Merriam Mountains master-planned development of 2,700 homes west of Interstate 15 near Escondido.
Without Roberts there, the remaining four supervisors deadlocked 2-2, putting the giant project in limbo.
Dirty air vs. the county's dwindling supply of rural land. Both big issues. Both oozing with political implications.
Talk to anyone in Roberts' office, and they'll tell you that the supervisor was ready for the Merriam Mountains hearing. But when he realized that his duties on the state air board put him in a time squeeze, the choice was obvious.
“He had an important issue that unfortunately coincided with this [Merriam Mountains] item being on the docket,” Roberts' spokesperson, Tim McClain, told Spin Cycle this week. “I don't know how he would have voted, but he was prepared to listen to the public hearing.”
Instead, Roberts wrote to his supervisor colleagues on Dec. 4, saying he would not attend last week's Board of Supervisors meeting. “While I had hoped to participate in Wednesday's board deliberations, particularly on several noticed public hearings,” he said in the memo, “discussion of a significant matter before CARB will necessitate my presence in Sacramento.”
The “significant matter” involves heavy-duty trucks, when they should be required to operate cleaner and a right-wing conspiracy theory that seems to hold most pollution-related science in rather low esteem.
Much the same way a few hacked e-mails has convinced some flat-earthers that global warming is the greatest hoax ever foisted upon mankind, you'll also find in California and beyond a ravenous brood of deniers who appear to think that snorting down some good ol' diesel smoke—particularly in poor neighborhoods where truck routes tend to dominate—is just part of being a good American.
As Mary Nichols, CARB's chairwoman, put it last week: “I know there are people out there today who still think that cigarettes are not really bad for you, but after years and years of discussions, you'd think that those issues have been put to rest.”
But Roberts would have none of it. He remained laser-beam targeted on a story, first reported by Chris Reed of the Union-Tribune, about an Air Resources Board statistician who helped prepare a report that detailed death rates from diesel particulate matter but fibbed about holding a doctorate degree from UC Davis.
He also railed on board members, including Nichols, and CARB staff who were aware of the employee's educational tall tale prior to the board's approval last December of the new diesel regulations that would be phased in over several years requiring heavy truck operators to retrofit their equipment with diesel-particulate filters.
Nichols did apologize for not informing her colleagues of the employee's falsified education background, saying she believed the agency was addressing the issue and that the employee, while only docked two months pay and demoted, has been adequately punished.
“As a practical matter, his professional reputation is ruined,” she said.
By the end of the near-seven-hour hearing, the state board agreed to—well, let's hear it from Roberts as he explained it via his Twitter account: “The California Air Resources Board has just voted to redo from scratch a tainted report on diesel particulate emissions.”
Yes, with only two members in opposition, the 11-member board sent staff back to the drawing board on a science report dealing with diesel regulations that have yet to be enforced.
Big deal? Well, it seems to be for the people behind KillCARB.org, a trucker-centric website that promotes the death of new diesel regulations. The website even includes a page of photos of all CARB members, some of which are marked with bright red thumbs-down graphics.
The picture of Roberts, conversely, sports a jolly-green thumbs up.
Under a heading of “It is time to put California on a no CARB diet!” the website suggests: “At these meetings make yourselves heard so there is no doubt in their tiny minds that there is opposition. We also want you to photograph the people holding the meetings and the lobbyists that are supporting them. Get their names so they can be placed in the spotlight here.”
Richard Miller, spokesperson for the local Sierra Club chapter, told Spin Cycle he's familiar with both issues and thinks Roberts found himself “between a rock and a hard spot here.”
“There were political ramifications at either meeting,” Miller explained.
The difference, apparently, is how Roberts—facing a potentially contentious re-election race next year—is approaching each.
On the economic hit that folks in the trucking and construction industries have faced (and, ironically, the cleaner air California is now enjoying due to the sour business climate), Roberts was a chatterbug, telling the state board, “So, there are some self-regulating things—I shouldn't say self-regulating—there are things happening to them that are going a lot further than we ever imagined in cleaning up the air.”
On a 2,300-plus-acre North County development, not so much.
“He's not talking to anybody about it,” McClain insisted. “We've got till Jan. 4 [to request a rehearing on Merriam Mountains]. Any of the five [supervisors] can put it on the docket.”
But testing the waters over at the County Administration Building, it seems clear that it'll be up to Roberts to decide if the Merriam Mountains mega-project dies or returns for a brand-new public hearing. As one county staffer pointed out, both supervisors who opposed the project—Dianne Jacob and Pam Slater-Price—also opposed continuing the hearing to another date.
Efforts to reach Stonegate Development Group, the project's chief proponent, for its take were unsuccessful.
Added the Sierra Club's Miller: “There's definitely an effort out there by the anti-Merriam Mountains people to let Roberts know that he should not request a rehearing, and certainly the developer wants a rehearing and his support. He's avoiding the issue right now, I think, because it makes political sense. What do you do? Give ammunition to possible opponents?”
Maybe you just stay quiet.
Update: After press time, Joe Perring, project manager for Merriam Mountains, responded to our request for comment. We've pared down his reponse here:
'Merriam Mountains is a community of regional significance and I believe it deserves a hearing by the full Board of Supervisors. I understand that members of the Board of Supervisors wear multiple hats, so it was understandable that Supervisor Roberts had to attend the California Air Resources Board (CARB) meeting. His commitment to air quality and the environment is similar to our commitment as Merriam Mountains is one of the most advanced communities in the county when it comes to curbing greenhouse gases with the use of solar and green building standards. The Board of Supervisors considered the request for a continuance, and that failed. Given the number of people on both sides of this issue that came down to the Board of Supervisors, I think it was right to hold the hearing, but the people of the Fourth District deserve to have their representative weigh in on this issue as well. Hopefully, there will be a rehearing and we can have the benefit of the opinions of the entire Board of Supervisors. I also haven't ruled out changing the minds of Supervisors Jacob and Slater-Price.'
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