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If you can make a lot of money doing something, is it ever wrong? Some people in San Diego County offices say “No,” and they run their offices that way too. In fact, you could argue that county systems are put in place to grab as much cash as possible, regardless of any ethics concerns. I really don’t know how much lining of pockets is done in private, but it seems there is probably no end to the corruption.
The proposed Blackwater West training camp is a great example. This project was started in June 2006, but it didn’t reach the light of day until it was already approved by the Potrero Planning Group in December. We learned that Blackwater met with big-wheels Rep. Duncan Hunter and Supervisor Dianne Jacob in May 2006. No one will admit what was discussed at that meeting, and it’s a bit strange that Hunter was involved as it isn’t even his congressional district. (The project is in the 51st congressional district, represented by Bob Filner.) But I imagine that a great deal of taxpayer money siphoned into Blackwater’s accounts were under the control of Hunter’s Armed Services Subcommittee, at least until November 2006. So maybe that’s why he was there.
Apparently, it’s okay for Blackwater to talk to these decision makers prior to the start of a project, but once it is entered into the Department of Planning and Land Use, the public is censored from even mentioning it. This happened at Jacob’s “Backcountry Revitalization Meeting” in Campo, a meeting that was invaded by backcountry residents unhappy with the prospect of having a paramilitary training camp in their quiet residential neighborhood. Although on the surface, Jacob wants public participation in the meeting, she had the county counsel tell us that the “informal” meeting was not subject to the open-meetings law — the Brown Act — and therefore it was inappropriate for Jacob to allow anyone to mention Blackwater. Wouldn’t that be terrible if she heard something from the public on this matter?
They say there are laws on the books that require that nothing be said about a pending development project to our representatives prior to the official hearings. If you ask me, the law is absurd, especially since Blackwater met with the representatives prior to the start of the project. Any citizens should be able to speak at these meetings about whatever they please. What happened to the freedom of speech? Oh, I guess it doesn’t apply if the meeting is informal, that’s all. What?
Our county government has an amazing “revolving door” policy. Attorney Lori Spar is a particularly ugly example of using such a door. In her case, she was initially working for Blackwater’s law firm and involved in processing the Blackwater West project through the DPLU. Suddenly, she decided to scrap her position as a high-paid attorney, scrap the work she did to pass the bar exam, scrap all her years in law school, and return to her previous position as lowly planner at the DPLU. And, you guessed it, also working on the Blackwater West project.
“There’s nothing illegal about that,” DPLU officials said. But to avoid the “perception of impropriety” they decided to put her on another project. Honestly, I’d be surprised if Spar is even working for the DPLU in any capacity. Revolved in, busted, and revolved back out. Is this unusual? I’m sorry to say that it hardly raises an eyebrow among county workers. There seems to be no ethical standards anymore. If you can make a lot of money doing something, it is probably right.
It turns out that the Blackwater project is slated to be constructed in a sensitive mountain valley, an important watershed and entryway to the Hauser Wilderness. Part of the property is within the Cleveland National Forest. This valley is designated as an agricultural preserve in an attempt to hold off development. To even allow the project to be opened, the DPLU says that the training facility is accurately defined as a “utility.”
What a joke! Ask anyone what a utility is, and they’ll come up with ideas like a cell-phone tower, power substation, or even the infamous Sunrise Power Link. They won’t tell you that a training camp with dormitories for 300 trainees, 15 shooting ranges, a 2.5-mile driving track, live-fire shoot houses, urban simulation areas, ship simulators and an 18,000-square-foot armory building (almost half an acre for guns and ammunition) qualifies as a “utility.” Again, it seems that if you can make a lot of money by lying, then that’s what they’ll do.
This project is more like a 300-room hotel, with the water use, sewage, traffic and evacuation requirements that go with it, not an unoccupied cell phone tower.
But why start a project that is not a “utility” when it is required to be one to get out of the starting gate? It has to do with how the DPLU is funded. The department gets paid by the developer for every hour it puts in on these projects. The staff consider the developer to be their “customer.” And, as you know, the customer is always right, aren’t they? It seems smart to allow Blackwater to pay for a lot of work on a project that is apparently doomed to be stopped by anyone observing that it is not a “utility.” It only speaks to the point that most of all this work, CEQA, etc. they do is just window-dressing, to make it appear that they are doing what is right. In the end, money talks, and probably the utility issue will be ignored. Or perhaps the dictionary definition will be revised to include such a mercenary boot camp.
The DPLU says the Blackwater project will be processed like any other project. Again, they are twisting the facts. It turns out that the DPLU is implementing “Business Process Re-engineering — BPR”, otherwise known as “fast-tracking.” They want to reduce the time to process a project from four years down to two. That sounds great! A department that will be improving its performance! Sorry, folks. It is improvement only in the eyes of the developer. From the standpoint of the citizen, this allows less time to get the facts and challenge unwise projects. But time is not all they’re changing. They are reviewing and potentially changing all the criteria for allowing projects to proceed. And isn’t it interesting that the Blackwater project will be one of the first ones to be processed with these new standards? It doesn’t seem like it is being reviewed “just like any other project” does it?
To top all this off, the Potrero Community Planning Group, the government entity that is supposed the best representatives of the people, has been apparently corrupted by visions of dollar signs dancing in their heads. “Noise is the only real issue” said Gordon Hammers, chairman of the group. We noticed that the live-fire noise test was not conducted, and it never would have save for the petitions of nearly half of the affected residents. For some reason, the group made no real comments about the huge project in Form 534, their official communication to the DPLU. Why? They were courted by Blackwater, giving them a tour of their yacht and freebie dinners at the contrived tour of the 7,000-acre Moyock, N.C., facility. Residents’ mouths were agape as they noticed planning group member Mary Johnson wearing a Blackwater-logo T-shirt at the May 10 meeting. Do you think she was trying to be an impartial representative of the public? No wonder they are being recalled.
At least there is hope. Some residents of Potrero are smarter than that. They don’t buy into the concept that money and power always mean you are doing the right thing. Thank God.
You can find more information about the Blackwater West project here.