On Tuesday night, May 8, the three candidates for Fifth District County Supervisor – incumbent Richard Cervantes and contenders Jim Gentry and Matt Kingsley – met for a candidates’ forum hosted by the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce at Statham Hall. Assisting the chamber with the event were Independence Civic Club members Mary Roper, Nancy Masters, moderator Rose Masters and timer Annette Wood.
The forum was attended by more than 100 interested voters and supporters.
During the introductions, Cervantes made the argument that the other candidates had potential “conflicts of interest” based on their past and current employment; i.e. Kingsley’s past with the Forest Service and Gentry’s current employment and pending retirement with LADWP at the end of the year. According to Cervantes, this poses future problems if one were to be elected as county supervisor. “To add insult to injury,” he said, “isn’t this the fox guarding the henhouse?”
The poet William Blake wrote in the “Auguries of Innocence” that, “A truth told with bad intent, is worth all the lies you can invent.” One audience member later noted that the look on the faces of the two candidates awaiting their turn at the podium suggested they likely agreed with Blake’s pronouncement and would clearly be responding.
The questioning of the candidates and their responses followed.
1. How have you served the citizens of the Fifth District? Please describe your community involvement.
Gentry told the crowd, “I served on the school board for 18 years. We remodeled the school while I was there and saved over $3 million in a special reserve to keep teachers from being laid off. We also added two new libraries and a new technology center.” He also mentioned serving as one of the first volunteers with Southern Sierra Ambulance System and served as Fire Commissioner, in addition to a lot of behind-the-scenes work in the community.
Cervantes reminded the audience that, “I have served as your Fifth District Supervisor for the past eight years.” He added, “I am also active in community service. I am the current district chairman of the Boy Scouts of Southern Sierra Council, a member of the Lone Pine Chamber of Commerce, the Lone Pine Airport Advisory, past-president of the Lone Pine Lions Club, Southern Inyo Hospital Auxiliary, past-member of the Inyo County Grand Jury, past-president of AARP – and I am dedicated to making sure our Senior Lunch Program continues – member of Great Basin Governing Board, member of Armargosa Conservancy and I contribute a lot of my time and support to local projects including the film festival, film museum, FFA, Wild West Marathon, Lone Pine Fish Derby.” He went on to list a few other affiliations, accomplishments and his concerns over possible Post Office closures.
Kingsley wanted to make two points, the first being that it is easy to join a bunch of organizations and then say, “Look at my involvement.” He noted that it takes much more to be involved and provide leadership and to be actively involved in the goals of that group. He went on to say that he tries to be more than just a member of groups with which he is associated. His second point: “I think it is the job of the county supervisor to be actively engaged in all types of community groups and efforts such as schools, hospitals, local fire departments, emergency services and other community efforts like our swimming pool, fire safety council and supporting our youth, not just in Lone Pine, but all the communities within the district.”
According to Kingsley, he has been a member of the Lions Club for 12 years, serving as its president in 2007 and 2012. In Lions, he focused on building handicapped ramps, eyeglasses and vision testing for needy local residents, and organized numerous fundraisers through the Lions Club for other non-profit groups and projects, including the Mural Society, the pool, and the electronic message board at the school. He has been a commissioner for the Lone Pine Volunteer Fire Department for 18 years and under Chief Kritz, they took over the ambulance service. He is also chairman of the Lone Pine Fire Safe Council and it is one of the most successful fire councils in Inyo County. He has coached basketball at the high school for 22 years. Kingsley was elected to the school board in 2007 and he has served as the board president for the past year-and-a-half. Lastly, Kingsley mentioned his recognition in The Inyo Register’s 2011 Profiles magazine as an Unsung Hero for his long-standing commitment to community involvement.
2. With its strong tax base, availability of private developable land, lesser control by DWP and unique visitor attractions, southern District 5 has the potential for economic growth and a sustainable community. Despite these positive factors, it continues to decline and is lacking a vision. What is your vision and how do you intend to realize it?
Cervantes said that the Fifth District generates 60 percent of the revenue for the County of Inyo and there is private developable land with water in Olancha-Cartago area. He said the area is a great place for the manufacture of solar panels that possibly DWP could purchase for its solar ranch project – if ever built. He said that the extreme southeast part of the county, where Charleston View and Tecopa-Shoshone are located, has the largest amount of private land – and it’s where Bright Source Energy is planning a $1.5 billion solar generation plant. Its construction will employ 1,000 workers and up to 120 permanent jobs to do the maintenance. He also noted that the Catholic Church is building a mission multi-million dollar project and some limited housing in Charleston View along with a columbarium (a place to store people’s ashes in a green, park-like setting). He said there is still a possibility that land belonging to a Filipino group in Nevada will someday be used for housing for people that work in Las Vegas.
Kingsley noted that he looks forward to visiting the new columbarium as well, just hopefully in an upright position. He went on to say that after meeting with people in the communities of the Fifth District, he did not entirely agree with the negative characterization posed in the question of a district in decline. He believes there is a lot of potential economic growth. He noted that the recently completed Eastern Sierra Economic Assessment Report identified a number of opportunities such as specialized recreation events, expansion of the broadband network, regional food systems, small scale agriculture and appropriately sited renewable energy production and transmission. “It is also important to promote, expand and invest in what is already working,” he said. “Tourism, recreation and our natural attractions are working.” He said leaders need to also be supportive and protective of Inyo’s other tax-revenue streams, including mining, agriculture, energy production and light industries.
“We need leaders that can build relationships and change the Inyo County mind-set from being a speed bump for businesses, residents and entrepreneurs to become a support and information system,” Kingsley said. “With good planning, local participation, involved leadership, sustainable and suitable development will benefit specific regions and the county as a whole is possible. Plans like the Lower Owens Recreation Project recreation plan, combined with the ideas in the Assessment Report, given committed leader, will make a difference.”
As Gentry took the podium, he observed that, “It is interesting to me that with all that vision and all that thought that Richard had, he hasn’t done anything about anything in the eight years.” He went on to stress that it is important to “streamline, streamline, streamline.” He said it is government’s role to streamline processes and make things easier for entrepreneurs, businesses and others to invest and develop business and economic opportunity. According to Gentry, “My vision is that you help people who want to do something for us. It is not up to government to do it.”
3. The current Board of Supervisors is working on and considering going forward with a new county building in Bishop at the estimated cost of approximately $15 million. What is your position on the taxpayer expenditure and why?
“The idea of a consolidated office space that is county-owned rather than paying a half-million dollars in rent to out-of-town landlords has some appeal,” said Kingsley. “The potential savings in utilities and personnel could make it viable, but it must not increase the financial burden to taxpayers calculated over a reasonable period of time, but not 50 years. The new office must accommodate only county employees that provide services to the Bishop area with no extra offices or dual office spaces. My experience with employees with two offices is that they never seem to be in either one. Any savings should be redirected to parts of the county that are underserved, like the Fifth District.”
Kingsley suggested the County should look into a modular center built on County property for a couple of million dollars similar to the idea first proposed by the Superior Court judges as an alternative for court services in Independence after the decision had been made to build the new courthouse in Bishop.
Gentry said, “No additional taxes. The County is balancing their budget by eliminating some County positions and I agree with Matt that we do not need two offices for most employees. No, I don’t want to spend $15 million, but if we are already spending all this money for rent, you don’t rent when you can own. There is never a good time to buy stuff but this might be the best time to do it.”
“The defining issue of our times is debt, massive debt from the White House to the state house. We are drowning in red ink,” said Cervantes, noting that California is essentially bankrupt as is the City of Los Angeles. “You’ve heard it said that timing is everything? Well this is the perfect time not to go into debt.” He went on to say that the County cannot afford it, does not have money to build it, and want to borrow the money to make it happen. “You only have to look to the Town of Mammoth Lakes,” said Cervantes, “a ‘mammoth debt’ would turn us over in a heartbeat.” He said unequivocally that he is against the new consolidated County building in Bishop. Quoting Shakespeare, he ended his comments by saying, “Neither a borrower or lender be.”
4. The largest share of tax dollars comes from the Fifth District via the Death Valley resorts and the Coso Junction Geothermal plant. What can you do to see that a fair share of that tax revenue is spent on services and improvements in the Fifth District?
The audience laughed after Gentry said, “Well the first thing to do would be to elect two new supervisors down here, but I don’t think that is going to happen.” He went on to say the most important thing is ensuring a fair balance of services. He promised he would procure for the people of the Fifth District whatever resources are available. He concluded, “I think I can do more than the one you have had here.”
Cervantes said he believes that County dollars and basic services are provided equitably and equally throughout the communities of the Inyo County. “Some of my biggest battles have been to get our share; a recent example being the $5.6 million for Lone Pine, Keeler, Olancha and Cartago, to install over 130 modern wood stoves at no charge to the people.”
Kingsley said he was not sure that he agrees with some of the facts in this question – that 45 percent of Inyo County’s property taxes currently come from two sources: LADWP and Coso Geothermal. He noted that there is mining, agriculture, the water bottling plant and the substantial funds from the Transient Use Tax from Death Valley, “which contribute significantly also.” He said decisions such as where to apply the road maintenance funds should not be “political” or “pork barrel” fights, but rather be part of a multi-year plan that looks at many factors such as use, condition, and interval since last maintained. Kingsley said, “That model should be applied to as many allocations as possible to maintain infrastructure in a methodical and efficient approach.”
According to Kingsley, the real answer to fair sharing of tax revenue is leadership that can build relationships and trust among the supervisors. “Simply being out-voted and claiming victimization is not a strategy that works,” he said, adding, “The supervisors can get along and make good decisions that benefit the County as a whole – and that is the model that I will pursue.”
5. County Ordinance 271 says that County employees must disclose any affiliation with such entities as DWP and the Forest Service. Do you have any of these conflicts? How would you handle any conflicts of interest that you have when it comes time to vote?
Cervantes said he did not make accusations against his my opponents that they have a conflict of interest, but noted the reason voters chose to have DWP, Forest Service and others mentioned in the ordinance is because they have a stranglehold on the County with 98.5 percent of the jobs, land, and water. “We should not tighten the noose,” Cervantes said.
He then gave an example of a “fictitious” retired DWP employee who might become a supervisor and who receives a retirement check each month from the City of Los Angeles. Litigation comes before the board involving the DWP. The retired DWP worker, now a Supervisor, has only two choices. He can recuse himself or vote anyway. Either way it is a “no-win” for the Fifth District, according to Cervantes. “By not voting the Fifth District has no voice,” he said. “By voting he opens the County up to a conflict of interest action by anybody.” He said the same issue applied similarly to the former Forest Service employee, using another example.
Kingsley handed out copies of Ordinance 271, pointing out to the audience that it was not a conflict of interest ordinance but a declaration ordinance and that he did not have any conflict of interest. He said the issue was a smokescreen by Cervantes. He acknowledged that, yes, he receives a pension check from his retirement five years ago, but it does not come from the Forest Service, it comes from a pension fund. He went on to say, “The ordinance is not designed to prevent candidates from running.” He added that he would consult with the county district attorney whenever there was the possibility or question of a conflict of interest, and if there was found to be one, he would recuse himself from the discussion and vote.
Gentry said, “No conflict of interest. I think I told everyone that I was retiring at the end of this year. I will receive a retirement check but it is not from the City of Los Angeles, it is from a completely separate pension fund such as Matt was talking about. The big issue here is the supervisor that is in place now. He tried to attack two people running against him because he couldn’t run on his own merit.
“We have two county supervisors right now that have a conflict of interest with DWP,” Gentry continued, “but they have led the fight against Water and Power on a lot of issues. I admire them greatly because they are land leasers from the department. They are good people. And they’ve worked hard on the issues. Even as a DWP employee, I am not the guy who would necessarily be on Water and Power’s side.”
After a 10-minute break, the questioning resumed, this time with queries from the audience.
The candidates’ responses to these questions will be published in Saturday’s edition of The Inyo Register.