About four dozen local residents attended the Fourth District County Supervisor candidates’ forum hosted by the Big Pine Civic Club last Monday, Sept. 24, at the Big Pine Town Hall. Civic Club President Rick Fields welcomed everyone and introduced the two candidates, current Supervisor Marty Fortney and challenger Mark Tillemans.
Fields explained to the audience that the forum would have two parts: The first part was to be the opening statements by both candidates, followed by answers to prepared questions that they received well beforehand, and the second part would be to answer questions from the audience. (The second part of the meeting will appear in Thursday’s edition of The Inyo Register.)
In scenes that in many ways typify Inyo County, both candidates before, during and after the forum, were in the crowd meeting, greeting, shaking hands, and even sharing a laugh or even a hug with many of those in attendance. Both appeared to be generally well-known and well-liked in Big Pine.
After opening statements from both candidates during which they gave their family history and background on their current and past experiences, as well as what each felt was his qualifications, the prepared questions were asked and the answers given.
Given the challenges of the County’s budget, should the City of Bishop continue to receive 30 percent of the County’s half-cent sales tax? (Transactions and Use Tax) What services does the City provide to the County and what services does the County provide to the City of Bishop in addition to this funding?
Tillemans said that the relationship between the City of Bishop and the County offers an example of how government can improve both its public service and efficiency; just as relationships with the tribes and the county need improvement in working with BLM, the Forest Service, and DWP, so it is with the relationship between the City and the County. Taxes are necessary and useful, and debt should be incurred judiciously; both used only for the purposes for which acquired, with transparency and accountability.
Tillemans went on to say that the county should tailor the County budget over the next few years to anticipate the possibility of a further contraction of the economy. The Transactional Use Tax has an important role in providing services to the County and especially for many of the residents of the Fourth District through law enforcement, fire protection and uses of the Bishop City Park. County programs and services should be cost-efficient, service-friendly and prioritized.
Fortney gave a brief history of the TUT, noting that the amount given to the City of Bishop was $523,000 for the fiscal year 2011 and the tax was passed by a two-thirds majority. He said that the Bishop City Council said the money would be used for park, fire and police services, going on to note that the City provides emergency services to the entire north end of the county which encompasses one-third of the Fourth District and that they also provide mutual aid to the entire county. The Bishop Police Department, he said, does a good job within its city limits, that an estimated 80 percent of crime occurring in the Bishop area and that many officers reside in the Fourth District.
He went on to say that the County provides all of the same services to the City of Bishop as to the rest of the county and that the people of Bishop are entitled to the same services as any county resident. He finished by saying that the County once again provided a balanced budget for this next fiscal year.
Name your top three priorities for Inyo County. If the fiscal picture worsens in Inyo County, what services would you keep, and what would you let go?
Fortney listed his priorities as fiscal responsibility, insuring basic services are continued to be provided including, but are not limited to: emergency services; fire protection; law enforcement; clean, safe potable water; solid waste disposal; maintenance to county buildings to prevent catastrophic expenditures, and his biggest priority – the Senior Meals Program.
Noting that nearly one-half of County funds come from state and federal programs – and funding can be uncertain, Fortney said that many programs are already underfunded, state and federally mandated programs, citing as an example the return of prison inmates to County jails with long-term sentences which may end up costing the County a lot of money. In the end, he says, the Board of Supervisors can make recommendations on cuts but it is the department heads that best make recommendations as to where to make them with the least impact to citizens – and often reductions are only temporary. The Board makes the final decision.
Fortney stressed the increasing importance of working with elected officials at state and federal levels to exempt and protect rural counties, such as Inyo, from cutbacks where possible. These relationships take time to develop and to earn trust and he believes that he has done well in this regard. It is, he says, the reason he has earned the endorsements of Inyo County’s State Senator and Assemblywoman.
Tillemans said his first priority was a balanced budget, which should always be a priority. He noted that the County departments have done a wonderful job and that Inyo staff has not been praised enough. County Supervisors taking credit is a blow to their morale.
His second priority is water and the effect that exporting so much of it to L.A. has on the local environment; noting that the County must oversee the process of the long-term water agreement with great detail and persistence. His third priority was green energy, which he feels must be a priority while ensuring that the county does not end up being a “glass mirror,” as no one wants mirrors or wind turbines ruining the viewscape.
Tillemans said there’s no reason to let go of any of the current services provided by the county, but that they should be provided more effectively. He will add services when the opportunity arises, but many services are critical, such as public safety, law enforcement, fire and senior services. An increase in youth services are also badly needed in Big Pine such as those provided by Healthy Communities of Lo-Inyo which he described as a “beacon of light” that should continue to be supported and modeled in the northern part of the county. He said county parks should be a hub of summer activity and opportunity for our youth.
He went on to say that keeping constituents informed is very important and he would provide a quarterly newsletter and that, while posting Board minutes on the county website is a great service, he feels more needs to be done to keep the public informed and promised to do so.
The Long Term Water Agreement and associated documents govern the relation between the City of Los Angeles and the County. Assess the success of this relationship and what would you do differently as Supervisor?
Tillemans noted that the DWP is in the business of exporting water … and that they are very good at it – for the City of L.A., but it conflicts with how residents feel they have treated the local environment. Describing the relationship as “rocky,” he said Inyo must look to positive outcomes and that the County has taken “too soft a position sometimes.” He would be firm with DWP and advocated upholding the current LTWA, however a reassessment should always be of serious consideration.
Fortney felt the LTWA and Green Book have been useful in creating dialogue and resolution to disagreements, and while not perfect, they are ever-evolving. The GB is currently revised by DWP and has been since he first took office in 2008. Delays, feet-dragging and denial of issues typify DWP, however the County Water Department has also been guilty for not always being diligent or timely in completing studies. He said that he encourages both sides to resolve issues rather than delaying them. The County and DWP need to work together to resolve land issues as well.
Fortney said he was instrumental in the Board contesting last year’s pumping plan when DWP disagreed with the County study because it used “newer software” than was used by DWP, going on to describe several instances of over-pumping, noting the obvious drying created by DWP’s actions at several locations throughout the County.
Re-greening projects under the Enhancement and Mitigation Project, i.e. the EM memorandum, in Big Pine and Independence he notes, also have value; however the end result has been DWP exporting water from other areas as make-up for lost exported water. He does not want to see further delays.
He finished by saying that DWP is not here for anything other than to export water to Los Angeles; that it is in their city charter that they will not give away any water or water rights. The County and Board of Supervisors needs to be increasingly diligent when working with DWP.
Openness and ethics are principles of government. Describe what the Brown Act is and how you would comply with it? What kind of relationships do you have that might be a conflict of interest, and how will you deal with these?
Fortney explained that the Brown Act is an attempt at transparency in the government process that only applies to local governments, districts and other boards doing the people’s business. It is a fact of life in public service and that he has for many years had to follow it since first serving on the Fish and Game Advisory Commission.
On conflict of interest, Fortney told the audience that whenever he feels there is a possibility or potential for a conflict of interest, he discusses the issue with County Counsel and makes a decision from there. If there is a possible conflict, he will recuse himself.
Tillemans said that the Brown Act insures that the public business is conducted in public and that it is a minimum standard for public openness and transparency with the public, a partner in the decision-making process. He is fully aware of the guidelines and the importance of keeping the integrity of this act to the fullest.
On conflict of interest, Tillemans talked of his “deep roots here,” that he has a “spiritual connection” to the area, and that he cares deeply about making sure this land is protected. He acknowledged that he has family and friends that work with the County, BLM, DWP and the Forest Service – which is part of what it is like to live in a small town. He noted that he works for the Big Pine Development Corporation and that he has no assurances that he will continue to work for them if elected; however, he notes, if he does it will be in a reduced role to oversee the development of the Travel Plaza Project and that he was not aware of a single issue that has ever been addressed by the Board of Supervisors during the last term or ever had at the historic level that would have presented a conflict of interest.
He finished by saying that he has grown up locally, attended school locally, and has been a part of the community, playing sports in his youth, and then as an adult volunteering, tutoring, coaching and mentoring local kids. Anyone that knows him, he said, knows him to be ethical and fair. Becoming a new County Supervisor would not change him. He stated that he fully understands the laws of conflict of interest and promised that he would strictly abide by them.
A short intermission allowed those attending to enjoy refreshments and to give the candidates a brief break as well, before moving on to the audience questions, which will be covered on Thursday.