(The following is the final installment of a two-part series covering the Fourth District County Supervisorial debate held last week in Independence. For Part One, see the Tuesday, Oct. 2 edition of The Inyo Register.)
After answering stock questions crafted by the Big Pine Civic Club last week, Fourth District Supervisor Marty Fortney and Challenger Mark Tillemans accepted a series of questions from audience members. These questions were not given to the candidates in advance.
What are you doing to promote business in Big Pine and Independence? Main Streets are empty.
Fortney answered that he has been working on continuing to insure that the County has put into the annual budget the Grants and Support Program, which provides funding to valuable organizations, including local Chambers of Commerce, to promote business throughout the county, although sadly there is not currently a chamber of commerce in Big Pine. He constantly talks to business people, noting that Independence for example, does not have a grocery store. He is talking to people there about getting one and a local foundation out of Lone Pine is offering to help with establishing a farmer’s market, which at least moves the community closer than where it is at now.
Pointing out that he is a business owner himself, Fortney said he knows that it is often difficult to just stay in business in the current economy and that it doesn’t help that the state keeps changing codes and adding fees. He encourages other business owners to not give up. Noting that county funds are tax dollars, it is the best that can be done to continue with the Grants and Support Program.
Tillemans said the lack of economic development is among one of our biggest concerns and that it is heartbreaking to see empty buildings that become eyesores, although he complimented Caltrans on doing a great job with their improvement projects – and those efforts need to be continued. He said funding needs to be put into volunteer work to improve the facades on the empty store fronts such as was done with the Crafters Mall in Bishop. Working with building owners can help to make empty storefronts more appealing.
Regarding stimulating the economy, Tillemans felt the Travel Plaza that he is working on is a key piece in finding a reason for people to stop in Big Pine and to let visitors know what the community has to offer. He has been talking to local business owners about how the Travel Plaza project can benefit them and that success is building relationships and promoting all businesses. He noted that Big Pine could use another eatery in town that provides good, healthy deli-style food so he and others have been talking to Matt Toomey, the renowned chef of the Whoa Nellie Deli at the Mobile Gas Station in Lee Vining, about bringing that concept further down the U.S. 395 corridor. Also, perhaps even the Glacier Lodge could become a key piece that could be better promoted to hikers, fishermen and campers.
Tillemans feels that it is important to keep the county seat in Independence as it is a main source of revenue for businesses there, as are the tourists stopping there.
Why is the County Farm drying up?
Tillemans confessed that he did not know the exact water rights issues involved, but the contour of the land is a problem – being elevated, rocky – with water that sinks quickly. He noted there is not a lot of efficient ditching for irrigation; it is mostly flood- irrigation, which in a drought year is difficult. He says the county can and should do more by mobilizing resources such as finding some money to dig ditches, and using volunteers to help dig efficient ditches. Yet another idea, he said, is to work with the elevation to put in some gravity-based sprinkler systems to hit the lower part that is drying out.
Fortney said the County Farm has been a “tough nut to crack” ever since he has been on the Board and it is coming to a head. He had been admonished by County Counsel the day of the forum to be careful not to say too much about it, but the County is looking into the water rights issues for the property. He has been working on how to make things easier for the lessee, who for 30 years has been doing a fabulous job. Unfortunately, he said, the lessee has been using a large amount of water (19 acre-feet per year) to irrigate the property, whereas the average user uses an average of only five acre-feet of water per year. Simply put, there is not enough water coming down Baker Creek this year.
Fortney noted that this is one of the driest years that the Eastern Sierra has had in a long time and having spoken to ranchers up and down the valley, he knows that they are all suffering as well.
Unfortunately, he said the land up at the County Farm is a big rock pile on a slope and it is not easy to move water around. The County Water Department and the Public Works Department have been working together to find solutions, but while the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is the one cutting back on the water, the drought is the real story. He shared that when he found trees dying, he spoke to the County Administrative Officer about it, and Public Works went out and tapped into the well at the Animal Shelter, running about 300 yards of garden hose to keep them alive. He apologized for not being able to provide more specifics on what the County is doing.
What have you accomplished for Big Pine and what changes would you like to see going forward?
Fortney said that he is proud of playing a key role in the establishment of the Big Pine Fire Safe Council, which includes Independence. Being in charge on the fire line at the Glacier View Trailer Park during the Center Fire, he said he had to make the tough call to allow some houses to burn to save the lives of his fire crew. It was a position that he never wanted to find himself in again. He was happy to note that because of the Fire Safe Council, the LADWP and CalFire have been working around Big Pine to reduce fire hazards by mowing grass in fields and removing “slash” (debris) to the County Gravel Pit. As a member of the fire department, an EMT and fire captain, he said he has worked for the community for many years.
Tillemans applauded Fortney’s efforts with the Fire Safe Council and his acknowledgment of all the people involved. While he has not been able to be a part of it because of other commitments, he has many close friends on the Fire Safe Council, and as Supervisor he will do everything to support it.
While he did not want in any way to minimize the importance of fire services, he feels the election is about vision in the future – and all the things that need to be done with the local youth. For seven years he has played a great part with community youth through the high school football program, creating relationships with almost every kid in town and their parents. Tillemans saidt a lot goes along with coaching, such as coming to know many of the families and the many issues that they are having.
As the education director for the Big Pine Education Center, he feels that they have leveraged their resources to benefit all of the community; noting that they are the only Indian Education Center in the state offering services to the entire community. Those leveraged resources have allowed them to fund and place tutors in elementary classrooms. They have used that leveraging to bridge the gap of misunderstanding between the tribe and the community, and they have been bringing everyone together. He would take that experience to the County and to the table at Board of Supervisors meetings. He wants to address concerns of all citizens and bring all the tribes and communities together in the County to the benefit of all.
Tillemans said that he has helped bring six new jobs through the health and wellness program. The old tribal casino is now the new Wellness Center and it is open to everyone. He further reminded everyone that the Travel Plaza Project will bring many more jobs and give visitors to the area a reason to stop in Big Pine, which in turn will improve the outlook for all local businesses. Referring again to the lack of youth programs at the park and other things; he reminded the audience of his long history and success in developing those types of programs, while also stressing the need to engage seniors, and lauded the new expeditionary learning curriculum at the Big Pine School. He said that more of these things should be happening to bring improvements to our communities.
What will happen to the property where the old (Big Pine) care center was?
Tillemans said he hoped something will be done so that it would not continue to sit there unused. As Supervisor he would definitely be pushing to get “something” done, noting that the first thing is to have the water rights issues settled, and have that followed by a feasibility study to see what types of projects might be possible by asking questions such as “Which ones will generate revenue and which won’t?” as well as “What is the biggest need?”
He said that “We shouldn’t have a slaughter house such as proposed by one of the other county supervisors.” Noting that a new animal shelter has been pushed a lot at the county level, he said that the county might want to team up with another organization to make it happen.
Fortney began by saying “I was not one of those supervisors that put out the proposal for the slaughter house,” which prompted laughter and applause. His view is that the animal shelter is in atrocious condition and the Board of Supervisors is absolutely embarrassed about the condition of that animal shelter. He said residents have to ask themselves one question: “Do we put the money out there and lay off employees that are taking care of your roads and your health and human services to rebuild it right now … or keep looking into it in the future and nothing ever gets done?”
The Financial Committee for the county has been looking at how to fund it, but he is not clear on what they have come up with or even that they have made a final determination. Fortney’s vision is to build the new animal shelter on the site of the old care center, making it big enough that it can house the animals safely and humanely, but that it does not need a vet hospital as Inyo already has plenty of very good veterinarians on call.
Fortney said that there is also plenty of property up there to provide the County with storage space that it needs as well – noting that the Sheriff’s Department needs more storage and that no doubt many had heard of the “pesticide palace” that our County Agriculture Commissioner wants to build so that he has a place to house his equipment. The property can be used by the County for its needs and he doesn’t think it would cost too much to build a Butler building to take care of those needs. He said that this cannot go on year-after-year. His view is that when the county owns property that it cannot use or maintain – it needs to relinquish that property and sell it to the public.
He doesn’t agree that the County Farm property is the proper place to sell for another home tract division. Again, his vision is to build the new animal shelter in front where the old care center used to be.
How would you as district supervisor handle a situation where special favors are being asked such as with county employees and supervisor/managers who are not following proper protocol?
Fortney said that County Supervisors do not have day-to-day supervision over county employees and that is the job of the department heads, as well as the managers working under them. If there is something untoward going on, he would be upset to hear it, but department heads and staff should be taking care of these problems long before they come to the attention of the Board of Supervisors.
Tillemans agreed that it is job of managers and directors to address subordinate personnel problems and issues, but it could be something that the Board might have to address if something very serious or involves a department head arises. He said that, in small towns, things can often get blown out of proportion, so the seriousness of the situation would dictate how or when the Board of Supervisors would get involved..
This ended the first candidates’ forum in the 4th District. The next 4th District forum is scheduled for 6:30 p.m., Monday, Oct. 8 in Independence in the Owens Valley School Multipurpose Room. There will be new questions and the County Supervisor candidates will be joined by those running for the Owens Valley School Board of Trustees.
In the mean time, both candidates have expressed a willingness to meet or speak with anyone who wishes to do so, on any matter or issue related to the election.
Supervisor Marty Fortney can be reached at home at (760) 938-2662 or by cell at (760) 258-6817. His e-mail address is: MFortney@inyocounty.us.
Candidate Mark Tillemans can be reached at (760) 263-4075, or e-mail at: voteTillemans@gmail.com.