Eighth District Congressman Paul Cook (R) held a town hall meeting in Bishop Thursday to discuss everything from the conflict in Syria and his stance on American involvement, to wilderness designations, to veterans rights.
Cook, a freshman Congressman, serves on House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs among other committees in Washington. He is a retired Marine Colonel and Vietnam vet who has served in local government in Yucca Valley and served six years in the state Assembly.
Now a federal representative eight months on the job, Cook kicked off the meeting by telling those in attendance that he is hoping to have a staff member visit Inyo County at least once monthly to ensure he remains abreast of local issues and concerns. “I’m very, very sensitive to local issues,” Cook said.
Cook answered several questions from audience members, but had many more submit their questions in writing with the promise of a response in the near future.
John Wooley asked Cook if he is in favor of the U.S. intervening in conflicts in Syria.
Cook said that a vast majority of emails he receives are about Syria, replacing “Obamacare” as the number one issue of concern for his constituents.
“I’ve got real issues with Syria,” Cook said, explaining that he would like to review classified and top secret information before taking an official position.
“When you commit American forces to war, you have to have a military and political objective,” Cook said, explaining that he has yet to hear clear and defined objectives from President Obama.
He did say that, if the U.S. were to get involved in the conflict, its only allies would probably be Turkey and France. He also said that the armed forces are “stretched to the limit” with current operations in Afghanistan.
He also said that most of the constituents who have contact his office have gone on record as opposing U.S. involvement in Syria.
“I’m no fan of (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) … Sarin gas is one of the worst deaths, but this is nothing new for this particular regime,” and a regime change could open the door for groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Qaeda to take root in Syria.
However, in the end, Cook said, “you have to vote you conscience. It’s going to take a lot for me to support this.”
Cook also heard from two residents who are concerned about healthcare for veterans.
In an emotional statement to the Congressman, Inyo resident Bruce Cotton said that, as a disabled Vietnam veteran, he has been attempting to get a scooter to help with mobility issues for years, has to wait up to six months to get an appointment with his doctor and is required to travel all over the state to receive the various kinds of care he needs, when much of the healthcare can be done locally, or at a single hospital out of the area.
“They can’t afford to give me a scooter and I can’t push a wheelchair anymore,” Cotton said. “We’re dying out here waiting. Waiting for what I earned. And I’m being treated like dirt. Sir, this can’t keep going,” Cotton told Cook. “I can’t keep going like this. This is an insult. I didn’t go over there and fight for this.”
Cook said he understands what Cotton is going through, having been denied medical treatment by the Veteran’s Administration.
“I hear what you’re saying. You are talking about an agency that is broken. Nothing is being done,” Cook said. “I was fighting this battle in Sacramento. It’s very frustrating. But now you have a Congressman who is going to remind them. There are tens of thousands of vets in the same boat.”
Cook admited that he could “go nuclear” on the VA and attempt to cut funding due to the organizations inaction, but he fears that would only hurt veterans further.
Bishop resident Steve Toomey told Cook that he is concerned about federally designated wilderness being “manufactured” in Inyo County. Toomey explained that wilderness legislation language states that a site must have no evidence of man if it is going to be designated.
To skirt that definition, Toomey said local forest managers have created the term “unauthorized route” for roads in areas that legislators want to designate as wilderness, and destroy the roads (many of which, he said, go to mining claims and other areas).
Cook asked Toomey to get local support and form a coalition against further wilderness designations that can write clear proposals to save the remaining private property in Inyo County.
“Laws are often intended to do good things,” Cook said. “But there are unintended consequences. A lot of people have agendas. One of the biggest lies in government is transparency. I need you and I need a coalition. I don’t want something written by lawyers, for lawyers that’s only meant for certain lawyers.”
Kevin Mazzu, a member of the Alabama Hills Stewardship Group, which is attempting to have legislation passed that would created a federal National Scenic Area designation of the Hills, asked Cook for his support.
Cook said that, because the Inyo County Board of Supervisors has voiced support, he is interested in getting involved. “I’m going to defer to the collective knowledge and leadership of the county,” he said.
Another resident asked if Cook is aware of the yellow legged frog issue and proposed critical habitat designations that many local residents and business owners fear will be a detriment to tourism.
Cook said he is aware of the frog issue, and would like to hear more from residents about their fears and concerns. “I want the data,” Cook said. “I want to make an informed decision.
Because he was unable to answer everyone’s questions, Cook invited everyone to visit his website, cook.house.gov/contact/email-me, and email any additional questions they may have.