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03.12.08

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Nūz: Santa Cruz County News Briefs

FLOW temporarily prevails over Cal-Am in court, Santa Cruz nursery Blue Bamboo is the first commercial victim of LBAM, Sprenger's mystery survey and Mayor Coonerty's interview on 'Lou Dobbs.'

FLOW Victory

For the average working stiff Monday is not a day for jubilation, but for Betsy Herbert, Monday, March 10, was sure to be the best day of the week. That was the day the environmental analyst for the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) learned that her agency had won a crucial court ruling in its attempt to wrest control of Felton's water system from Cal-Am, a subsidiary of the multinational company RWE.

Herbert was stunned. Cal-Am had been holding on to the Felton system with an iron grip, even after SLVWD officials had offered to pony up $7.6 million for the 1,320-customer system. Then suddenly, just a week before the matter was scheduled to be heard in Santa Cruz Superior Court, Cal-Am backed out, giving SLVWD the default win, at least for now.

Herbert theorizes that, even with a small army of lawyers, Cal-Am knew it was going to lose when the eminent domain case came before Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick on March 17. SLVWD had filed legal briefs arguing that public ownership of the Felton water system would be a vast improvement over the rate hikes and corporate secrecy of Cal-Am, and that therefore the "public good" condition on the use of eminent domain had been met. Herbert thinks Cal-Am was hard pressed to muster any decent counterarguments to these claims.

"Cal-Am has imposed rate increase after rate increase after rate increase without really giving justifications," says Herbert. "Also, the SLVWD is a public agency--we have an elected board of directors. The people who sit on the board live in the district and are elected by the district."

The concession by Cal-Am was cause for celebration among members of the community group Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW), which has been campaigning to kick Cal-Am out of Felton for years.

It's not over, though. Another, more important, court hearing is scheduled for June 2, at which time a jury will be convened to determine the fair market price for the Felton water system. SLVWD will be arguing for the $7.6 million figure, while Cal-Am is demanding $25 million before it packs up its carpetbags. FLOW has raised $11 million through voter-approved bonds to purchase the system.According to a written statement by Cal-Am attorney Joe Conner, the company believes the judge will find the $25 million figure more reasonable, and when the verdict is handed down SLVWD won't have the cash. When that happens, the eminent domain case will be null and void, and Cal-Am, despite losing one battle, will have won the war for Felton's water.

Bye-Bye, Blue

Call it collateral damage. The effort to eradicate the light brown apple moth (LBAM) chalked up its first nonmoth casualty this week when Santa Cruz's Blue Bamboo Nursery announced it was closing its doors due to a wave of strict regulations imposed by the USDA. Blue Bamboo owner Teresa Aquino decided to call it quits after lost sales and perpetual LBAM-related headaches finally took their toll on her mental and fiscal health.

Aquino first made headlines back in June 2007 when she refused to spray her plants with the toxic pesticide chlorpyrifos. Government inspectors were requiring retail nursery owners in Santa Cruz to spray the nasty chemical before they could ship outside the county. Aquino insisted she would not risk spreading toxins to her neighbors or the wildlife surrounding her rural shop.

There was a standoff, and Blue Bamboo was temporarily shut down.

Finally, the two sides struck a compromise. In exchange for government promises that retail nurseries wouldn't be required to spray pesticides, retailers were prohibited from shipping their products outside of Santa Cruz and Monterey counties under any circumstances. Wholesale nurseries were not affected and would still be required to spray pesticides if the moth was found during the monthly inspection rounds.

According to Aquino, the ban on retail shipments to out-of-county customers even applied to deliveries that were headed to other quarantined areas, such as the Bay Area.

"It's all so absurd, when we know that the LBAM is just as happily settled into the Bay Area as it is here," says Aquino, adding, "I need those out-of-area sales."

Aquino is pretty sure other nurseries are violating the government clamp-down--selling plants to, say, vacationers from the Bay Area who put the plants in their Subarus and drive back home. For the bamboo trade, however, skirting the inspectors is a bit trickier.

"No one is really checking where you transport the plants, but it's hard to hide 15-foot bamboos in the back of a truck," says Aquino. "The really idiotic part of it is that no one in the area knows that much about the quarantine. For example, under the quarantine you're not supposed to take a bouquet of flowers to your aunt in Modesto. But you don't know that, do you?"

Aquino will be happy to take a break from LBAM politics, but she'll be keeping at least one eye on developments. If things calm down and the quarantine is loosened up, there's a chance she could open shop once again. Meanwhile, she'll be helping the folks at Mountain Feed and Seed set up their new nursery. Hopefully, for the sake of her mental health, she won't run into those government inspectors again.

"Risking a federal offense to sell bamboo just ain't worth it," concludes Aquino.

Strangers With Surveys

The push poll, as readers may know, is one of those unsavory tools of electioneering that gives politics a bad name. Typically it comes in the form of a dinner-hour phone call that sounds like a survey, only with a creepy insinuation ("Would you vote for Candidate X even if you knew he beats his wife?"). The allegation needn't be true to damage a political opponent.

The Sprenger 2008 Committee did not send out a push poll to 10,000 area voters on March 4. There was no slinging of mud upon Felton businesswoman Barbara Sprenger's principal opponents in the race for the District 27 Assembly seat. Far from going negative on Monterey professor Bill Monning and former Santa Cruz Mayor Emily Reilly, the "survey" instead went positive on Sprenger herself, listing a series of flattering statements and asking respondents to rate them. It was more "come hither" than "take that!" So let's call it a pull poll.

The reason Nu_z wants to call it anything at all besides an ordinary run-of-the-mill political survey is that it wasn't clear until well into the communiqué, subject line "Voter Survey," that it was from Sprenger's campaign.

"Dear California Voter," the email said. "The following short survey is a way to help make your voice heard on important issues. Please take just a few minutes to let us know what you think." The sender was nowhere identified.

Curious, Nu_z clicked the survey, which came up titled "27th Assembly District" and started off with general questions about whether the recipient plans to vote in June and if California is on the right track. So generic was it that naive respondents might have taken it for an official survey by the government or some actual research group. It wasn't until the 10th question (of 25) that the Sprenger slant became well and truly obvious. At the end came a single line of attribution to the Sprenger 2008 Committee.

So what up? Why the late ID?

"If you say it at the beginning, you bias the poll," said Sprenger campaign consultant Eric Jaye. "The challenge candidates face is if they have 10 hours of topics to talk about and five minutes at the door, what do they talk about in those five minutes? This is a way to make sure they address voters' concerns."

Jaye does know his stuff. His Storefront Political Media has run campaigns for San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, California Congresswoman Ellen Tauscher and former presidential candidate Wesley Clark. Guess that's how it's done in the majors.

Be that as it may, it reminds Nu_z of a long-ago incident in which a stranger came knocking at the door, requesting the completion of a survey "for science." Ever willing to advance the cause of knowledge, young Nu_z complied; fast-forward to a scene in a suburban Phoenix office where a hapless Nu_zlet is getting the hard sell from a fast-talking Scientologist.

A lesson emerged from that experience: when presented with a survey, always know the questioner, and don't give your opinions away for cheap. They're valuable. That's why people want them.

Whither the Funny Bone?

It is said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. So does that make Santa Cruz a town full of Lou Dobbs-lovin' right-wingers? Say it ain't so! But judging from the outpouring of vitriol directed at Mayor Ryan Coonerty on various online forums last week, that's what our little utopia has become.

The outcry came after Coonerty declared March to be Lou Dobbs-Free Month in response to the television and radio host's attack on Congressman Sam Farr. Farr had told immigration enforcement officials that their tactics make his constituents think of the Gestapo. Immigration being Dobbs' pet issue, he challenged Farr to defend his statement. In a show of support Coonerty issued the proclamation, calling it a "tongue-in-cheek effort" to draw attention to lame-ass journalism (our description).

Lo, how sternly the fingers of government accountability did wag at Coonerty for wasting untold minutes and cents of city resources on his declaration! How the fearless (and anonymous) scoldings did pour forth over failure to attend to more urgent city business! How tightly the sphincter of humorlessness did clench when it was learned that Coonerty the wastrel had accepted an invitation to be on Dobbs' new radio show on March 7!

Quite a flap. Anyone who wants to hear a broadcast of the offending show should tune in to KZSC-FM (88.1) this Thursday, March 13, at 7pm for the Politics of Santa Cruz Reality."

It might be good for a chuckle--something this town could apparently use.


Nūz just loves juicy tips about Santa Cruz County politics.

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