Opinion

Thursday, Feb 16 2012 02:45 PM

Politics and mercury

For those who enjoy local government as political theatre, look no further than the Bear Valley Community Services District Board of Directors.

Over the past months we’ve covered numerous meetings of the board and its advisory committees. We do our best, in coverage of meetings, to keep Bear Valley Springs residents and property owners — and other interested parties — up on the actions and planned actions of the board and also the general issues and concerns.

These have included, most recently, the fact that the district has a number of top managers on contracts that apparently are renewed each year so continue years into the future. Some of these contracts provide benefits including vehicles that, in some cases, may be driven for personal use or at least for commuting to and from work. And some Bear Valley Springs residents have questioned the fiscal wisdom of these contracts.

Some residents have also questioned the policy of “take home” vehicles for the department’s police officers and some months ago asked the district to see if the Kern County Sheriff’s Office could or would provide police protection at a lower cost.

The practice in Bear Valley is for the district board to refer such matters to committees. The committees then make recommendations — for instance, one recent recommendation was to review the district’s vehicle policy. But the board doesn’t seem to pay much attention to the committee recommendations. In at least one recent meeting, the board took an action knowing that a committee had made a recommendation that had not yet been presented to the board.

Most recently, of course, the board’s agenda — which we’re told is developed by the General Manager — stated that the board was to consider “Approval of Kern County Sheriff’s Proposal to Provide Public Safety Services for Bear Valley Springs.”

I think most reasonable people would agree that if Bear Valley Springs were seriously considering replacing its police departmet with the sheriff’s office, there would be a number of public meetings scheduled to present information and gather public input. One would not expect the matter to appear on an agenda as it did, seemingly out of the blue.

But if one wanted to distract the community from its recent fixation on board actions and policies and get everyone in an uproar over the prospect of such a major change — then an agenda item like that one would certainly do the trick.

I don’t live in Bear Valley Springs, but if I did, I would be asking members of the Board of Directors of the CSD why they have a system of committees if they don’t even wait for committee reports before taking action.

And I’d also be asking why the very legitimate concerns of taxpayers have been ignored for so long. Although there are road problems and other financial issues facing the district, and property owners already pay numerous taxes and fees, there does not seem to be any real effort by the majority of the board to be responsive to taxpayer concerns.

Of course, at the most recent meeting one person said she would be willing to pay even more to keep the police department (as opposed to turning police protection over the sheriff). I have to wonder if everyone in Bear Valley shares this view — after all, in the last election voters turned down a proposal to pay for locking mailboxes.

Mercury

A report by the investigative team, California Watch, shows that the Lehigh Southwest Cement plant in Tehachapi produced 872 pounds of mercury in 2010 — the most of any cement plant in California and the second-highest among all cement plants in the United States.

Under new federal rules, which are scheduled to begin in Sept. 2013, plants will be banned from emitting more than 55 pounds of mercury per million tons of cement produced. The production of Lehigh’s Tehachapi plant wasn’t noted in the article, so there is no easy way to compare how far out of compliance with the new regulations the plant might be.

However, as noted in the article, mercury emissions are up substantially from prior years — which the company says is due to a change in how reporting is done.  The cement industry has said that complying with the new federal regulations could cost it as much as $3.4 billion and force closure of some plants. According to the California Watch report, federal regulators put the cost at less than $1 billion.

California Watch is a nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. A shorter version of its report on Lehigh’s Tehachapi plant  was published in The Bakersfield Californian on Sunday, Feb. 12. My advice to local residents is to read the full version published at www.CaliforniaWatch.com.

This is an important issue for Tehachapi — with environmental and economic issues. The California Watch article left me with more questions and we’ll be following up with more information as soon as it can be developed.

CLAUDIA ELLIOTT is editor of the Tehachapi News. Send email to celliott@tehachapinews.com or call 823-6360.

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