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Our Back Fence (2007-08-01) Miriam Raftery

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Should Blackwater USA be allowed to convert a valley bordering national forest lands into a private military and law enforcement training base?

No way, says a vocal group of outraged residents in Potrero, a rural East County town where many came seeking refuge from the hustle and bustle of city life. Now more than 200 people—nearly half the town’s registered voters—have taken the seemingly radical step of launching a recall election against all but one member of the Potrero Planning Group—a move that a Registrar of Voters spokesperson calls “unprecedented.”

But soon after citizens turned in petitions with seemingly enough signatures to initiate a special election to recall all planners who voted for Blackwater’s project, a new monkeywrench has been thrown into the works. County Counsel has confirmed that three of the six planners (Ed Berger, Mike Rubalcava and Emil Susu), who were appointed to fill vacancies, were never confirmed by the Board of Supervisors—and thus have been serving illegally. Susu was not even registered to vote in California. The trio’s seats have now been declared vacant by County officials, causing consternation among residents-- and controversy over who should fill their positions.

“The illegal status of the three Planning Group members adds another level of incompetence on top of the scandals that are swirling around the processing of the Blackwater project,” declared Duncan Mc Fetridge of Save Our Forests & Ranchlands, an environmental group opposed to the Blackwater project.

County officials at the Department of Planning & Land Use (DPLU) and Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s office say that they never received minutes from the Potrero Planning Group (PPG) meetings required for Supervisors to make the appointments official. Even after Susu’s out-of-state voter registration was revealed in April and Susu reportedly reregistered in Potrero, the PPG still failed to submit paperwork requesting his reappointment, Jacob confirmed in an e-mail to this reporter.

Hammers contends that he did send paperwork in on Susu and the other ousted planners. “They’ve got it; you bet they do,” he insisted. “It was sent not only to Dianne Jacob’s office, but also to Cheryl Jones [at DPLU].” He admitted, however, that he does not have a copy of that transmittal.

Two of the planners whose seats were voided were appointed prior to last November’s election. But Hammers contends that before that election, “We specifically asked the Registrar of Voters if the appointed board members needed to stand for election. They have names, and we were told at that time that it wasn’t necessary…Had we known the issue at the time, it would have been very easy to have those seats elected. We did everything we could. I feel that somebody at the County really screwed up big time.”

Asked to explain how three separate appointments failed to be confirmed, Hammers replied, “I am not going to defend or attack the County bureaucracy. The County was going through a significant employee turnover at the time and I assume that this got misdirected somewhere in the shuffle.”

This is not the first time that papers Hammers claims to have submitted to the County have been “lost in the shuffle.” Minutes indicated that the planning group’s vote for Blackwater was contingent on a noise test (which never occurred) also failed to turn up in DPLU’s project file. In addition, Hammers has been the target of a lawsuit by Campo resident Zoe Rosell, who alleges that Hammers violated the Brown Act by refusing to allow her to speak anonymously before the board.

The County has certified signatures for a recall election to take place against four planners: Chairman Gordon Hammers, Jerry Johnson, Mary Johnson, and Thell Fowler. The election must be held within 88 to 125 days of certification—or somewhere between late October and early January.

At least six candidates voiced plans to run for those seats--before news broke that some have been declared vacant immediately. Carl Meyer, a farmer and former planning board member who initiated the recall effort, hopes to replace Hammers as Chairman. Other candidates include tax consultant Janet Good, high school teacher Tiny Mc Cunney (Brown), Rev. Fran Materra, loan originator and real estate salesperson William Crawley IV, and Terry Stephens, a former board member and Verizon employee.

Jan Hedlun, the only planning group member opposed to Blackwater and the sole member NOT facing recall or ouster by other means, said that three residents have already submitted applications to the County asking to be appointed to fill the seat vacated by Susu back in April. “We now have three people and three vacancies,” she said. “Why can’t we fill them with the three people who have been waiting for two months?”

But Hammers has a different idea: he wants to see Susu, Berger and Rubalcava stand for election as candidates when the recall is on the ballot. “As far as I’m concerned, that’s fine,” he said. “I’m content to let the people decide this issue.”

Candidates running for the board say that condescending attitudes of Hammers and other board members are as much the problem as the board’s controversial vote favoring Blackwater. At one recent meeting, after Susu called the recall petition language “a pack of lies,” one resident responded, “This is the reason that we as a community initiated this recall. Your attitude and your disrespect to the community members is exactly why you find yourself in this position.”

At an earlier meeting, planner Mary Johnson wore a Blackwater T-shirt while seated on the board, drawing complaints from an audience member. “What are you, the fashion police?” she retorted.

“What prompted me to throw my hat into the ring here is it’s the good old boys club run rampant,” said candidate Stephens, citing Hammers and Jerry Johnson specifically. “They don’t want to listen to the people…The majority of people here in Potrero just want to be left alone.” Stephens would prefer to see the land converted to ranchette homes or some other use, such as a dude ranch, she added.

Crawley shares Stephens’ concern. “Right now there is a disconnect for the people of Potrero…most of the people don’t come [to meetings] because of the people there, especially Mr. Hammers. It’s unproductive.” If elected, Crawley says he would keep Round Potrero Valley as an agricultural preserve, citing potentially serious impacts on wildlife and the water table from Blackwater’s project. “They estimate 10 million gallons of water a year would be used,” he noted. “There are ponds up there that will be pumped out.”

Why all the controversy over the Blackwater proposal?

Blackwater has proposed to build a dozen or so live-fire shooting ranges (including automatic weapons), commando-style training camp and emergency vehicular training track complete with bunkhouses for overnight warriors-in-training. The 824-acre site has been used as a chicken ranch and is zoned agricultural, requiring a zoning change and major land use permit. To many Potrero residents, however, those land uses seem incompatible with their rural lifestyle – not to mention lands where golden eagles now nest, cougars hunt prey, and an endangered California condor was recently spotted just across the freeway.

Many residents have stated that they also fear excessive noise, traffic, increased fire danger, and potential depletion of water tables. Blackwater disputes those contentions and insists that it will take adequate steps to mitigate residents’ concerns.

Besides land use issues, some residents have also raised objections to having Blackwater as a new neighbor because of objections to the private military contractor’s controversial activities in Iraq and elsewhere. There are now more private contractors in Iraq than U.S. military personnel, leading some to criticize the privatization of military operations and its potential negative impact on the U.S. military as well as relations with U. S. allies.

The murder of four Blackwater employees, who were hanged off an Iraqi bridge and burned, sparked the siege of Fallujah—the bloodiest conflict in the Iraq occupation. Families of the victims filed a lawsuit alleging negligence on Blackwater’s part. In turn, Blackwater hired lawyer Ken Starr (famed for handling impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton) and filed a countersuit against the families’ lawyer.

Blackwater is also the target of several Congressional investigations ranging from allegations of over-charging the U.S. government to whisking an employee out of Iraq to avoid prosecution for the death of an Iraqi guard.

Although planning board races are supposed to be nonpartisan, the Potrero race has sparked accusations of partisan interference.

California’s Democratic Party passed a resolution opposing the Blackwater project, but the Democratic Party has stopped short of any active involvement in circulating recall petitions, insisting that such actions should be left to Potrero residents.

The San Diego Republican Party, however, sent letters to all registered Republicans in Potrero warning of “radical activists and operatives” from outside Potrero seeking to oust Republicans off the planning group. An anonymous robocall made a similar accusation.

The GOP letter and phonecalls ignored two key points, however:

  1. Recall organizers estimate that roughly half the voters who signed the recall petitions are registered Republicans, and
  2. Several of the candidates running to replace planners facing recall are also Republicans.

“As a lifelong Republican, I oppose Blackwater and totally support the recall,” Potrero resident Barbara Simmons noted in an e-mail forwarded to this reporter. “There are LOTS of Republicans in Potrero who feel exactly as I do and are NOT fooled by anything that Gordon says. Don’t worry,” she concluded wryly, “not all Republicans are idiots.”

Irked by the letter and calls, a bipartisan group Potrero residents sent a blistering letter back to Tony Krvaric, chair of San Diego’s Republican Party, making clear that the people of Potrero won’t stand for being pushed around by anyone anymore.

“The only outside radical activist and operative trying to influence our community is the SAN DIEGO COUNTY REPUBLICAN PARTY,” the strongly-worded letter concluded. “We will be seeking legal advice about how to deal with the libelous statements you have made in your attempt to interfere with the legal democratic recall process.”

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Publisher Our Back Fence
Author Miriam Raftery
Pub Date 2007-08-01
Media Link
Keywords Blackwater
Media Type Linked Article
Topic revision: r2 - 07 Aug 2007, RaymondLutz
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