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A Brief History of Citizens' Oversight Projects

Citizens Oversight (2020-11-14) Ray Lutz

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A Brief History of Citizens' Oversight Projects

I think it may help if I give a thumbnail sketch of the history of this entity.

It is a 501(c)3 nonpartisan nonprofit since 2011, but it was an unincorporated association starting at about 2006. The idea is that since we could not easily get good people elected in our area, we would just watch the the elected officials very carefully. So we held a "recruitfest" and gathered up a few people to attend local meetings.

This was after the event that caused us to have this idea. It turns out that at the time I was the president of the East County (Partisan) Club, and I was seeking to promote the club. The local city (El Cajon, CA) had a "slide show" on the cable TV "government channel", showing slides for city departments, such as Rec Dept, Planning, Traffic, etc. I wrote a request for the list of all the slides and everything on the air.

I got back a long list, including the videos sponsored by one of the city council members that were quite partisan and also promoted specific religious points of view. So I sent a letter in saying I thought these were a bit out of line, and asked them to perhaps create a committee of residents to decide how to use the govt channel bandwidth.

They immediately pulled the videos from the channel, and I learned later that insider employees had been against these too, but they needed a citizen to object to give them cover to get them to stop.

We also learned that they had played these for four year, for two hours a day, every day. We thought "we should have been here four years ago and we could have just say no then, and we would have stopped this misuse of the govt channel in its tracks."

That's when we thought we'd better get on the ball and start doing more oversight.

After we set up some oversight teams, we heard about a "training camp" that was approved by the small community of Potrero, near the US/Mexico border. Turn out, it was not just a small training camp, but an 824 acre Blackwater Mercenary Army paramilitary training facility. Suddenly, we were not fighting a local issue, but an international issue, and for the next 1.5 years, I was interviewed probably every day by media from NYTimes to the Guardian, to Aljazeera. The story is pretty interesting and I found that I had to scale back on the openness of the organization due to infiltration and basically a desire to stay alive. (See Blackwater Potrero to see much of the work we did on this project.)

We had planned a rally for four months for Oct 7, 2006 or thereabouts. On Sept 17, Blackwater was involved in the Nishoor Square shooting in Baghdad Iraq, and Blackwater founder Erik Prince was testifying before Congress. Two weeks later, our rally had several hundred march to the gates of the Round Potrero Valley. On the gate (later) was a sign "Keep Out -- Especially Ray Lutz." I'm sure the world thought we had pulled together our rally within just days. We lucked out.

I had encouraged the residents of Potrero to get signatures for a recall election of the local Potrero Planning Group (that had approved the Blackwater facility 7-0 earlier). That group was just advisory, but it was important nonetheless. The board members had even the audacity to wear Blackwater- logo T shirts on the dais. They gathered the signatures and the special election was held. Just at that time, we had the "Ranch" fire, which burned all around Potrero, and during the voting, Blackwater had set up recovery tents and handed out relief from the back of their white hummer. (We never did find out how the fire started. But later, after we chased BW from that site, they set up shop at the Los Coyotes Reservation and wound up starting a 25,000 acre fire.)

They ended up counting the ballots by hand, and I set up a video camera and recorded the whole thing. I thought then that we should just photograph all the ballots so we could review them later. In 2008, I documented this idea, and so last year, I started the project to create just such a service Audit Engine, that would use the ballot images that are now standard in all (newer) election equipment.

Well, the opponents to the Blackwater training camp won, and those who voted for it on the planning board were replaced with opponents, and then Blackwater pulled the plug. Of course, they said their pull-out had nothing to do with the activist activities.

Erik Prince is still in business, and it was discussed that perhaps, as a friend of Trump, he might surface in a forceful coup. His sister is Betsy De Vos, our impressive Secy of Education who hates public education.

Then we went on to fight with the community against the restart of the San Onofre Nuclear Plant which took most of my time for 6 years.

Meanwhile, I was involved in researching the procedures in the San Diego Registrar of Voters. As an engineer, I can read specs and procedures quite well, so I asked them for their written procedures documents.

"We don't have any written procedures" Oh my. But that was a fact. They said I could ask questions and they would answer them. And they did, but it is a long process. Ask questions, wait 10 days, get a response, which is mostly "please clarify", round and round. Finally I made a report of the situation.

My main finding was no documentation but I learned importantly about the 1% manual tally, which I had no idea existed, and which is actually very good, because they actually hand tally paper ballots and compare with the official results. Of course, they don't really want the public to watch this, because then it might actually do some good. Transparency does no good if no one is there to watch.

But I could not follow it at all, because they used a "Snapshot" of the results, which were not final, so it was not possible to compare the hand tallies to the final results at all. I learned in subsequent years to ask for the "semi-final official canvass" which they call the snapshot, so I could compare.

And we want to get this prior to the random draw, very important.

Later, I figured out that they were not actually following the law, and they were leaving out the later VBM ballots. In SD that was about 285,000 ballots, or about 37% of the election in 2016. Horrible!

I asked them to include them (which would have been about a total of 8 batches, and would have perhaps cost another $3200, which is reimbursed by the state anyway) but Michael Vu (who was previously in Cuyahoga county OH in 2004, and he oversaw two of his subordinates who were convicted of absentee voter fraud, then reversed) said he would "respectfully decline."

So I personally sued him and then Citizens Oversight Projects (AKA "COPS") joined in the suit, and we won. Then later, the officials, led by SOS Alex Padilla and LA Registrar Dean Logan, changed the law in a sleezy late change to another bill (AB-840) to allow such a thing, which is frankly ridiculous, but it is going to take legislative change now that they pushed this through. So sad that the officials will gut the audit laws just to save few reimbursed bucks. Makes no sense.

That sort of bring us up to date. Current projects are Audit Engine and Crowd Watch (a smartphone app to facilitate collection of field data during oversight activities) and still the snapshot protocol.

Now back to the question about a central and unification of purpose. Yes, that sounds good, and in many cases it can work really well. But there is a competing paradigm called diversity of tactics, where there is not unification, but many disjointed efforts that use their own ideas to address the problem. There are some good reasons to unify and some few to not.

  1. unification means there is a single point of failure which can be infiltrated and destroyed by opponents.
  2. Unification means fewer lines of thought and it is easier for opponents to follow along and again thwart the effort. Many disparate groups drives them nuts, because these corporate
entities have to try to follow it all.
  1. In the case of involvement in election offices and proposals open for comment, it is better to have more groups rather than just one. Election officials say one representative per group. We tried having T shirts with our name but then discarded them because they were blocking us.

In terms of collaboration, I tried many platforms. The wiki is good because we can attach document and and organize things, but rarely does anyone help to maintain it, but googledocs are really good and work well in terms of getting immediate distributed collaboration. I hope that Crowd Watch will be a good platform for collaboration using crowd-sourced collection and review.

I think things are moving along and probably we'll need to migrate away from the wiki toward a static-site that gets built concept, for those who are interested in such things. I find it an interesting topic of what works to get people involved.

IN ANY CASE, we have a 501(c)3 nonprofit that is perfectly positioned and was built for such things. It is available as an umbrella and we have a good idea of what is next, but I am happy to entertain the possibility of anything new we want to try.

I should add that we have had our greatest impact when we were directly engaging with the governmental agencies.

--Ray Lutz


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Title A Brief History of Citizens' Oversight Projects
Publisher Citizens Oversight
Author Ray Lutz
Pub Date 2020-11-14
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Topic revision: r4 - 06 Mar 2021, RaymondLutz
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