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Conflict of interest 

Less than a month before Jerry Lenthall was sworn in as 3rd District Supervisor, he flew to San Francisco on a plane owned by PG&E. Lenthall traveled to San Francisco on Dec. 8 to testify at a California Coastal Commission hearing. On the table was a proposal to store radioactive waste above ground at PG&E’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant site. The same meeting drew citizens from San Luis Obispo who testified for and against the plan.

The Coastal Commission represented the last hurdle for PG&E to clear in order to store spent reactor fuel rods in 138 steel and concrete storage casks adjacent to the plant.

The Coastal Commission approved the plan and asked the energy giant to open three miles of coastline to public use. Within two years the public will have access to land that is north of Diablo Canyon and accessible through Montaña de Oro State Park.

At the hearing Lenthall told the commission that he was testifying as a concerned citizen and as a watchdog for the voters. But news of Lenthall’s trip to San Francisco in a PG&E plane has some wondering if this represents a conflict of interest.

“Perhaps on the eve of Lenthall’s swearing in, he could remind us whom he is playing watchdog for,� said SLO County resident Michele Flom, who lives in the 3rd District.

It’s not illegal for a politician to fly on privately owned aircraft as long as he reimburses the company for the ticket, which Lenthall did. Also, Lenthall flew to San Francisco before he was even sworn in. The practice is common, said Jeff Lewis, spokesman for PG&E.

“We had our plane scheduled to go up on that day. There was room, so he went up on the plane and back, and he paid us for the convenience of doing that,� said Lewis.

According to Lewis, Lenthall paid around $350 for the round-trip flight. It’s “the kind of thing that’s been done in the past [and] as long as we get paid for doing that, it’s perfectly legitimate.�

Lenthall says there’s no conflict of interest because he testified against PG&E. Lenthall told the commission he was against the plan to open up the three miles of coastline because of security issues.

But that’s actually the same stance that PG&E had. A few days after the Coastal Commission meeting, Lewis told New Times that opening the coastline goes against many of the measures PG&E has taken since 2001 to make it more difficult for people to get near Diablo.

“This is a step that brings people closer to the plant. It’s in contrast to what’s come down from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,� Lewis said.

Lenthall told the commission that he was there “as a concerned citizen, on my own time, at my own expense.�

“During my campaign, I promised the voters of the 3rd District that I would be a watchdog for the public safety at Diablo Canyon,� he said.

But many of the citizens who spoke at the meeting saw the Coastal Commission as the last agency capable of stopping PG&E’s plan to store its radioactive waste on site. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had already approved the plan.

Mothers for Peace, the local Diablo Canyon watchdog group, campaigned against the plan. According to the group, Diablo Canyon is seismically active and unsafe for storage.

Although Lenthall was against the opening of the coastline, he was for the proposed storage facility at Diablo Canyon.

“I do not see a cozy relationship,� said Lenthall. “I went up there because I was so concerned and the fact that I was able to get that flight enabled me to get up and back that morning. Because of my schedule, [that] was the only way I was going to be able to make it happen.�

Some of Lenthall’s constituents fail to see his point, though.

“What he advocated for in that meeting was to restrict public access to the land surrounding the plant,� said Flom. “He did not advocate that the Coastal Commission deny, or delay until further information could be studied, PG&E’s license to build a permanent nuclear waste dump the size of three football fields in our backyard.�

Lenthall, a retired police sergeant, said he followed the letter of the law and believes he did nothing wrong.

“I don’t appreciate the inference or the [implication] that there’s something improper here, because that’s a real strong statement for someone to make.

“Based on the circumstances I did what I believe then and now — the right, the proper, the ethical thing: paid my own way, with my own money, on my own time.

“So for you to say or for someone to infer or imply that I have some type of cozy relationship with them when I testified against them, that just doesn’t make sense to me.

“I went up there as the watchdog because I am concerned of the safety of the citizens of the 3rd District and the entire county.

“Lets not read into anything or try to infer or imply anything else.�

Under the plan, PG&E has six months to design a public access plan and two years to implement it.

Staff Writer John Peabody can be reached at jpeabody@newtimesslo.com.


Not again!

Finger pointing abounds amid Oceano flooding problems

Unusually heavy rains have caused intermittent flooding throughout the county these last two weeks, but that’s no surprise to some; these same places seem to flood every year. Which raises the question: Why doesn’t anyone do something about it? That’s exactly the question Bill Bookout is asking, as he watches the flood waters ebb and flow across the concrete floor of his eclectic Oceano Nursery at the corner of 13th Street and Highway 1.

Bookout cites two causes for the problem: “It’s a lack of maintenance,� he said, “and poor judgment on the part of prior [OCSD] leadership.�

Bookout denied rumors that he would close his nursery or relocate to San Luis Obispo. Although he may have said as much in the heat of the moment, as he struggled to rescue his flooding storeroom, he now insists that he’s not going anywhere.

“I opened this business for myself and for the community,� he said. “I’m not leaving Oceano.�

As a newly elected board member of the Oceano Community Services District (OCSD), Bookout is prohibited from participating in any decision that concerns maintenance of the property adjacent to his business, but he intends to be extremely vocal during the public comment period at the next OCSD meeting on Jan. 12.

The cause of the flooding is no mystery, as a short walk across the street easily revealed. On the west side of the highway stands a grove of a couple dozen eucalyptus trees, and just behind them, a runoff drain that feeds westward under the train tracks, then under the Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVEE), and into a pond.

The OSCD conducted some weed abatement in the area earlier last year, for which they billed the railroad $12,000. Afterward, the OCSD left behind some 6-10 inches of eucalyptus debris, ostensibly to discourage future weeds, Bookout said. That debris made for a perfect mulch, until it rained. With the heavy storm, all that mulch flushed straight into the drain, which, not surprisingly, backed up.

“If the OCSD had weed abated properly,� Bookout said, “this drain would not have clogged.�

On Monday, Jan. 3, the city of Arroyo Grande came out to pump the drain. After four hours of dredging and clearing more than 100 feet of the west end of the backed-up runoff, the team of city workers was literally up to its knees in soggy eucalyptus. Just three weeks earlier, they had been out to pump the east end of the same drain.

Between the OCSD, the Oceano Nursery, the railroad, and the POVEE plant, there’s a lot of finger pointing going on, and no one seems willing to accept any responsibility.

The flooding has already cost Bookout $15,000 in damages this year, and said he plans to seek legal counsel to take action against Caltrans or the OCSD.

“Caltrans has not lifted a finger,� he said.

Dan Sutton, plant manager for POVEE, summarized the situation.

“All the stuff has to go somewhere, and it goes where the water takes it,� he said. “Hopefully they see where the problem is coming from, and they do something about it.�

Arroyo Grande Public Works Supervisor Shane Taylor called the whole thing “kind of a bad deal,� because no one claims ownership of the runoff. They will probably bill the OCSD for pumping the drain, Taylor explained, but they are considering billing the railroad. In any case, he wasn’t optimistic that the drain would stay clear for long. “It’s wide open,� he said, “for now.�

Mitch Cooney, general manger for the OCSD, acted as if there were nothing that could be done to resolve the problem. When asked about the flooding, he simply shrugged his shoulders and said it’s been going on for over 30 years.

Taylor recommended covering the opening with some kind of grate, at the very least, to keep the larger remnants of eucalyptus out of the drain. As it stands, the two- or three-foot opening to the drain is wide open and surrounded by mounds of loose branches and leaves.

Staff Writer Jeff Hornaday can be reached at jhornaday@newtimesslo.com.

 

 

Feds clear Sheriff’s Dept. in civil rights investigation

Almost a year and a half after San Luis Obispo County Sheriff Pat Hedges asked the federal government to review a controversial 2001 arrest, the Department of Justice says that deputies did not violate Gerald Bernales’ civil rights when they forcefully arrested him.

This is one of three cases Hedges has asked the FBI to review: One involves Keith Yecny— who died while in the county’s jail — and is still ongoing. The other review involved Jay Vestal — who died while being arrested in 2003. Late last year, the federal government said that the deputies involved did not violate Vestal’s civil rights.

The Bernales case took place in 2001 when sheriff’s deputies tried to pull the 19-year-old over for speeding. According to police video, Bernales pulled over to the shoulder of the road before accelerating and pulling away.

Deputy Robert Gene Burgeson and his partner caught up with Bernales at his Los Osos home. Burgeson later testified that Bernales got out of his car and ran toward his house before stopping and shouting, “I’m sorry I did not stop.�

In court documents, Bernales’ lawyer described what happened next: “In the next three to five minutes, the deputies apprehended Gerald, lacerated his face, fractured his right frontal sinus cavity, causing a hematoma and fracturing his skull. Bone fragments were lodged in [his] brain, and there was excessive bleeding within the skull cavity.�

The deputies, who were later backed up by two experts, say those injuries happened when Bernales fell on a “sculptured brick� in the driveway.

Bernales’ lawyer, and a witness inside the house, say the deputies hit him on the head with a “long, black object� — evidently a flashlight.

Bernales eventually pleaded guilty to not stopping, and in 2002 sued, saying his subsequent brain injuries were a result of the deputies’ excessive force. In a record-setting out-of-court settlement, he won $2.2 million dollars from the county and its insurers.


— Abraham Hyatt

 


 

Judge dismisses ADA suit; Molski will refile

Molski will refile Calling the claim “moot,� U.S. District Judge Terry Hatter has dismissed a lawsuit brought by wheelchair-bound Jarek Molski against a Templeton winery.

Now, Molski and his San Francisco lawyer, Thomas Frankovich, will refile that suit in the state’s Superior Court

In Hatter’s one-page dismissal filed on Dec. 22, he said the court had considered the changes that Peach Canyon Cellars and its owners had made to become compliant with the American’s With Disabilities Act, or ADA. No monetary damages were awarded to Molski.

According to Frankovich, the new suit will ask for money since the winery was out of compliance with the ADA for about 15 years, including when Molski visited a year and half ago.

Over the past year, Molski has filed more than 50 lawsuits against local businesses claiming they were out of compliance with the ADA. Since 2001, he’s filed between 300 and 400 similar suits around the state.

He and his San Francisco lawyer, Thomas Frankovich, settle most of those cases out of court for $15,000 to $30,000.

When New Times spoke with Frankovich last month, he that about 90 percent of the local suits are in “settlement mode.�

Last month another federal judge accused Molski of running a “scheme of systematic extortion,� and issued an order that prevents the paraplegic from filling suits in federal court under the disabilities act without first getting permission from a judge.

—A.H.


Locally founded Sri Lanka orphanage okay

The kids are safe. That’s what matters to Eric Parkinson.

Of the 102 girls living in the orphanage he founded in Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, all but three have been accounted for.

“But I have a good feeling that [those three] are going to be found. Their last known location was in a coastal location but the address is not that close to the water,� he said. “With a little good luck, I’m hoping that they’re going to be okay.�

Parkinson, a San Luis Obispo lawyer, started his nonprofit organization, VeAhavta (“you shall love� in Hebrew), in 2001 and by 2002 his group had converted a 15,000-square-foot, one-time five-star hotel into an orphanage for 5- to 18-year-old girls.

When the tsunami hit, all but 30 of the children were visiting relatives around the country. At the orphanage, the manager, who was aided by some alert fishermen at a refugee camp next door, noticed a rapid change in the ocean level and hurried the 30 girls onto a bus.

When they returned after the water subsided, the refugee camp was destroyed but the orphanage buildings were still standing. Photos show sodden walls, jumbled piles of furniture, and seaweed strewn over toilets.

“It’s bad, but it’s not as bad as it could have been,� Parkinson said. “I just got a guarded report from our engineer over there and he said that structurally [the buildings] are okay. Which was a huge relief.�

But while VeAhavta’s orphanage still stands, their many community programs — medical aid, day care, vocational, and education classes — have taken a hit. And the elderly-care facility that was due to open in March will have to be rebuilt.

To donate to the ecumenical organization — their board is made up of Jews and Christians; their chief medical officer is a Muslim — contact Parkinson at his San Luis Obispo office, 1190 Marsh St., Suite B, San Luis Obispo, 93401; 783-1070.

VeAhavta can be found online at www.youshalllove.org.

—A.H.


SLOPD say felon stole gun, made threats

Late Tuesday night, San Luis Obispo Police responded to a disturbance call on Orcutt Street. Apparently, a man was assaulting his girlfriend and also jumping on top of a vehicle.

By the time police arrived, 23-year-old Raymond Pattillo had fled and his girlfriend had driven off in a black Acura Integra.

About an hour and a half later, a man on Lemon Street called the police and said someone had kicked in his front door and stolen a .40 caliber handgun, along with 50 rounds of ammunition. The man said he thought Pattillo had done it.

Police rushed back to the Orcutt residence where they found Pattillo’s mother and her boyfriend. According to the couple, Pattillo had showed up a little while before and had threatened them with a gun before running off on foot.

A few minutes after midnight, Officer Jeffrey Smith spotted the black Integra in the Motel 6 parking lot on Calle Joaquin, and officers soon learned the man they were looking for was in room 123. After they entered the room, they found Pattillo, his girlfriend, and their 3-year-old son. They also found the stolen gun and ammunition.

Pattillo was arrested for burglary, felon in possession of a firearm, terrorist threats, and possession of stolen property.

—A.H.


Local biz helping tsunami victims

A group of local business owners have joined together to aid tsunami victims. Aaron Steed, CEO of Meathead Movers, started the web site www.biz4relief.com to help raise money for relief efforts and to give consumers an idea of what businesses are donating money.

“The goal is to raise $100,000,� said Steed. Steed’s web site encourages participation from local business owners who want to help reach this goal. The web site will also inform consumers of businesses that are donating money to relief efforts, said Steed.

“If you are a business and you want to donate, contact me,� he said. “If you are a consumer, try and support these businesses.�

So far Kennedy Club Fitness, Ash Management, Mother’s Tavern, and GFL systems have joined Steed and Meathead Movers. Steed said Meathead Movers will donate all the net proceeds from its box sales during the month of January.

Steed said he encourages business to help in any possible capacity. To learn more, call Aaron Steed at 544-6328 or visit www.biz4relief.com.

—J.P.

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