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Los Osos recall leads by razor-thin margin, reshaping the CSD while leaving the community deeply divided

In what has to be called the most contentious issue in the history of the Central Coast, the citizens of Los Osos took their sewage into their own hands Tuesday and narrowly voted to recall three mid-term CSD members, ostensibly putting a stop to the current wastewater facility that lies at the heart of their small town.

As of Wednesday morning, none of the measures showed a clear margin of victory, and with 800 ballots remaining to be counted, County Clerk Recorder Julie Rodewald agreed that the race was "absolutely too close to call."

Measure B, which intends to give residents a voice in determining the site for the long-awaited sewer, led by a mere 20 votes, and Measure D, which called for the recall of Gordon Hensley, was fewer than 60 votes ahead. Results for Measures C and E, to recall CSD President Stan Gustafson and Richard Le Gros, indicated slightly larger leads, in the low 100s, in favor of recall.

Unless those results change as the few remaining ballots are tallied, John Fouche will replace Gustafson, Chuck Cesena will replace Hensley, and Steve Senet will replace Le Gros, creating a new CSD board unanimously opposed to the current project.

While citizens were hoping for a wide victory one way or the other, to give the community a clear direction in this heated issue, the 51-49 result leaves Los Osos as divided as ever. And nowhere was that division more evident than at the two election parties of the pro-recall and pro-sewer campaigns held respectively at the Sea Pines lodge in Los Osos and Mare Blu Ristorante in Baywood Park. On an issue that many consider split along economic lines, the two camps' choice of venues clearly echoed that characterization.

As replacement candidates and the ardent recall supporter formerly known as "minority-member" Julie Tacker nibbled on onion rings, tortilla chips, and two-dollar tacos served with a modest selection of beers and soft drinks in a crowded hall of boisterous grassroots citizens, activists, and volunteers, General Manager Bruce Buel and his cadre of "Save the Dreamers" feasted to a different tune. The intimate gathering of CSD supporters and Save the Dream volunteers reflected a far more sophisticated affair with a couple dozen attendees seated around long U-shaped table replete with fine china, crystal glassware, and haute cuisine.

The economic disparity was also underscored by the spending records of each side. Save the Dream treasurer Karen Huntoon stated that the campaign had raised and spent close to $100,000 in the past seven months. By contrast, the recall campaign had spent about $40,000, according to a rough estimate by recall committee treasurer Gijai Rosen.

Recall supporters are convinced that the $150 million project and subsequent jump in utility bills, to the tune of an additional $200 a month, would lead to an "economic cleansing" of the otherwise affordable coastal community. Many of the town's elderly residents and those living on fixed incomes, they claim, would be forced to leave Los Osos behind.

President Gustafson acknowledges that he doesn't like the price either, but he maintains that many residents in recent years have also enjoyed a tenfold increase of equity in their houses, which could be leveraged to take some of the sting out of those sky-high connection fees and utility bills. Describing Los Osos as "one of the smartest towns in the county," Gustafson was hopeful that the town would lay this issue to rest, "once and for all."

Early results, indicating a 52 percent lead against the recall, trickled in around 8 p.m. and were met with lively applause and peals of toasting wine glasses at Mare Blu. Posed for victory, the roomful of revelers exuded an air of confidence that was not to be shaken by a vocal minority of naysaying extremists.

"I know these people," Gustafson said, and, he added, they're the same people who were carrying no-sewer signs four years ago, and now they say they want to move it. "They just don't want it."

As the night went on and ballot returns were slowly updated on the county clerk's web site, the results incrementally began to favor the recall initiatives. The Sea Pines crowd cheered nervously as their leads hovered in the double digits.

"It's not going to be easy," Fouche said of his new position. "It means we'll have to work hard. But we'll do it."

Gustafson was less sanguine. "It's silly to assume that their plan will be unimpeded."

The ousted board members will have the option to demand a recount, but Rodewald said that unless the margin of victory is fewer than 10 votes, it's very unlikely to expect a different outcome.

It can take 10 to 28 days to certify the election and swear in the new board. The current CSD will meet tonight for the last time, and what the lame duck board expects to accomplish is anyone's guess. Los Osos' most immediate challenge will be finding a location to dispose of all those maddening election signs that have blighted the road to Montana de Oro....

A & E Editor Jeff Hornaday performs long division in his free time. Reach him at jhornaday@newtimesslo.com.

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