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SLO Supes vote 'no' on investigation, 'yes' on groundwater subsidies 

Shrugging off weeks of public criticism and acrimony, the SLO County Board of Supervisors on April 4 stood by a decision it made on March 7 but had to make again due to a lack of public noticing: to allocate millions in general funds for the purpose of subsidizing groundwater management under the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA).

The supervisors also decided to take no action toward initiating an investigation into whether a majority of the board—supervisors John Peschong, Debbie Arnold, and Lynn Compton—violated the Brown Act by engaging in serial meetings, as a member of the public and supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson alleged.

click to enlarge BOARD DIVIDED:  SLO County Supervisors Adam Hill (left) and Lynn Compton (right) listen to public speakers at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. Hill and Compton landed on opposite sides of a heated groundwater policy debate and whether to welcome an investigation into alleged Brown Act violations committed by board members. - PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
  • BOARD DIVIDED: SLO County Supervisors Adam Hill (left) and Lynn Compton (right) listen to public speakers at a recent Board of Supervisors meeting. Hill and Compton landed on opposite sides of a heated groundwater policy debate and whether to welcome an investigation into alleged Brown Act violations committed by board members.

Both actions were taken by 3-2 vote, with Hill and Gibson dissenting, during a nearly six-hour public hearing on April 4. It marked a symbolic conclusion to what was a month-long period of infighting and turmoil within the county.

Confusion and outrage took hold after the board made changes on March 7 to the county’s strategy for complying with SGMA, the state law that requires management of five over-pumped water basins in SLO County. The supervisors voted to shift the estimated $6.1 million in planning costs from water basin users to the county’s general funds—a 180-degree reversal from the previous plan. Local agencies have until June to form groundwater sustainability agencies (GSA) over the basins or else the state will step in.

Residents and officials from across the county packed the board’s chambers on April 4 to weigh in on the issues.

The first item addressed Brown Act allegations, which stem from a letter submitted to the County Counsel’s Office by rural Paso Robles resident Laurie Gage that was allegedly penned by Greg Grewal, a member of the county’s Water Resources Advisory Committee (WRAC). The letter appeared to show that Grewal had knowledge in January of the supervisors’ groundwater policy preferences that ultimately played out on March 7. Grewal denies writing and signing the letter.

The board considered whether it would refer the item to the District Attorney or an outside investigator to determine if a Brown Act violation occurred.

Some members of the public favored an independent investigation and not one by DA Dan Dow, whose campaign for office Peschong managed. Others blasted the whole proposal as “a witch hunt.”

“The left is trying anything to discredit true conservatives in this county,” said San Miguel resident Randall Jordan, vice chair of the Republican Party of SLO County. “This is a conservative county—give up.”

Peschong, Arnold, and Compton all denied engaging in serial meetings with Grewal in order to arrive at a policy conclusion.

Arnold called the accusations “disappointing.” Compton said the issue was “pure politics.” And Peschong opposed spending funds on an investigation that he said would cost $100,000.

Regarding the board’s change to the SGMA policy, public officials from various cities and community services districts levied criticisms against the idea of subsidizing some groundwater users’ SGMA compliance at no proposed cost to them.

Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin and SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon submitted separate letters to the board objecting to the new direction.

“It is unfair to use county revenues collected from Paso Robles citizens … to pay for those who do not wish to be responsible for the cost of complying,” Martin said. “It is wrong to expect Paso Robles residents to sacrifice county services so others may be relieved of their financial responsibilities.”

Harmon indicated that the change has compromised the negotiations with stakeholders over the San Luis Valley Groundwater Basin, writing that the policy “may require the SLO City Council to revisit our action to form a GSA with the county.” Harmon stated that it “completely alters the agreement cooperatively worked on by the city and county staff for over a year.”

The Oceano and Cambria community services districts also submitted letters opposing the move, while Jon-Erik Storm, president of the Los Osos Community Services District, criticized it during public comment.

Members of the WRAC, which advises the board on water policy, were also upset with the supervisors, since WRAC submitted a written request to the board on March 7 asking that it consult with the WRAC on any SGMA decisions affecting county dollars.

Ultimately, supervisors Arnold, Peschong, and Compton said it was the county’s job to “step up” and shoulder the extra costs and not risk the state stepping in to manage part or all of the local water basins.

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