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Other peoples money
Jack Balshaw 6/4/01

We’re being softened up again by the Open Space District preparing us to accept another boondoggle purchase of wilderness land that the public can’t even see.  In this case it’s the Cooley Ranch, 19,000 acres, half in Mendocino County, with no public roads and no public access.  The District’s elite are preparing to spend $6 million to “preserve” this open space just for the sake of preserving open space.

 The public was sold the bill of goods ten plus years ago that a special sales tax to purchase open space would prevent wall to wall development in Sonoma County and thus preserve the open vistas we were used to seeing as we drove around the county.  Little did we imagine an appointed elite would use these funds (over $10 million per year) to indulge themselves in a game of special interest monopoly.

 Several years ago, after I had written a column criticizing the Open Space District, I received an irate call from a member of the governing committee.  During this call, during which frank views were exchanged, he said, “The fools don’t appreciate what we’re doing for them”  I reminded him “the fools” were the ones paying the sales tax  he was playing with.  I’m afraid that basic attitude hasn’t changed much in the ensuing years.

 Development rights have been purchased for numerous properties that aren’t even visible to the public. The vast majority of properties involved were negotiated without consideration of public access. The preservation of open space between cities, one of the principal proposed uses for the sales tax, has received minimal consideration.  All in all, the public has paid in close to $100 million and received next to nothing in the form of the open space vistas we thought we were voting our tax money to purchase.

 It now appears the game plan is to purchase development agreements to more invisible properties in the next few years and concentrate on the purchase of public access and recreation rights in only the last few years before the sales tax has to come before the public for renewal.   In that way, 15 to 18 years of poor decisions by the Open Space District and the County Supervisors, who have to approve these purchases, will be hidden behind several years of public interest purchases.  So then we’ll vote for a renewal of the sales tax.  We may be dumb, but I hope not that dumb.

 Of course we only know what is made public.  In the case of the Open Space District this is pretty much only what is reported in the Press Democrat.   The issues aren’t carried to any extent on the broadcast media.  They’re not discussed at local public meetings.  So, the topic gets one or two days of coverage and disappears until another parcel is proposed for purchase of development rights.

 The newspaper has never done a survey to find out if the public thinks one house on 100 acres is still open space. They have never asked the public if they’re happy with what’s been done with the sales tax money.  The public has never been asked if they would vote for it again under the present circumstances. The Press Democrat doesn’t want to know.

 As long as the Open Space District is spending other peoples’ money and as long as those people are voiceless, the district doesn’t have to care.  The present boondoggle with the McCrea ranch on Sonoma Mountain, where we thought we were going to have a trail and public access, indicates the incompetence of district staff.  They spent $1.6 million on the assumption the owners would allow a trail.  No written agreement, no publicly recorded document, just an assumption.  Now that the ranch has been sold we “hope” the new owner will allow the trail without asking for more compensation.  Some hard nosed bargaining wasn’t it?

 Twenty years is too long to ever again provide public moneys for purposes that are redefinable at the option of appointed and even elected officials.  We should keep that in mind for local as well as county projects.

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