OUR VIEW: Stanislaus County supervisors tarnish collegial reputation

May 2, 2013 

In recent years, Stanislaus County supervisors have established an admirable track record of orderly deliberations even on the most divisive subjects. Many of their votes reflect divided views, but the five board members manage to make decisions, then move on. That's essential, given the dizzying array of topics with which the county deals.

That solid record was marred Tuesday with a stalemate over several proposed revisions — some mundane — to the agricultural element, part of the county's general plan.

Supervisor Dick Monteith held the reins on this discussion because he is the only one of the five who does not own farmland and qualify for tax breaks under the Williamson Act. As such, his vote was essential for anything to proceed, and he dug in his heels over a stricter proposal for farmland mitigation — which would have been fine on its own — and then refused to consider the other amendments separately.

"I want to take the whole thing as one, or I will not vote for any," Monteith said. "I believe it's important to come up with a solid program rather than picking out the easy (portions)."

This is the kind of all-or-nothing strategy we see in Congress or the state Legislature. At the local level, fortunately, elected officials typically avoid it, looking for ways to get things accomplished.

In 2007, Monteith was one of two supervisors voting against a general plan change that requires that for every acre taken out of agriculture for residential development, another acre must be set aside for permanent ag use through some sort of trust or other preservation strategy. The so-called one-to-one mitigation requirement passed 3-2.

On Tuesday, one of the proposed revisions to the ag element would stiffen the mitigation requirement to state that a minimum of one acre must be preserved for every acre developed. In other words, the county might be able to impose a higher level of mitigation, say two acres for each acre lost, on development projects in certain areas. Given his 2007 vote on ag mitigation, Monteith's opposition was not surprising.

What was disappointing was that he refused to go along with separating the proposals and voting on the others, such as discouraging commercial solar facilities on prime farmland and encouraging water recycling.

The whole chaotic scene was exacerbated by the fact that county officials didn't realize until early this week that four board members had potential conflicts of interest because of their farmland. That set up a situation where the four drew straws, with two participating in the discussion and two others getting no say on any of it.

County Planning Director Angela Freitas said there's not a great sense of urgency about the five proposed revisions, so county officials have time to sort out who might have a conflict of interest and how to bring the proposals back. The most benign would seem to be a policy regarding food safety laws.

Three are potentially contentious:

• Strengthening the ag mitigation requirement,

• Directing alternative energy projects (solar and wind) to less productive ag land and

• Protecting local groundwater for agricultural use in the county.

The last will surface as a separate — and inevitably controversial — issue in the fall, when the county Ag Advisory Board is scheduled to present a long-proposed groundwater ordinance.

Ag is not only the foundation of our local economy but a key consideration in all sorts of land use, traffic and other debates. The five supervisors share the responsibility to see that the county has an up-to-date and complete ag element in in general plan. Supervisor Terry Withrow summed it up succinctly: "Democracy did not work well" at Tuesday's meeting.

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