No Smarts for Mendo

by Mark Scaramella, February 2, 2011

At last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, Coast astrologer Antonia Lamb said that simply traveling to the Board meeting in Ukiah from her home in Mendocino had made her sick.

“Hi. I’m Antonia Lamb. I live in Mendocino. Ordinarily  I’m pretty perky but I’m electrosensitive and I’m just  so  sick  right  now I can’t  stand  it.  I…  As I was driving into Ukiah… This happened to me last time only I went into shock and luckily Dr. Carol Wolman was in the car with me, uh, and I had to lie on the floor of the Supervisors chambers, that was… I was afraid to come here, but this is such an important issue for many reasons, awright? Right now I have tinnitus in my ears that’s so loud I can barely hear what’s going on; my head is filled with like cottonballs, the back of my head hurts like heck, I’m nauseated, I have a metallic taste in my, in my throat, and I can’t go to a public library, awright?”

Which constitutes the most extreme reaction to Ukiah we know of. We shudder what would become of the poor woman if she were compelled to endure the even more terrifying psychic experience of Willits.

Dr. Wolman, incidentally, is a psychiatrist and perennial Green Party candidate for Congress. She is married to Todd Gitlin, described by Alexander Cockburn as the most boring writer in the English language.

Will the circle be unbroken!

Lamb continued, “…Because the wireless, because there’s wifi in this room, I can tell, and there’s some kind of wireless thing going on around here that’s just intense. When, uh, when, uh, uh, I got involved in this about six months ago talking to someone in the Bay Area who had had four smart meters put on it, they took their, their smart meter off but there were still three smart meters right on this little building and, uh, this person I know — another electrosensitive — became horribly ill! I become horribly ill in civilization, awright? One more layer, 45 seconds a day, awright? This is, these are short sharp pulsed [pounding the air] bursts of microwave radiation that add up to 45 seconds a day and everyone’s smart meter around you is putting it out. I’m going to have to move because one of my neighbors got wifi and I get sick all the time now. He does turn it off at night, thank heaven. But I’m going to have to move to a place where I’m 300 feet away from another building so that wifi fields can’t reach me and if there’s a smart meter around I am going to be affected by it. The other issue here is that this is a taking. This is a taking of our constitutional rights to health, happiness, liberty, but mostly it’s, it’s, it’s being pushed down our throats and taken out of our pockets. This technology is being forced on us. Why is this invasive technology being forced on us? It’s a little too big for us to discuss right now but I would urge you, yes, let’s have a moratorium, let’s investigate this thing as far as we can because we need to protect ourselves on many levels both for our health and our constitutional rights. Thank you so much.”

Ms. Lamb's martyrdom aside, and at a minimum she should be awarded a Tin Foil Hat With Contrail Cluster, the Supervisors voted 5-0 for a toothless moratorium on installation of the meters.

Several other anti-smart meter speakers made much more persuasive arguments against smart meters.

Besides the potential health affects cited by Ms. Lamb and the other "electrosensitives," there are serious questions of accuracy and overbilling, malfunctions — lots of the meters have already have gone of the fritz — security of customer information, the loss of meter-reader jobs, and the overall argument pursued by the late, great Joe Neilands all his days, that PG&E, alleged public utility, is controlled by its private shareholders and overpaid executives, not the public.

PG&E claims the wireless devices help customers track their energy use online and that the meters are more accurate, although “more accurate” undoubtedly translates into higher bills for us, greater profits to PG&E's private shareholders.

Other benefits PG&E claims for the new meters include better tracking of power outages and restoration, and improved integration of solar and wind power systems.

One speaker pointed out that he didn’t need a smart meter to know he used more energy when he was home and that his refrigerator and washing machine drew more power than his radio and porchlight.

PG&E rep Alison Talbot insisted that most of the concerns she’d heard were insignificant and “are relatively easily addressed. Meter readers," she said, "are not left without jobs; independent tests have shown that the meters are not overbilling; and PG&E has a state-of-the art encryption system to protect privacy; if we were to get hacked, the names and account numbers are kept separate from the account information.”

Talbot also said that the California Public Utilities Commission had “mandated some sort of automated metering by 2012.”

The Commission, of course, is dominated by PG&E shills, and lots of meter readers will indeed lose their jobs.

How close are those noble guardians of the public interest at the PUC to PG&E? Matier & Ross of the San Francisco Chronicle nicely summed up the relationship last Monday: "Party hearty: ・Organizers of the California Public Utilities Commission's 100th birthday party got a bit more publicity than they had bargained for, thanks in part to our column about its new foundation taking money from the very utilities the commission regulates. Gov. Jerry Brown suddenly became too busy to attend, leaving former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, who was to have introduced the governor, to fill in at the packed house at [Bay Area Power Broker] Clint Reilly's Merchants Exchange building. Outside, Democratic state Assemblyman Jerry Hill of San Mateo — a vocal critic of what he sees as lax PUC oversight of utilities — held forth with reporters, raising questions about the propriety of the new foundation. Right in the middle of his talk, up walked former PUC Commissioner Jeff Brown, Jerry's cousin, saying he'd just been made one of the foundation's directors and assuring Hill that any contribution of more than $500 would be made public. 'You have my word on it,' Brown said. By the way, attorney Thomas MacBride, a fellow foundation director, tells us that once the dinner's 'very expensive' bills are paid — including the tab for main speaker, former state Historian Kevin Starr, a video production and room rental — the net take for the foundation's launch is expected to be $70,000 to $80,000."

The PG&E reps at last week's meeting of our Supervisors didn’t do much to advance their argument for smart meters when, under questioning from Supervisor John Pinches, they admitted there’s no “opt-out” procedure — there's only a provision to request a delay, and that the cost of the entire “experimental” program, as Pinches described it, was to be borne by the customers even though it’s still a new technology and might turn out to be a Wireless Flop.

But Supervisor Pinches, not known to be a Tin Foil Hatter, then made a statement that immediately vaulted him into Antonia Lamb territory.

“I’ve lived most of my life off the grid,” said Pinches. “I’m not really into the electronic scene. This is kind of a no-brainer for me. Cumulative effects are a problem. Millions and billions of these radio signals with cellphones and everything — there has to have a cumulative effect. We need to look at that closely. I don’t think they’ve really looked at alternatives. I completely support this.”

The Mendo Moratorium, justified or not, will still face some serious legal challenges.

Mendocino County cites public health and safety as their legal cover for its moratorium, a moratorium that will stay in effect until PG&E can adequately address a series of concerns enumerated in the new County Code section which bans the smart meters — temporarily.

But, “The California Public Utilities Commission is the only jurisdiction which can issue a moratorium on the installation of smart meters,” PG&E rep Paul Moreno said later. “We have a CPUC directive to proceed with the installation and not honor local moratoriums.”

How convenient of the California Public Utility Commission, as it solidifies its ancient reputation as the complete tool of the people they allegedly regulate, PG&E.

According to a recent article by Linda Williams in the Willits News, “In 2008, the City and County of San Francisco considered a moratorium on the installation of meters. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) advised San Francisco their ordinance would ‘interfere with the CPUC's exclusive jurisdiction over the regulation of public utilities. The Commission's authority extends to a public utility's infrastructure including, including the installation of meters.’ In 2010, San Francisco, Santa Cruz County, Fairfax, Capitola, Watsonville, Scotts Valley and Monte Sereno jointly petitioned to reopen the earlier CPUC decision for PG&E to upgrade to smart meters. The CPUC denied this petition to suspend PG&E's installation of smart meters in December 2010.”

So far we’ve seen no schedule of smart meter installations for Mendocino County. It will be interesting to see if Mendocino actually tries to enforce its moratorium before it’s overturned by the CPUC and our always corporate-friendly courts. Will we see armed meter men invade the Albion Nation, screwing smart meters to every hippie back door?

After the electrosensitives had finally limped off for the relative safety of Mendocino, there was a rather pointed exchange between newly elected Fifth District Supervisor Dan Hamburg and Sheriff Tom Allman.

Allman’s budget deficit (based on a somewhat arbitrary cost allocation from the CEO’s office) is still about $800k, down from some $1.1 million after a few layoffs, some reassignments, and a couple of sergeant demotions.

The jail budget is likely to be even more severely strained if the state, as threatened, sends dozens of state inmates back to our county jail in July. That move by itself would probably overwhelm most of Allman’s efforts to reduce the jail population will certainly put the County Jail back to over-capacity and his budget into an even more precipitous nose dive.

“I hope three of you can get this,” Allman said to the five supervisors, apparently assuming that Smith and Hamburg are beyond reason, which is certainly a safe assumption in Smith's case, “I hope three of you understand that by laying off correctional deputies ... it's compromising the inmates' safety, the public's safety and our employees' safety.”

Allman told the board that his budget was an easy target because “87% of it is general fund,” adding, “If anybody on this board can clearly, without emotions, with facts, come into the Sheriff's Office and say, ‘I think this is where you trim,’ my doors are open. But if you want to just, based on emotion, say, ‘Well, the Sheriff's Office uses the vast majority of the general fund, so we know we can cut there,’ then I would ask you to really, truly ask for the purpose of what the Sheriff's Office does.”

“We can't cut anymore,” Allman concluded.

Supervisor Hamburg was justly offended by Allman’s use of the phrase “without emotion” and launched into what some have called an “emotional” complaint.

“First of all, Tom, I want to say that your enthusiasm for your department is admirable. I'm glad that you feel so strongly about maintaining your department, about maintaining public safety in our County. I know you take this to heart. I'm sure you take it home with you. I'm sure it's a 24/7 obligation for you. But I have to say that I don't like hearing you tell me as a supervisor that if I don't see things exactly the way you do, then I'm operating on emotion.”

Allman denied saying that was his meaning.

Hamburg went on.

“That is what you said. You said if we come to you with good arguments, you'll listen to us, but if we just come to you with emotion — as if we only see things in this kind of irrational way, and you're the only one who's really standing up for the people of Mendocino County, and Tom, it just ain't true! We have different obligations than you do, and if you want to turn around and sue us because you don't think you're getting enough to do what you have to do, go ahead. And use our money to do it.”

Hamburg then asked the Sheriff’s admin specialist Norm Thurston how much the recent cuts had reduced his department's deficit.

“It will not affect the deficit,” replied Thurston bluntly, “because the cuts have been used to save deputy positions, so as opposed to having seven layoffs, we had four.”

Hamburg, his voice rising, countered, “So, in other words, all this rigmarole this board's gone through the last three months ... before I was on the board just sitting out there listening, we have really gained no ground. We’re looking at what, a $700k-$800k deficit by the end of the year?”

Thurston: “Yeah.”

Hamburg then referred to a Press Democrat article about Sonoma County considering the layoffs of 500 county employees — including some 100 sworn police officers.

“Sometimes I wonder if certain people in our county don't read the newspapers,” Hamburg said. “We’re in a very serious recession. We have no money. You may want things to be a certain way, Tom, and you may think that's the only way they can be looked at, but it just ain't so! The money isn't there! Now, you want us to keep gutting every other county department so we can keep putting 87% of the general fund money into the sheriff.”

Allman had earlier said that 87% of his department's budget was general fund money, not that the county spent 87% of its general fund budget on the Sheriff's department.

Hamburg continued, “Our responsibilities are to look at the overall priorities and needs of this county, and that doesn't stop at your department. It doesn't. At least in the opinion of this Supervisor. And that doesn't mean I don't care about public safety, Tom. It doesn't mean I don't care about my resident deputies [in Point Arena and Anderson Valley]; I care very deeply about it. But sometimes I feel you're being too much of a politician and not enough of a sheriff, and not really working with — ”

“Madam chair …? ” Allman interrupted.

“ …with the whole group here,” Hamburg said.

Allman complained, “If this is going to continue, as Sheriff, I'm going to leave. If the Supervisor wants to chastise me, he can do it outside a public forum.”

“Tom, I often feel like you're here chastising us,” Hamburg insisted.

Allman addressed Board Chair Kendall Smith: “You either put me out of order or put him out of order; one of the two.”

Smith, being perpetually out of order herself, of course did nothing.

Hamburg quit: “I'm done.”

“OK, Sheriff, go ahead,” said Smith, Hamburg having retreated.

Allman corrected Hamburg, saying his department didn't use 87% of the County general fund, adding, “That's a great way of misinterpreting what I said.”

Hamburg interrupted, “I’m sorry, 87% of your budget comes from the general fund.”

“OK,” Allman said. “When I'm done, you can talk; when you're done, I can talk. Mr. Supervisor Hamburg, it's gonna be a long four years, I assure you, OK?”

Allman said the state constitution mandates that the County Sheriff investigate felonies, maintain the jail, provide security for the courts and serve civil papers.

“I take my job very seriously because the people of the state, and the people of this county, demand adequate public safety,” Allman continued. Further deputy job cuts would have a “drastic impact on the 5th District” because of civil service rules which mean that some patrol deputies such as the relatively recently hired Craig Walker in Anderson Valley, would be laid off before more senior deputies and they won’t be easy to replace in their resident positions. Allman suggested that he could discuss the question with Hamburg outside the boardroom, adding, “If we want to have public outbursts and you want to chastise me in a public forum, I honestly have better things to do. I don’t have to be here today. I'm not your boss, sir, and you're not mine.”

Hamburg responded: “I often feel that when you come in to address the board that you come in in a spirit that is chastising me as a Supervisor and this board. We’re after the same thing, the best situation for the people who live in this County. That involves a lot of County services this County provides and yours are critical, but so are many of the other services that we provide and you have to have more cognizance of that. You are part of a team. You are one of however many department heads we have in this board of supervisors and if we don’t work together through some times that are really going to be grueling and just come at each other all the time, it’s not going to work.”

Allman: “I don’t think I came at you today, Supervisor Hamburg.”

Hamburg: “Yes, I think you did, Tom. I think you did come after me. When you tell the board that if we don't agree with you, that we're operating on emotions, rather than on a rational basis, that is coming after us.”

Allman: “If I could remind the Supervisor what I stated, I stated, If you want to deal with facts, and that's what cops deal with, I will gladly show you the facts.”

Hamburg: “Excuse me, Tom, but the facts are that we are looking at an $800,000 deficit in your department this year! That is a fact! That's a fact! That's not emotion!”

* * *

This entire exchange was mostly heat, the only light being that we now know that it hasn’t taken Hamburg long to jump on the done-to-death “there’s no money” train. The trouble with the “There’s no money” approach is that whenever budget decisions have to be made, the Board defers to CEO Carmel Angelo and her simple percentage cuts for each department without asking questions about how her recommendations were arrived at or what drives the costs of the various General Fund expenditures.

How, exactly, this entirely unproductive exchange between the supervisor and the Sheriff will help keep resident deputies on patrol in an increasingly lawless Mendocino County is not known, but it doesn't seem to be leading to sensible resolution.

We never hear the Board ask Sheriff Allman for “facts.” How much gas money is the recently implemented no-patrol policy actually saving? How much money is being saved by having two cops in a patrol car when they do go out? How much money would be saved by an arraignment court at the jail? (For example, Allman said last week that he “has to have four people on duty to transport to and from Ukiah.”) What alternatives are there for handling the frequent flyers who are booked into the County Jail on “disorderly conduct” charges every week? If the DA isn’t charging as many pot cases as his predecessor, how much money can be saved in the criminal justice system related to marijuana? What is the ratio of misdemeanors to felony arrests? How are they prioritized?

Before these questions are ever asked they're answered: “There’s no money.”

We know that. Now what?

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