Hardball And Stonewall
Farr silenced; public cut short at FORA affordable housing meeting.
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Photo by Randy Tunnell. Sam Farr waited through three hours of public testimony, but was sent home by the FORA board before he could present his affordable housing proposal.
It was so ugly and strangely awkward on Friday evening at the Fort Ord Re-Use Authority (FORA) meeting that board member and Mayor of Monterey Dan Albert refused to talk about it afterwards.
Albert would not even say how he voted--an extremely unusual thing for an elected official.
"I don''t care to comment about the whole thing," Albert said in a brief telephone interview when asked to reveal his vote on the FORA meeting''s abrupt adjournment.
Albert''s reluctance, while almost bizarre, is understandable; the meeting was tense and emotional. At the board''s regular monthly meeting on Friday, July 11, two opposing forces were squared off over an issue that divides the region dramatically.
Earlier in the month, Rep. Sam Farr had submitted a plan with recommendations to use the old Army base for affordable housing. His proposal included several policy points, including one that said half the housing built on the base should be priced below $275,000. It''s a drum Farr has been beating for more than a year.
Opposing Farr are the political leaders of Seaside and Marina--and, perhaps, Monterey.
Mayor Jerry Smith of Seaside and Mayor Ila Mettee-McCutchon of Marina believe that 20 percent of new homes built in their communities should be affordable to most local residents. In the case of Seaside''s largest housing project ever, the 380-home Seaside Highlands, there is zero housing priced below $525,000.
In this area, affordable housing is a bit of misnomer. It means not only housing for housekeepers and farmworkers, but also housing for firemen, teachers and nurses.
It''s the biggest issue around, as it pits the traditionally blue-collar Army towns against the tourist-dollar-rich Peninsula towns. The rich towns say they have no room to build. Or, in the case of Mayor Albert, they simply say nothing.
It was as large a crowd as has ever mustered for a FORA meeting, a monthly gathering where the board usually outnumbers the audience. This time about 250 people showed up to comment on Farr''s 50 percent proposal, as well as a less well-defined proposal from FORA itself to create community housing trusts.
The crowd was a virtual Who''s Who of area politicians, union activists, concerned citizens, officials, charity managers, religious leaders, advocates and charlatans.
At the 3pm outset, Mayor Smith, who is also the FORA board chairman, announced that the meeting would end at 6pm. It was clear that public comment would be extensive, and when the floor was opened, about 40 people in the standing-room-only space leapt up immediately to take their place in the line for the microphone.
For three hours, 48 speakers talked to the board about affordable housing, mostly asking for more of it. Many lamented a community where older family members can''t afford to stay and the young who''ve left can''t afford to come back.
Making an organized showing were religious leaders from a newly-formed group called COPA (Community Organized for relational Power in Action), a broad-based, multi-ethnic alliance of 30 area churches and other community groups that have taken up the cause of affordable housing.
A COPA leader, Jack Herbig from the St. Mary''s Episcopal Church in Pacific Grove told the board: "We want to commit to you that COPA is in this for the long haul."
Molly Erickson, a member of the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District, told the board not to use a shortage of water as an excuse. "If you put a priority on affordable housing you will have the water to do it," she promised.
Ron Chessire, former water commissioner and now the leader of the local carpenters'' union, was one of the few to voice a position in opposition to the affordable housing plans. He told the board: "These giveaway welfare programs won''t work." For that, he got disgusted groans.
When 6pm rolled around, Chairman Smith called for a motion to adjourn, which was quickly seconded by County Supervisor and board member Edith Johnsen. It happened so fast that it was almost impossible to hear how the boardmembers voted.
Salinas City Councilman Sergio Sanchez and Ron Schenk from Pacific Grove voted against the motion to adjourn, their "no" votes clearly audible. We don''t know how Dan Albert voted because he won''t admit it.
Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud was startled by the quick tactics. Asked later how she voted, she said, "I don''t even know who voted yes. I didn''t say a word. But if I did I would have voted yes. It sounded like it [the motion to adjourn] wasn''t going to pass."
At press time, it is still unclear whether the 13 voting members of the FORA board, in fact okayed the adjournment. Whatever the cause, the effect was to leave half a dozen people standing and waiting to speak at the microphone.
It also had the effect of silencing Congressman Farr, and preventing him from presenting his proposal--which was on the meeting''s agenda. He and others asked for a roll call vote, but they were ignored.
One audience member, a teacher, heckled Smith--who had recently entered the race for county supervisor. As soon as Smith cracked the gavel, he and the others got up to leave. Farr was angry enough that he marched up to Smith and scolded him: "That was uncalled for. That was uncalled for. It was unprofessional."
Afterwards an angry Farr said, "It was obviously a move to cut off public comment and any public accounting of a motion that could be made."
That claim was denied by vice chair and Farr opponent Ila Mettee-McCutchon. The tactic of ending the meeting had reportedly been discussed at an earlier executive committee meeting, but she denied any skullduggery.
"This was neither premeditated nor was it an attempt to cut anybody off," she says. "I think he [Smith] wanted to be fair to everybody and give the board time to discuss and exchange their thoughts."
The next FORA meeting is scheduled for the second Friday in August, at which time its expected that the discussion will resume.
Even before last Friday''s meeting, the Board''s handling of the issue had already riled the public, as evidenced by the strong turnout and high emotion. Now there''s talk of a county-wide public vote on affordable housing policy.
"There is the initiative process," says Gary Patton, of LandWatch Monterey County. "I think the public agencies have to realize they are accountable to the public."