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David Schmalz here, thinking about nice things. And specifically whether, in Monterey County, we can have them. It’s on my mind because tonight the Del Rey Oaks City Council will be certifying the signatures for a ballot initiative titled “Opposition to the Fort Ord Regional Trail and Greenway (FORTAG) Project running through the City of Del Rey Oaks.”

Del Rey Oaks is a small city, with just over 1,600 residents and only 1,233 registered voters, and as such, is unique locally (Sand City aside) in its ability to qualify citizen-driven initiatives to a vote. Signatures from just 10 percent of a city’s registered voters are required to qualify an initiative—for Del Rey Oaks that’s just 123 voters. 

FORTAG, on the other hand, is a big idea. It is one that, if realized, will be transformative for the region writ large—it would create an approximately 28-mile bike and pedestrian trail loop (with 20 miles of new trail). But the project has been polarizing in Del Rey Oaks in ways I’ve written about before.

The initiative being presented to the council tonight would preclude the trail from traveling anywhere in Del Rey Oaks unless it’s on Highway 218, Gen. Jim Moore Boulevard or South Boundary Road, effectively killing the first funded segment of the trail, which would pass through the city’s green spaces. 

This evening, the Del Rey Oaks City Council will certify that at least 123 of the 415 signatures collected by resident Tom Rivelli are legit—an audit by the county elections department sampled 144 of the signatures, and found 135 of them valid. 

Once that is established, things get interesting: the city council can either pass the initiative into law, send it to the city’s voters in the next general election (to be held in June) or a special election, or it can ask city staff to come back in 30 days or less with an assessment of how the initiative would impact the city financially, whether it conforms with the city’s general plan and other laws, and what the cost would be of administering a special election, etc.

In all likelihood the council will take the third option tonight. But what’s interesting is that because Del Rey Oaks is such a small city, some city councilmembers live within 500 feet of the proposed trail alignment, and for that reason, the state Fair Political Practices Commission recommended, in response to a letter from City Attorney Alex Lorca, that two councilmembers—John Gaglioti and Kim Shirley—recuse themselves from voting on the matter. Another councilmember, Pat Lintell, lives right along the proposed alignment, but because she sold the house she’s living in to her son, the FPPC concluded she has no financial stake in FORTAG matters. 

And another councilmember, Scott Donaldson, lives right around the 500-foot mark—City Manager John Guertin says it's within a couple of feet, in or out—but the FPPC didn’t weigh in (and was not asked) on whether or not he should recuse. 

If Donaldson were to recuse, that would leave only Mayor Alison Kerr and Lintell able to vote—not enough to meet a quorum—so they would have to draw straws (figuratively) to decide who the third voter will be. 

Ultimately, however, the votes that will matter the most in FORTAG’s fate are likely those from Del Rey Oaks residents sometime next spring.The dream of a region-wide trail won’t necessarily die if voters pass the initiative, but it would be deeply wounded, and would likely make it much tougher for FORTAG projects to receive grant funding going forward.

I don’t know how it’s all going to play out, and I’ve circled the sun enough times in my life to know how hard it is for nice things to become a reality, and how they can slip through your grasp at any moment. 

I’d love to hear your thoughts on FORTAG, whether you love it, hate it, or just don’t know enough about it. It is historically unprecedented, locally, for such a major issue with region-wide implications to be decided by a city so small. But at least there will be a fulsome discussion, and a democratic outcome. 

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