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Brown Takes on Greens over (Some) Anti-Growth Litigation

Governor Brown almost sounded like a frustrated land developer earlier today when he talked about the impact litigation by environmental activists has on projects that are essential to meeting California’s demographic growth and protecting its frail economy.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t talking about the ecos’ endless legal challenges to new housing developments.

From the Sacramento Bee:

“In Oakland, I learned that some kind of opposition you have to crush,” Brown, the city’s former mayor, said at a renewable energy conference in Los Angeles.  “Talk a little bit, but at the end of the day you have to move forward, and California needs to move forward with our renewable energy.”

Brown said his office will “act to overcome the opposition,” helping projects overcome permitting and environmental challenges. The Democratic governor announced Friday that he had filed a legal brief urging a federal judge to deny litigation seeking to block a solar energy project in the Mojave Desert.

Yes, the governor is willing to “crush” the very environmentalists who were his strong supporters in the 2010 election – but only as long as it’s over government-subsidized alternative energy schemes. Providing housing for Californians? Rebooting the failed economy? Putting thousands back to work? That’s apparently not worth fighting for.

We’re not sure what we feel about government “crushing” environmental litigators. Having seen them slow so many very well-planned new home communities, driving up costs for consumers and driving down profits for businesses in the process, we confess we’re a bit tickled by the idea.

But two things bother us:  First, we can’t deny we’re sticklers for due process and are more than a little concerned when government gets heavy-handed and agenda-driven.  And second, we’d like to see an acknowledgment that useless litigation is just as bad when it’s used as a tool against home builders and, ultimately, home buyers.

Who Exactly is the OC Watchdog Biting?

We’ll get to that bikini photo in a minute, but first, let’s all wish the OC Watchdog blog  in the OC Register a happy third birthday – even if it has caused many Laer Pearce & Associates clients and lots of others a fair amount of heartburn.  The blog’s mission has been to write on “your tax dollars at work” – or, more specifically, “when your tax dollars aren’t working particularly well, in our opinion,” so we all have come to know what to expect when Teri or one of the other Watchdogs calls.

Watchdog’s obsession with public employee salaries (in part because the data is now readily available via the California Controller) has created a need for clear and strong messages, but we need to remember that we live in an era of transparency, so these articles are to be expected.  This is what the media does, and as traditional media fight for profitability, it’s what they’ll do more and more.  That’s why we counsel full and frank disclosure – along with making sure the Watchdog folks get additional analysis for perspective, like the salaries of private sector counterparts.

But here’s what we really have to celebrate on Watchdog’s third birthday – and it’s what we’ve suspected all along: All those articles on public sector salaries haven’t really created huge ripples.

The proof is in Watchdog’s birthday party post, which includes a list of the top ten Watchdog articles over the last three years, based on total number of clicks the articles receive.  Not one of the top ten has anything to do with public employee salaries.  Ferrets and DA fiances rank higher, as did (not surprisingly) consultants in bikinis. (It was a tough choice between the ferret and the consultant for this post’s illustration, but we figured the bikini pic would lead to more random Google hits.)

All this is not to say public agencies should be cavalier about the sort of coverage OC Watchdog provides – but it does mean you should approach your next inquiry from them with the proper perspective, and that shouldn’t involve sweat dripping off your palms.  Calm down, gather your thoughts and supporting information, and go forth with pretty darn good assurance the resulting post won’t be the end of the world.

The blog’s birthday brings to mind one of the key public relations and public affairs messages we preach: It’s important to establish your own media, because you can’t depend on others’ media to tell your story as you’d like. You’d rather talk about the good your agency does, the money it saves, the people it helps – but the mainstream media will always be more interested in your mistakes and misspending.

Blogs, eblasts, social media, brochures, websites, newsletters, direct mail pieces,  public outreach – these are your media and they will tell your story better than anyone.  But are they?  An audit of the effectiveness of your media is the first step toward finding out, so you might want to give us a call.

As If We Hadn’t Waited Long Enough

If you’re like us (i.e. obsessive communicators), there’s a good chance you were frustrated at last night’s historic speech when President Obama informed an anxious nation that our brave soldiers took out Osama bin Laden.

The keyword here is “anxious.”  News leaked out over Twitter more than an hour before Obama took the podium.  Cable and network news outlets soon followed, cutting into the Celebrity Apprentice and reruns of the Royal Wedding to bring us this most welcomed breaking story.  Even the Rock knew what was coming.  But the nation waited patiently into the night for our Commander in Chief to officially make the announcement and bring us the harrowing details.

The president reached the podium just past 11 p.m. and opened strong, announcing within the first two sentences that the U.S. had conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden.  But then he left us waiting.

And waiting.

And waiting.

With the world on the edge of its seat waiting for the details of how we killed the man responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans, it took Obama 569 words before he got back to the point of his speech.  That’s 3 minutes and 55 seconds of poetic chronology covering the well-known events of the past 10 years…while everyone is staying up late waiting for him to get to it already.

Call us purists, but we still believe in the inverted pyramid.  Convey your most important messages at the top, and then get into the history and detail.  Everyone knew Osama was dead by the time the president appeared at the microphone.  He knew we wanted to hear the details, and for some reason he made us work for it.  There’s several conspiracy theories swirling as to why, but the last time I checked, poor communication is never a good strategy.  The nation had waited long enough.

Excuse Me, Is Your Mission Creeping?

Federal wetland regulators suffered a bad decade in the 2000s with the Rapanos and SWANCC decisions temporarily halting EPA and Corps of Engineers mission creep into the regulation of land no one but a regulator could consider to be “Waters of the US” or wetlands.

But like those nasty spirits in Poltergeist, they’re baaa-aack.

EPA released today a draft guidance it hopes will clarify which waters are protected by the Clean Water Act in light of these decisions and which are not.  To our reading, it seems the agency is a bit forgetful of the power the Judicial Branch has over the Executive Branch. For example, borrowing from a summary provided by the Association of California Water Agencies, the guidance would deem the following as protected waters:

  • Traditional navigable waters [check]
  • Interstate waters [check]
  • Wetlands adjacent to either traditional navigable waters or interstate waters [watch out!]
  • Non-navigable tributaries to traditional navigable waters that are relatively permanent, meaning they contain water at least seasonally [watch out!]
  • Wetlands that directly abut relatively permanent waters [watch out!]

How long is a season? When do waters become relatively impermanent? How adjacent is adjacent? For an administration that doesn’t like loopholes when they apply to corporations, these seem like loopholes of a drive-a-truck-through-it scale.

There’s another bunch of possibilities too, like if a “significant nexus” [how significant?] is found, then “wetlands adjacent to jurisdictional tributaries to traditional navigable waters” would be under federal jurisdiction, as well as that good ol’ regulatory Pandora’s box, “other waters.”

We were glad to see swimming pools specifically excluded.  More significantly, “erosional features (rills and gullies) … that are not tributaries or wetlands” are excluded. This is significant in the arid West, where these features, no matter how ephemeral, have been subject to regulation as if they were little Mississippi Rivers and Okefenokee Swamps.

On the plus side, the Obama administration has just ensured unemployment insurance claims from attorneys with Clean Water Act expertise will dry up like a Utah rill in August.

The guidance is now undergoing a 60-day comment period.

Jerry’s Jack Benny Moment

Jerry Brown after his solo flight

They should drop Bob Hope’s name from Burbank’s airport terminal and put up Jack Benny’s.  Benny, as younger readers may not recall, made a career out of humor based on his obsessive frugality – well, cheapness, to be more exact.  I was reminded of him this week when Gov. Jerry Brown emerged from the terminal solo on Thursday morning, after flying without entourage or security on Southwest flight 896, even refusing to pay the $18 seat upgrade.

A sputnik moment it wasn’t – but a Plymouth moment it most certainly was.

Brown is a master of political symbolism and nothing could have rekindled the image of the beat-up Plymouth he drove the last time he was governor than his choice of transportation last Thursday.  Never mind that members of the State Senate and Assembly fly solo to and from Sacramento just about every week – after Schwarzenegger’s over-sized Hollywood presence, the gesture was a perfect one for communicating the governor’s stated commitment to a new era of frugality in Sacramento.

Brown’s symbolism isn’t remotely like President Obama’s. There are no cool logos or spiffed up soundbites.  Heck, he even calls what he’s seeking “a path to fiscal rectitude.” No pollsters or political messaging consultants got their hands on that phrase.  Still, there’s a lot of finesse behind Brown’s symbolism. Check out the photo.  How did all those reporters and photographers know to be outside the airport terminal if they weren’t given a heads-up by Brown’s hard-working communications staff?

Certainly, there are security risks if he keeps up this form of transportation, but t here are also political ones. What happens the first time he travels with staff and security? Will the press call it the end of his path to fiscal rectitude?  What if his seat-mate is hostile, instead of a complacent state employee, as happened this time? And more importantly, how will he cope with the inevitable realization that California’s problems are too big to be solved by mere symbolism, no matter how spot on it may be?

Thirty years in public affairs has taught me there are no magic words and no magic symbols.  Fixing things takes hard work and is most often done incrementally, with several “Plan B’s” employed along the way. But given the choice between flying solo or talking austerity from a limo, Brown gets an “A” for symbolism, even if it ultimately accomplishes little.

California’s Universities are the Best

Finally, a survey has shown that through diligence, hard work and unending commitment, California’s universities – Berkeley in particular – are the best in the whole wide world.  Unfortunately, it’s for all the wrong reasons.  Here’s why:

The University of California, Berkeley, has been crowned top … of the world’s most environmentally friendly higher education institutions.

The “UI Green Metric Ranking of World Universities” is based on several factors, including green space, electricity consumption, waste and water management and eco-sustainability policies.

Based on research and surveys conducted by the Green Metric team at the University of Indonesia on thousands of other universities around the world, University of California, Berkeley, United States scored best with a points total of 8,213 and is the greenest campus in terms of its environment policy.

Berkeley got the title, but the award really goes to the entire UC system, the UC Board of Regents and the UC faculty as a whole, because the green policies established at Berkeley are not unlike those at all the UC campuses.  So it’s fair to say that California has the greenest public institutions of higher education in the world.

Now don’t get us wrong.  We’re all about green space, conservation and eco-sustainable policies.  Whether there’s a looming eco-catastrophe or not (we think it’s “not”), it makes sense to be good stewards of our shared resources.  No, the problem we have with Berkeley’s new glory is that it’s really just the outgrowth of the deeper commitment to environmentalist brainwashing education that goes on at UC campuses.  If it weren’t for Regents who have bought into environmental doctrine, a faculty that’s bought into environmental extremism, and a curriculum that ensures wave after wave of freshly minted environmentalist soldiers will be graduating every spring and going into battle for Gaea, Berkeley would not be at the top of the green university rankings.

It’s what I – Laer – refer to as California’s PEER Axis, standing for progressives, environmentalists, educators and reporters.  I wrote about it a few months ago in a well-read op/ed that ran just after the mid-term election on the national news website The Daily Caller:

While the established political parties and their consultants will ignore California and pore over campaigns in other states for clues on how to capitalize on — or crush — the Tea Party’s influence, the Left will be studying what happened in California, so they can replicate it the next time around. What they will find is not so much a magic formula but a vast progressive infrastructure they will then work to replicate elsewhere.

I call this infrastructure the PEER Axis, for the progressives, environmentalists, educators and reporters who collectively run California and influence the underpinnings of America. The PEER Axis remains powerful because politicians and political movements may come and go, but government bureaucrats and regulators, environmentalists and social justice activists, and their supporters in education and the media are pretty much forever. The structure of California ensures that appropriately indoctrinated college graduates will continue to fill the personnel pipelines that run from Berkeley, UCLA and other liberal universities straight into the progressive movement.

Many end up in government offices in Sacramento, where they write policies that are parroted in other states around the nation, as evidenced by the fact that the federal government is following California’s lead in setting the next round of vehicle fuel economy standards. Others will go to work at California’s giant environmentalist organizations, social justice NGOs and activist law firms, or the powerful public employee unions. Some will stay on the campuses, turning out future generations of progressives and writing studies to reinforce and justify progressive government policies, and those who graduate into the media will publicize these efforts and belittle any contrarian thinking. Many will find jobs in California’s foremost culture-bending venture, Hollywood, where they will pummel all the world with green messages (The China Syndrome, Avatar), anti-corporate tirades (Metropolis, Wall Street), anti-war propaganda (Apocalypse Now, In the Valley of Elah) and movies challenging conventional values (Milk, Juno).

Wherever they end up, they will be greeted by like-minded alumnae ready to show them the ropes so they, too, can form and implement policy, bring lawsuits, and mold the next generation.

In my 30 years as an Orange County and California public affairs specialist (maybe even a guru, now that my hair is gray), I’ve watched the PEER Axis in action.  It has transformed California from a state that spawned great private enterprises and embraced needed public infrastructure into a state that could easily win the same award Berkeley just one, if such an award were given.

Defeating the PEER Axis isn’t an option I see playing out in my lifetime, so I’ve made it my work, and my agency’s work, to win skirmishes, shine a spotlight on their activities and in so doing, dull the edge of their blade. Care to join us in the good fight?

The Rise of the Referendum

City councils in Azusa, San Juan Capistrano and San Clemente each approved major land use projects over the past few months.  All three of these projects are now in a battle for survival as voters attempt to overturn project approvals through the referendum process.

These three incidents should serve as a cautionary tale for property owners:  You don’t just need the support of decision-makers; you need the support of more than 50 percent of the voters.  This support should be secured prior to a vote of a city council or board of supervisors because referendum signature gathering begins immediately after project approval.

As Orange County’s leading public affairs firm, we’ve helped clients defeat referendum drives. In one instance, our efforts helped give Yorba Linda its own high school, as our YLHS YES! campaign for Shapell Homes turned back opponents.

Here’s a review of the basic process under state law (municipalities may alter this process by ordinance, so be sure to check):

  • Proponents have 30 days from approval of the ordinance to circulate a petition calling for repeal.
  • There is no title and summary or publication requirement.  Proponents may commence circulating the petition as soon as the ordinance is adopted.
  • The referendum must contain the full text of the ordinance or legislative act the proponents are challenging.
  • Proponents must gather signatures from not less than 10 percent of the registered voters in the city according to the last report of registration.
  • Any voter who has signed a petition may withdraw his or her signature by filing a written request with the elections officer at least one day before the petition is filed.
  • The ordinance that is subject of a referendum is automatically suspended once the referendum petition qualifies [NOTE – this stops any activity on your property related to the approvals you just received].
  • Once the city election official certifies the referendum has the requisite number of signatures, Council must either repeal the ordinance, or place the measure on the next regular municipal election, or call a special election to consider the ordinance.
  • If a special election is called, it must be held no later than 88 days from the date the election is called.
  • The City attorney prepares an impartial summary and the proponents and opponents prepare arguments for and against the referendum (and rebuttals) for the ballot statement.

A good reference:  California elections code section 9235-9242.  If you’re facing a referendum, or feel your project may face one upon Council approval, give us a call so we can talk strategy.

Inside the Brown Horseshoe

In case you missed it last week, Gov. Brown has released his “insider” appointments – the policy, press and legal folks that work “inside the horseshoe,” making the decisions and statements that will define the Brown Administration.

Our water and development clients should read Nancy McFadden’s bio very carefully, as the former PG&E policy Senior VP will probably be their primary senior interface with the governor’s office.  Public affairs and policy wonks are required to memorize the entire list.  Quiz Friday.  Here’s the full list, arranged alphabetically:

Elizabeth Ashford, 35, of Sacramento, has been appointed Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. She worked at the Brunswick Group in London, England from 2009 to 2010. Prior to that, Ashford worked in the Office of the Chairman of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom. From 2006 to 2008, she served as Chief Deputy Communications Director and then Chief Deputy Cabinet Secretary in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Administration. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $130,000. Ashford is a Democrat.

Anne Gust Brown, 52, of Oakland (Brown’s wife), has been appointed Special Counsel in the Office of the Governor. This position does not require Senate confirmation and Gust Brown will serve with no compensation. Gust Brown is a Democrat.

Gil Duran, 34, of Tulare, has been appointed Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. Duran served as Communications Director for U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein from 2008 to 2010. Previously, he served as Press Secretary to Mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa from 2007 to 2008. Duran also served as an aide and Press Secretary to Governor Brown as Mayor of Oakland from 2004 to 2007. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Duran is a Democrat.

Joshua Groban, 37, of Los Angeles, has been appointed Senior Advisor for Policy and Appointments in the Office of the Governor. Groban served as Legal Counsel for Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign and previously practiced law at Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP in Los Angeles. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Groban is a Democrat.

Julie Henderson, 48, of San Francisco, has been appointed Senior Advisor for Policy in the Office of the Governor. Henderson was a Special Assistant Attorney General while Brown was Attorney General and previously was a Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Gap Inc. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Henderson is a Democrat.

Jim Humes, 51, of San Francisco, has been appointed Executive Secretary for Administration, Legal Affairs, and Policy in the Office of the Governor. Humes was Brown’s Chief Deputy while Brown was Attorney General, and before that Humes was the Chief of the Civil Division under then-Attorney General Bill Lockyer. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $175,000. Humes is a Democrat.

Nancy McFadden, 51, of Sacramento, has been appointed Executive Secretary for Legislation, Appointments, and Policy in the Office of the Governor. She was senior vice president at PG&E from 2005 to 2010. Previously, McFadden served as senior advisor to Governor Gray Davis from 2001 to 2003, deputy chief of staff for the Office of the Vice President from 2000 to 2001, and general counsel for the U.S. Department of Transportation from 1996 to 2000. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $175,000. McFadden is a Democrat.

Jonathan Renner, 40, of Sacramento, has been appointed Legal Affairs Secretary in the Office of the Governor. Renner was Senior Assistant Attorney General for Government Law while Brown was Attorney General. Prior to that, Renner practiced law at Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann & Girard, in Sacramento. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $147,900. Renner is a Democrat.

Nick Velasquez, 30, of Los Angeles, has been appointed Director of External Affairs in the Office of the Governor. Velasquez served as Deputy Campaign Manager for Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign. Previously, he headed the California Accountability Project at the Democratic Governor’s Association. From 2006 to 2009 he served as a senior communications and policy aide to Los Angeles City Attorneys Rockard Delgadillo and Carmen Trutanich. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $80,000. Velasquez is a Democrat.

Evan Westrup, 28, of Sacramento, has been appointed Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of the Governor. He was Deputy Press Secretary on Governor Brown’s 2010 campaign after serving as Deputy Press Secretary in the Office of Attorney General Brown between 2009 and 2010. Prior to that, Westrup was Deputy Youth Vote Director on President Obama’s Campaign in New Mexico in 2008. He was Associate Communications Director in Governor Schwarzenegger’s Administration from 2007 to 2008. This position does not require Senate confirmation, and the compensation is $71,000. Westrup is a Democrat.

The Nuttiest of NIMBYs

Just when you thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse for NIMBYs – the Not-In-My-Back-Yard activists who have plummeted in decision-makers’ perception from noble protectors of neighborhoods to crybabies wanting to win a big jackpot for their “hardship” – we came across this:

In their lawsuit, the homeowners say the project, which involves mixing soil and cement deep underground along the levee line, will be disruptive and could damage their homes and yards. They’re also concerned about noise from equipment that could approach 90 decibels, about as loud as a motorcycle.

Sounds like a run-of-the-mill NIMBY complaint, right?  But wait … these aren’t just any NIMBYs.  These are the folks who live along the 17th Street Canal in New Orleans – yes, that canal, the one famous for failing during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, leading to the destruction of entire neighborhoods.  And this is just the latest skirmish in a simmering battle between homeowners and the government that has spawned lawsuits, appeals and multiple court rulings.

The canal, by the way, was built about 100 years ago, long before any of these folks purchased homes alongside it.  At that time, they apparently thought it was a fine thing to have water cruising by their back yards at the level of their roofs.  But let’s not let that get in the way of them upping the decibel level of their whining.

Laer’s Op/Ed on CalWatchdog

Laer is becoming quite the prolific op/ed writer.  His latest appeared today on the Pacific Research Institute’s CalWatchdog blog.  Here’s an enticing bit of it:

If Gov. Jerry Brown has any chance of draining California’s budget swamp of red ink, he’s going to need more than aggressive spending cuts and votes for more taxes, as he proposes. He’s also going to need a resurgence in California’s business environment, but at one of the state’s few commerce success stories, the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, there are more signs of classic California non-competitiveness than there are of a return to health for the state’s business sector.

Yes, activity is up by single digits over last year at the ports, which are America’s busiest, as companies slowly bring in more goods from Asia to rebuild inventories they had let drop through the Great Recession. But even as more than 12 million containers will be unloaded at Southern California docks this year, there are grave threats to the future of Southern California’s logistics behemoths, and they’re posed by exactly the same elements that threaten the rest of the state’s economy – powerful unions and California’s incessant compulsion to be a world leader in the environmental movement without thought to the cost.

Please read the rest of the op/ed by clicking through to CalWatchdog.

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