In the News

Guest Commentary

The $15 million desal debacle and beyond

By Paul Johnston
Special to the Sentinel, 9/1/13

Santa Cruz is ripe for a new direction. We need new leaders to take us there.

Most emphatically, our community has rejected the irresponsible environmental and economic direction promoted by the City Council majorities led by former mayor Ryan Coonerty, heir apparent to his father's seat on the Board of Supervisors.

Though some of those responsible are now backing away from the desalination agenda the issue will not go away, for three reasons:

First, accountability for $15 million wasted by current and former officeholders promoting the desal dream.

Second, the missed opportunities for alternatives to desal more consistent with our interests and values. That $15 million could have financed more environmentally responsible projects and nurtured new enterprises making Santa Cruz into a model of sustainability.

Third and most important, Who will chart our way forward now? We need a water and energy agenda that leverages sustainable local economic and community development. Is it credible that current and recent past City Council leaders, manifestly out of touch with Santa Cruz values and economic and environmental reality, can take us there?

The desal debacle is not the only question troubling Santa Cruz residents facing the prospect of a Coonerty succession.

For example, our community shares in the deepening inequality afflicting our state and nation. Growing numbers of us scramble for low-wage and temporary work, living on the edge -- or over the edge -- of poverty, insecurity and stress. Where are the policies and programs to support low-wage and temporary workers like those in place in more progressive cities like San Francisco?

Who will champion rights for temporary workers, for example, or a higher local minimum wage? Under the leadership of Coonerty, the City Council majority fought for years to strip the city's own temporary workforce of their Social Security benefits. Can we expect these same leaders to help us build new networks of support for those who lack the political and familial connections to thrive in this new "naked" economy? It is an irony worth noting that if Coonerty does succeed in succeeding his father, the most vocal local proponent of this "naked economy" will qualify for a pension from his third public employer.

Second, how will our community open itself to full participation by the growing numbers of immigrants among us? How can we adapt our public institutions to include and respond to the thousands of immigrants and their children who live and work not only in Watsonville but in every part of our county?

Here too current and recent City Council leadership is lacking. Again under the leadership of Coonerty and again in contrast to more progressive cities, this council refused to sign on to a statewide effort to reform the deportation program that has local law enforcement collaborating in the deportation of men and women arrested, though not convicted, for minor offenses. Does anyone imagine this council majority or a supervisor drawn from its ranks will provide the leadership demanded by an era of comprehensive immigration reform?

These are by no means the only questions troubling us today. But enough of us feel strongly about such issues to create a new political reality in Santa Cruz: a political reality receptive to new candidates both for the City Council and for the Board of Supervisors. I believe that many among us are well qualified to serve. And with the primary election nearly a year away, it is still early ... and certainly not too late... for new candidates to announce themselves.

Paul Johnston is a community organizer.

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