Tempers flare as frustrations over Powerlink impacts on town mount
By Miriam Raftery
September 26, 2011 (Updated Sept. 27) —George Barnett has rescinded his letter resigning “irrevocably” from the Alpine Community Planning Group (APCG) last week after Chairman Greg Fox refused to accept the resignation despite conflict of interest issues raised.
At issue are large payments made by SDG&E to the nonprofit Back Country Land Trust (BCLT) headed by Barnett, who also chaired an ad hoc subcommittee for the ACPG and also served on a Community Advisory Council for Alpine on SDG&E’s Sunrise Powerlink Project.
Barnett and Fox defend their decisions
Barnett said he made the decision “in response to an outpouring of support from the public at large, a number of seated Alpine Community Planning Group members, and the ACPG chairperson to not leave the group,” as well as after receiving support from County Department of Land Use staff familiar with his work to improve Alpine.
He added, “Since my vote against the SDGE SRPL [Sunrise Powerlink] at the September 2008 ACPG meeting, I had been working against the approval of this project.”
He details those efforts in a statement sent to ECM and other media outlets. After the California Public Utilities (CPUC) approved the project, Barnett said, “I have dedicated my energies to extracting the maximum amount possible form SDG&E to compensate the people of Alpine for the tremendous impacts being suffered from the project.”
Why did Fox refuse to accept Barnett’s application? “I felt that Mr. Barnett is a huge asset to this Planning Group and Community, so fought to make sure he did not see his resignation through,” Fox said in an email to Lou Russo, a planning group member who has contended that Barnett should have disclosed the payments and recused himself from actions related to Sunrise Powerlink.
IRS records indicate that the BCLT received a $184,000 payment from SDG&E for a Powerlink construction easement on BCLT land. Barnett says the money was for damaged cause to properties south and weset of the Hauser Mountain Wilderness. “There was no profit in the transaction,” he said, adding, “Every effort I have made as a member of the ACPG and every vote I have taken on the body has been against the SRPL and to the detriment of SDG&E.”
Fox stated in an e-mail that he was unaware of the $184,000 easement payment from SDG&E made to the BCLT until Russo forwarded a tax return filed by the BCLT to him a few days ago. But he dismissed the matter in a tersely worded e-mail to Russo on September 23. “This happens every day in real estate. Especially in rural areas that require money to be exchange din order to provide access to another’s property,” Fox wrote, then went on to accuse Russo of “trying to make something out of nothing.” He added, “If you want to be an investigator, then get a license to do so.”
Fox further saw no problem with the BCLT funds benefitting education causes locally, including a summer school program. “How can this be a bad thing?” he wrote, noting that California’s budget crisis has cut funding for local education programs. He also noted that Barnett did not personally profit from SDG&E money.
Lack of disclosure over SDG&E money raises questions
Russo sees the situation differently. He notes that the payments were not posted on the BCLT website or in the nonprofit’s minutes. He suggests that Barnett was “hiding” the payments, an allegation Barnett denies. Russo has sent a letter asking County Counsel to investigate.
Barnett resigned after fellow planning group member Lou Russo passed out handouts at a public meeting questioning Barnett’s actions heading up an ad hoc subcommittee on Sunrise Powerlink. In the same meeting, Russo asked whether Backcountry Land Trust (BCLT), a nonprofit of which Barnett is president, had applied for grant funding form SDG&E. Barnett did not answer directly, instead questioning why Russo was asking “irrelevant” questions.
Since then, Barnett has acknowledged that the BCLT took $35,000 from SDG&E’s foundation in grant funding. Barnett said those monies were used for youth education and enhancement programs. The BCLT in turn made smaller donations to the Alpine Education Fund, where Barnett is Treasurer.
A records search through the IRS revealed that the BCLT also accepted $184,000 from SDG&E as settlement for a Powerlink easement for the utility company’s Sunrise Powerlink project on BCLT land. The payment accounted for all but $20,000 of the nonprofit’s total revenues in 2010.
In an e-mail to ECM, Barnett said the BCLT had to negotiate a settlement with SDG&E or face losing its property through eminent domain. The proposed settlement document “came with an attached explanation of a 30-day condemnation filing process as an alternative to negotiating a settlement,” he said, adding that the group’s lawyer confirmed this prospect was within SDG&E’s rights granted by the CPUC.
Barnett never disclosed to the APGC, the public or to major media, however that he had accepted funds from SDG&E until after Russo raised the issue.
The Alpine Community Planning Group's policy I-1 encourages planners to "avoid situations which could give the appearance of such a conflict," among other things. Read the full policy: http://alpinecpg.org/index.php/documents-blog/item/download/26
Mike Aguirre, former city attorney for San Diego, had this to say. “No man can serve two masters. The idea of a conflict is putting yourself into a position where you might be tempted…the appearance is the question.” The facts that the easement payments are not revocable and that Barnett did not appear to favor SDG&E in his decisions, however, would minimize the issues, he noted.
Aguirre suggested that the planning group chair seek a legal opinion on whether the resignation can be rescinded, but added that if Barnett stays on the board, “One way to deal with it is for him to recuse himself from planning issues related to SDG&E.”
Timetable of actions
The easement payment was made in December 2010, Barnett told ECM, though he had been in negotiations for close to a year.
He was appointed chair of the Powerlink Ad Hoc Subcommittee by then-APGC chair Dana Zeno over a year earlier, on October 22, 2009. The appointment came one day after the full APGC had voted to oppose Powerlink.
On October 21, 2009, the APCG sent a letter strongly worded letter drafted by the ad hoc committee led by Barnett to the CPUC. ECM has reviewed draft and final version of that letter, which predicted that impacts on Alpine from Powerlink construction would be “catastrophic” and suggested the committee might considering filing an Amicus brief to join other legal actions opposing Powerlink unless SDG&E would commit at its own expenses to return the land/community to its prior state after undergrounding the line through downtown Alpine was completed.
That same month, Barnett was also appointed a member of SDG&E's Sunrise Powerlink Community Advisory Council for Alpine. (The council had just three meetings and was abolished by SDG&E, along with all of its community advisory councils. In a February 25, 2010 letter to CPUC president Michael Peevey, Fox stated that “No one, the community , CPUC or SDGE need more disruptive meetings to no productive end that result in a very angry and uninformed citizenry calling for litigation measures against the project and all its sponsors.” He called on the CPUC to help and suggested that the CPUC’s response to Supervisor Dianne Jacob’s concerns over community impacts appeard to be an “abrogation of accountability and responsibility to the community” on the CPUC’s part.)
Barnett says the December 2010 easement payment was made “months after the letter writing work” that he headed up for the APGC ad hoc committee on Powerlink. He insists, “There was no conflict of interest, intended or implied by virtue of the timelines.”
What constitutes disclosure?
Asked why he failed to disclose the easement payment, he replied, “It was my belief that following the December payment, the settlement was largely in the public domain. It was discussed in depth on Charlene Ayers “Ranter’s Roost” among other media forums,” he said, referring to an online discussion forum on land use issues. He insists he has not violated the County’s I-1 policy governing conflict of interests.
“I always thought he had a conflict of interest in chairing that committee,” Ayers said in response to a question from ECM. “A lot of those who agreed early to allow easements got large sums of money from SDG&E.”
Ayers forwarded an email from Barnett dated April 1, 2010 in which he noted, “There’s no doubt I and the Back Country Land Trust are conflicted,” adding that the group did not want the Powerlink but felt the utility was “holding the condemnation club over our heads.” The settlement resulted in a route change that missed one property entirely and skirted the edge of another. But he acknowledged, “We have already had one supporter withdraw support; and there have been some negative comments.”
Tara Stock with the Fair Political Practices Commission in Sacramento noted that “generally a public official has a conflict of interest with regard to a particular governmental decision if it is sufficiently likely that the outcome of the decision will have an important impact on his/her economic interests…” among other standards. Economic interest is defined as $500 or more in income (or a promise of payment) within 12 months before a decision. Income includes a spouse or registered domestic partner’s income. Barnett has stated that he was not paid by the BCLT.
Michael Shames, head of the Utility Consumers Action Network (UCAN), told ECM it was unlikely that Barnett violated the law. But he added, “If a person is involved in making decisions on a planning group after having received monies from an applicant, that raises some ethical issues.”
Fox has stated that while he was unaware of payments made to Barnett’s group, “I’m not sure the APG would have been the venue to do this, but rather the media.”
Asked about Barnett’s belief that hashing out the payment issue in the Ranter’s Roost or other media would fulfill disclosure requirements, Shames replied, “No, that doesn’t count. You have an obligation to inform he committee members, unless there is evidence that the committee members were on that blog.”
The APCG is an advisory-only board. But Shames stressed that on many other public boards and commissions, failure to disclosed even perceived conflicts can have big consequences. “Disclosure could potentially invalidate any decision that a group made if that individual was the deciding vote,” he noted.
He noted, “If someone is on the planning group, they need to have the confidence of others…..This violates common sense and common decency more than the rule of law.”
Shames also defended Fox’s decision to not accept the resignation, however. “He [Barnett] might be really useful on other Alpine issues…while this gentleman was remiss in not informing the board, I don’t see it worthy of forced resignation.”
Raymond Lutz, founder of the watchdog group Citizens Oversight Panels, disagrees. "Absolutely," he said when asked if he believes Barnett had a conflict of interest (COI). "He should have stepped down from the committee because he was receiving revenue from the party in question...This is a violation of the conflicts of interest laws," he said, adding that he believes the actions fall under jurisdiction of the California Attorney General under conflict of interest laws.
As for Chairman Fox's refusal to accept Barnett's resignation, Lutz called the decision "ridiculous." Lutz questioned whether a chair has a right to refuse a resignation, particularly if a member is resigning over a conflict of interest concern.
But Lutz later added, "I'm not as concerned as I would be if he had taken any position in support of the SRPL."
Supporters , critics speak out
Some in the community are speaking out in defense of Barnett. One such supporter is Bill Weaver is head of the Alpine High School Citizens Committee and a member of the Alpine Education Foundation, two groups where Barnett serves as treasurer.
“I highly respect George Barnett for his contribution of expertise and time to our community,” Weaver said, adding that to his knowledge, Barnett volunteered his services with both groups and received no payments.
He added, “George is a retired professional engineer who has traveled the world building million and billion dollar oil and gas facilities and refineries. George is likely the most qualified planner ever to be seated on the Alpine Planning Group, as an oil and gas field engineer.”
Weaver said he has been attacked in e-mail barrages by Russo and Hunyer in the past in what he felt was a biased agenda. He concluded, “I would give George the benefit of any doubt, and suspect that at worst, he is guilty only of little wrongdling, nothing intentionally illegal.”
Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Group, is also a the plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop the Powerlink construction. Asked about Barnett’s actions, she noted that he was “adamantly opposed to Sunrise Powerlink and was interviewed in our Sunrise Powerlink documentary, “A Question of Power” as the most visible Alpine opponent at the time. (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2122441201953611718#) He talked about how destructive the Powerlink would be.”
In that video, Barnett recalled working on a powerlink project in Sumatra and believing the rainforest would regrow quickly, only to discover on returning 20 years later that the scars remained. He also pointed to a home with solar panels as the type of alternative that should be pursued instead of Powerlink. In addition, Tisdale recalled, he was one of the first to “make donations to the cause.”
Tisdale conceded, however, that Barnett erred if full disclosure of the SDG&E payments were not made. “If they were not, the BCLT’s negotiations and settlements for the Sunrise Right-of-Way (eminent domain) easement and payment should have been fully disclosed throughout the process to avoid a situation like this. In the interest of full public disclosure, and to protect his own reputation, prior to participation in any Alpine Planning Group or other decisions/actions on the Sunrise Powerlink and related projects, George should have requested an opinion from County Counsel on any conflicts and need for recusal.”
The controversy has ignited a flurry of flaming emails in the Alpine community.
Barnett has pointed out that Russo’s own home has views that will be negatively impacted by Powerlink and suggests his motives are personal, a claim Russo denies.
Scott Tuchman, also a member of the ad hoc committee, called Russo, a former Marine, a “cowardly bully” and alleged that an e-mail he passed out to 60 members of the public at an APCG meeting was illegal because he failed to provide a copy to the full board.
Tuchman further chastised Russo for firing off tough questions on SDG&E fines and fires caused by the utility. “The way you attacked Todd Voorhees from SDG&E at the meeting Thursday night was unforgiveable,” he wrote.
Fox concurred, calling on Russo to apologize to both Barnett and Voorhees. As for the issue of restarting community forums, which were discontinued by SDG&E due to vocal opposition voiced by the public at those meetings, Fox said that would be “great because it would take a lot of pressure off this planning group,” but said he thinks it is unlikely that SDG&E would do so “in light of the way they are treated at our meetings.”
Barnett , however, has declined to answer some pointed questions posed by some members of the local media. Steve Hunyar with my 107.0 radio in Alpine sent a list of questions and pointed a teaser for the show on his Facebook page which asked “Did Barnett sell out our communities?” Questions ranged from details of payments and reporting , as well as whether any additional SDG&E grant applications are pending.
Barnett fired back, accusing Hunyer of “muckraking” and included a veiled threat of “legal resource.” When a second round of questions was sent to him, he dismissed it as “silly.”
Barnett also declined to answer a list of questions submitted by East County Magazine, instead providing a more general statement. Questions unanswered by Barnett include details on the easement and other funds, whether he is an officer in any other organizations that received SDG&E funds, whether his wife or other immediate family members have profited financially from SDG&E, and whether he received any payment from any organizations on which he is an officer and which also took money from SDG&E.
Sharon Haver at the Alpine Education Association, offered this clarification: "George Barnett has been a dedicated and reliable board member for the Alpine Education Foundation. He has never received a salary for his work as Treasurer," she informed ECM. Haver praised a Hogwort's Academy summer school program funded with a $5,000 grant plus another $5,000 in in-kind donations from the BCLT, adding, "The children and their parents were delighted by the outing, and it could not have happened without the generosity and creativity of the BCLT."
Despite dodging some media questions, Barnett has pledged in an e-mail to Hunyer to prepare “a program of disclosure and background that I will conduct directly with the people of Alpine, and with the APCG Board. I owe all of them that,” he wrote. “In my opinion, that is the best and only route to fair and balanced discourse.”
While tempers have flared among planning group members over the disclosure issue, broader problems facing the board remain.
At last week's APCG meeting, SDG&E's representative was peppered with questions over a new report revealing incidents ranging from fires to a dropped compressor. SDG&E's Todd Voorhees withdrew a request to extend construction hours to Saturdays for sidewalk and curb improvement work after numerous merchants objected. Several businesses on Alpine Boulevard have shut down, blaming loss of buisness from the two-year Powerlink construction along the town's main thoroughfare.
SDG&E has opened up an office in Alpine to field complaints and questions from residents in response to a CPUC request for increased community outreach following cancellation of the advisory councils. Voorhees apologized to the crowd for the disruptions caused by construction. But many in this once-quiet mountain town contend that's not enough.
One fact all APGC members seem to agree on is that the impacts of Sunrise Powerlink on the citizens of Alpine are severe---and that thus far, despite promises made, SDG&E has not done enough to fully compensate property and business owners for the losses they now face.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Greg Fox called on Scott Tuchman; this should have read that Fox called on Lou Russo to apologize to George Barnett and Todd Voorhees. We apologize for this error.