By Miriam Raftery
February 12, 2015 (San Diego's East County)--Six days after Supervisor Dave Roberts voted for the highly controversial Soitec industrial-scale solar projects in Boulevard which were approved 4-1 on February 4th, he sent supporters an e-mail with an invitation to a fundraiser for his campaign at the La Jolla home of Jim Waring, co-founder of CleanTech San Diego.
Waring lobbied and testified on behalf of Soitec, which has a manufacturing facility in San Diego, at the Feb. 4th hearing. Co-hosts of the fundraiser also include Jim Whalen, whose firm, J. Whalen and Associates, represents Sempra Energy and Hamann Companies. Hamann owns land on which the Soitec projects are slated to be built. Whalen, too, testified before Supervisors on February 4th and other occasions in favor of the Soitec projects.
These cozy ties raise a serious question: just how impartial was Roberts when casting a vote to scrape bare more than 1,100 acres of habitat in East County including land along a scenic highway, putting a town’s groundwater supply at risk as two hydrologists have warned, and increasing fire danger with an unmitigatable fire risk as Supervisor Dianne Jacob observed? Whose interests was Roberts really representing?
Was this fundraiser planned before the vote, with Roberts knowing full well he’d be raking in thousands of dollars from the efforts of individuals testifying before the board on behalf of Soitec? The fundraiser is tonight, and such events typically take substantial advance preparation.
Granted, CleanTech, Hamann and their representatives may have other reasons for supporting Roberts besides the Soitec projects alone. But if Roberts was beholden to Waring and Whalen for campaign funds, why didn’t he recuse himself and disclose an apparent conflict of interest when the Soitec project came up for a vote?
Roberts is the only Democrat on the Board and has long claimed to be an environmentalist, at least on issues of concern to his coastal district. Some political observers hoped he might be a dissenting voice against the pro-development majority, perhaps siding with East County Supervisor Dianne Jacob to stand up against the onslaught of large-scale, so-called “green” energy projects being planned in East County that are in fact environmentally devastating in many respects.
Roberts’ district does not include rural Boulevard. When East County Magazine’s editor offered last year to take him on a tour of sites designated as major energy project sites so he could see first-hand the potential impacts, he declined, claiming that county counsel advised Supervisors not to speak with anyone suing the County. Of course those filing suits are residents, not our news publictaion. Even after we offered to cut out any stops in the community where Roberts might encounter actual residents opposed to the projects, he still declined. Why the total lack of interest in seeing first-hand the environment that would be impacted by projects he would be voting on? Would he have been so disinterested if a project was in his coastal district -- or for that matter, on land not owned by one of his major campaign contributors?
Boulevard residents are largely poor. Some 65% of school children at Boulevard's elementary school qualify for the federal school lunch program. People in Bouelvard don’t have the money to host lavish fundraisers for politicians. They can’t event vote for those who are casting votes to destroy their way of life and the natural settings they moved out here to enjoy.
Roberts, in an editorial titled "A Vote for Renewable Energy" published here at East County Magazine, justified his vote in part by stating that on sensitive topics, "my mantra is to find a way to say yes....The applicant, I felt, could make a strong case that he had a right to develop the project he had proposed. So I opted to approve a project that moves us toward compliance with state mandates."
But what about the rights of the rest of the property owners in Boulevard whose property values and way of life may be negatively impacted by Hamann's and Soitec's plans?
The vast majority of Boulevard residents who have voiced an opinion say that they oppose Soitec’s projects, based on turnout at community meetings, comments sent to the county and testimony made to Supervisors. All have said that they support renewable energy – but on rooftops, not paving over our backcountry, wetlands and meadows. The same power could be obtained through rooftop solar, but California’s convoluted law does not allow rooftop solar to count toward the renewable mandates that our state has set, as Roberts himself has accurately noted.
Instead of speaking truth to power and voting to protect the environment, however, Roberts cast a vote for environmental devastation, justifying it as respecting the “property rights” of those who own the land to be developed into industrial solar – including a property owner whose lobbyist is hosting a fundraiser at his private home to benefit Roberts’ campaign.
Elected officials have a duty to protect the public interest, not special interests and particularly not those to whom they are financially beholden. It’s clear whose interests Roberts was representing when he cast his vote for Soitec—and it was not the public’s.
The Fair Political Practices has advised ECM that it will investigate whether the actions of Roberts, Waring or Whalen violated state law or campaign finance regulations.