Calaveras County is unlikely to return to how it was before the devastating, deadly Butte Fire in September 2015, but ongoing efforts to recover were a primary focus Tuesday at a meeting of the five elected supervisors representing 45,000 residents.
People who come to the public meetings on a regular basis remained fixed Tuesday on the prickly politics of cannabis and recalls, reflecting and mirroring how divided a portion of this county’s population appears to be.
Residents who grow pot, including those who used to be registered to grow it legally for commercial purposes, and individuals who continue to advocate for regulated commercial cannabis cultivation, had their say.
People who adamantly support the county’s ban on commercial cannabis had answers.
Verbal fingerpointing and accusations of dirty tricks also dominated public comment as several people spoke up about ongoing efforts to recall three of the five supervisors when voters go to the polls in June.
Robin Glanville, assistant clerk-recorder who spoke for the county elections office, said Tuesday people are still circulating petitions and gathering signatures for the recalls of District 1 Supervisor Gary Tofanelli, District 2 Supervisor Jack Garamendi and District 4 Supervisor Dennis Mills.
The recall petition for Tofanelli was approved for circulation March 30. The proponents are required to submit 1,396 valid signatures by 5 p.m. June 28. The recall petition for Mills was approved for circulation March 8. The proponents are required to submit 1,555 valid signatures by 5 p.m. June 6.
The recall petition for Garamendi was approved for circulation Jan. 19. Proponents are required to submit 1,319 valid signatures by 5 p.m. April 19.
As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 28,460 registered voters in Calaveras County, Glanville said.
Mike Oliveira and Clyde Clapp, elected supervisors for District 3 and District 5, respectively, are up for re-election and they are already on June 5 ballots.
A woman stood up at the podium to address the board and held a folder, saying it contained recall papers for Tofanelli. She invited people to come outside and sign. Trent Fiorino, a supporter of the current commercial cannabis ban, stood up to support Tofanelli.
“Do not sign the recall,” Fiorino said, speaking to residents and voters in Tofanelli’s District 1. “We are well-represented.”
Mike Falvey, a longtime former resident of Mountain Ranch who recently moved to Mokelumne Hill to escape unregistered cannabis growers, spoke up about signature-gathering efforts in Garamendi’s District 2 and asked “What are District 1 people doing in District 2?”
Patricia Gordo, who comes to board meetings frequently and consistently speaks in favor of banning commercial cannabis, said she’s seen back-and-forth yapping among people and recall proponents gathering signatures in Mountain Ranch. She vaguely referenced drug deals and prostitution or human trafficking.
“This is very upsetting to all of us,” Gordo said.
Asked later outside the meeting venue when she has witnessed incidents involving recall signature gathering in Mountain Ranch, Gordo said she couldn’t remember exact dates. She spoke of a motorcycle coming and going. Another time she parked at a signature gathering spot near Sender’s Market to save space for a recall proponent to set up, and another motorist pulled in to block her space.
‘Community still hurting’
District 2 is where the devastating Butte Fire did most of its damage, killing two residents, destroying more than 500 homes, and resulting in destroyed roads from Jesus Maria to Rail Road Flat, Whiskey Slide and Mountain Ranch.
Asked for perspective on how things are right now in District 2 and countywide, in terms of recalls, cannabis and Butte Fire recovery efforts, Garamendi said it’s all about continuing to rebuild in the wake of the costliest disaster in county history.
“We have a community that’s still hurting,” Garamendi said during a break from Tuesday’s meeting. “We’re trying to rebuild infrastructure, communications and roads. I think it’s important we keep that at the forefront. It’s a complex web of federal, state and local agencies we’re trying to navigate.”
Asked about allegations of dirty tricks at recall signature-gathering venues, Garamendi said he’s heard there’s been some activity outside the Mar Val in Valley Springs.
County opposes protection for PG&E
During an update on closed session moves made by the Board of Supervisors, the deputy clerk, Diane Severud, said the board voted unanimously last week to have county staff draft a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown opposing any potential legislation to protect utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric from litigation stemming from wildfires.
Back in February this year, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to authorize suing PG&E for its alleged role in causing the Butte Fire.
The Butte Fire broke out Sept. 9, 2015, when a gray pine contacted a PG&E overhead conductor at 17704 Butte Mountain Road near Charamuga Ranch in Amador County and caused ignition that started the fire, a California Public Utilities Commission investigation determined.
Tim Lutz, the county administrator, said Tuesday the move was made to oppose legislation protecting PG&E due to “the urgent need to indicate the county’s support of efforts of Baron & Budd, our legal counsel in the PG&E lawsuit, to lobby the governor’s office and state officials.”
Lutz said county staff learned in late March that PG&E and Southern California Edison “were actively lobbying the state to get some type of legislation passed that would indemnify it from any liability as a result of wildfires that were caused by their infrastructure.”
Southern California Edison has been blamed in litigation for causing the massive Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, which in December burned more than 1,000 structures and 440 square miles, and became the largest wildfire in state history. Post-fire debris flows in and below the massive Thomas Fire scar in January killed 21 people in Santa Barbara County, destroyed more than 60 homes and damaged more than 450 other structures.
Asked Tuesday for response to Calaveras County’s letter to the governor opposing legislative protections for PG&E, Ari Vanrenen with PG&E corporate communications repeated the utility’s refrain since multiple wind-driven wildfires killed more than 40 people in Wine Country west of the Mother Lode in October.
“The loss of life, homes and businesses in these extraordinary wildfires is heartbreaking,” Vanrenen said. “All of us at PG&E continue to remain focused on the safety of the communities and customers we serve.”
While there has been no determination of the causes of any of these fires, Vanrenen said, numerous lawsuits seek to hold PG&E liable “under the inappropriate use of the legal doctrine of inverse condemnation.”
Under this doctrine, PG&E could be held liable for damages and attorneys’ fees even if the utility followed all established inspection and safety rules and had done nothing wrong, Vanrenen said.
“This would ultimately harm all of our customers and the future of our state,” the PG&E spokesperson said. “It’s the wrong approach. As an array of experts have noted, weather conditions have become more extreme, and our solutions to wildfires must evolve with them. This immense challenge requires us all to work together and find real solutions that will successfully confront this new weather normal.”
The next regular meeting of the Calaveras County Board of Supervisors is scheduled April 17 in San Andreas.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.