Anne’s article originally appeared in the March/April 2006 edition of HopeDance #55 (http://www.hopedance.org/) and is reprinted here with permission of the author.
Shirley Jackson Comes to Los Osos
by Anne R. Allen
In Los Osos, California, during the first week of February, a remarkable thing happened. The few rights left to us by the Bushist corporate oligarchs were revoked by a group of unelected local California bureaucrats.
The Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) chose 50 random citizens to be punished — without charges, trials, or legal representation — not because of anything they have done or not done, or even who they voted for, but simply because of where they happen to live.
I believe this is called scapegoating. It would appear to have little to do with water quality and everything to do with terrorizing the population.
Given the turnout for last September’s surreal Los Osos Community Services District (CSD) recall election, and the closeness of the vote, these as yet unnamed citizens have a less-than 30% chance of having opposed the sewer and the RWQCB’s edicts. According to published statistics, they also have less than 5% chance of owning a leaking septic system. Perhaps they have, like me, already forked out the $4000 “prepayment” for the sewer, which has apparently evaporated.
Their only crime is residing in a town that has been torn apart for more than 30 years by controversy over funding for a much-needed sewer — controversy caused by lack of government oversight of developers over a generation ago.
But hey, these scapegoats were chosen by lottery, “to be fair.”
“The Lottery” is the title of a famous story by Shirley Jackson about a seemingly normal town where an annual lottery designates a random victim/scapegoat to be stoned to death. Critic Peter Kosenko said in his New Orleans Review article on Jackson, “The lottery functions to terrorize the village into accepting, in the name of democracy, the power on which its oppressive social order depends.”
Jackson’s story came to my mind (the part of it that wasn’t busy being terrorized) when I read the news of the RWQCB’s latest action in their ongoing battle with the new CSD board of Los Osos.
In his comments in the Tribune, the RWQCB’s executive officer Roger Briggs showed a lack of empathy that appears to border on the sociopathic. He seems to regard the residents of Los Osos as a monolithic entity with the sole objective of thwarting his power, rather than individual citizens who may or may not agree with the new CSD officers. He seems to believe that the actions of a few residents of Los Osos a generation ago are the fault of people who innocently bought or rented homes here in the years that followed.
Mr. Briggs and his board haven’t addressed the fact that if a county project has been a source of constant controversy for half a century, maybe the problem lies in the project, not the character flaws of people who move here. Although – wow — if previously good citizens morph into pro-pollution anarchist crazies just by moving to a place, I’d say there might be something more terrible in the water than a sewer could cure!
I have been out of the country for most of the last three years and did not support the recall, but after watching the RWQCB’s colossally disrespectful treatment of Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee, I could see why Los Ososans felt bullied. After Mr. Blakeslee facilitated a compromise between the warring factions in September, the RWQCB reneged and told him, “It’s been fun wasting your time, dude, but the whole compromise thing was a lie. You lose.”
Our elected representative — the person who stands for you and me in what used to be a government of, by and for the people — was brushed off like so much trash by this organization that apparently answers to no authority higher than its own will.
And now, like the villagers in Shirley Jackson’s story, county residents show little compassion for the innocent victims of this out-of-control bureaurocracy. The new CSD board has so far offered no more comfort than to post a petition on their website and ask fellow citizens to donate to a private fund to help these folks who are about to be fined up to $1000 a DAY. But each of those fellow citizens knows he or she may be next.
The Los Osos mess is a bad one. The lack of oversight of development in the 1960s and 1970s created monstrous problems—from unpaved roads to a lack of public facilities. The solution will probably be as complicated as the problem. But terrorizing a town and pumping the 95% of septic tanks that function perfectly well won’t keep one bacterium out of anybody’s water supply.
Anne R. Allen lives part time in Los Osos and part time in northern England. She’s the author of two novels published in the UK: FOOD OF LOVE and THE BEST REVENGE (available at amazon.co.uk.) She writes the column, IN Her Own Write, for INkwell Newswatch, Toronto’s online writers’ zine, rated the #1 writer’s source on the web. Her short fiction currently appears online at Chick Flicks and Dispatch Litareview.