Letters, We get Letters
The following was sent to the Tribune from a CDO recipient who spent 12 hours at the April 28 hearing and took issue with how the Tribune covered the story the next day. Printed with permission from the author
Chip Visci, Sandra Duerr, Matt Lazier, Antonio A. Prado, Nathan Welton
3825 S. Higuera
P.O. Box 112
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401
For the past several months I have looked in vain for articles in your newspaper dealing with recipients of Proposed Cease and Desist Orders (CDOs) from the RWQCB. This topic seemed extremely newsworthy from many angles, yet week after week, month after month, you contacted neither my husband and me, nor any Proposed CDO recipient with whom I am familiar. After a showy struggle with the RWQCB to get names of Proposed CDO recipients, you did nothing with the information.
Finally, last week, you printed a story about two retired couples and how they thought a CDO would affect them, were one to be issued. What you have completely missed is the story about what has already happened to those of us who have received Proposed CDOs, the months of work, the personal hardship and expense, the health consequences, the difficulty of fitting research on a site specific prosecution defense around a schedule of work, family, and community responsibilities, and the uncertainties surrounding how much time from these responsibilities will be taken by a hearing, already twelve hours old, which has now been extended for two more days, and could easily go on longer.
On Friday, April 28, 2006, the hearing date, nowhere in your paper did I find any mention whatsoever of the RWQCB hearing. This lack of coverage was surprising given that the random prosecution of 45 Prohibition Zone families, the Designated Parties, was the biggest news in Los Osos that day.
The President and Vice President of the Prohibition Zone Legal Defense Fund (PZLDF) have appeared on local public information outlets. The president called your newspaper to request coverage. No one interviewed either of these gentlemen for an article on this story.
The most egregious of all your omissions occurred on the front page of Saturday’s issue of The Tribune in which Nathan Welton reported his version of the RWQCB hearing. Essentially, you omitted the Truth. The headline, “Los Osos raises a ruckus at hearing with water officials,” along with the first sentence, “Tempers flared for 12 hours Friday,” conveys the impression that throughout the hearing citizens were disorderly, noisy, angry, and unruly. Mr. Welton mentions that, “an armed…officer patrolled the room, ostensibly to control the often rowdy crowd.” While it is true that an armed officer was present, as I would hope to be the case in any public gathering where a large crowd was expected, he did not “patrol.” Since the crowd was so well-behaved, he had very little to do, and for the most part stood or sat in one place for a period of time and then moved to another location, just as many in the crowd did to keep from solidifying as the hours passed. As someone who participated in every minute of the hearing from the center of the room in the second row from 10am to 10:30pm, I can tell you that such hyperbole does not do justice to the reporter, to your newspaper, to the citizens of both Los Osos in particular and of San Luis Obispo County in general, or to the Truth. While at times individuals became emotional, clapped, murmured their dissent, or called out a comment, at no time was the group unruly.
When concerns about crowding in the room emerged early on, citizens left cooperatively, quietly, and respectfully for seats in an overflow room where they could watch the proceedings on television. A group staging a silent demonstration by holding signs in the back of the hall was admonished that they could not carry signs and stay in the room. They left promptly and peacefully. Anyone examining the record would be able to note that the majority of the chairman’s admonitions referred to applause that occurred in response to specific comments. This applause was not loud, raucous, nor prolonged. Citizens maintained remarkable decorum despite the daunting challenges of the months already invested in this struggle and the challenge of waiting all day in vain to present their entire case in the fifteen minutes allotted each household to defend itself. It would have been worth noting for the public at large that these fifteen minutes were the total time we had to present testimony and call witnesses on our behalf.
Mr. Welton had the challenge of reporting the essence of what happened on Friday, yet he chose to use his precious copy space to cover innocuous details, such as the disorganized first part of the hearing and an admonition by the chairman to CSD Director, Julie Tacker, regarding his incorrect belief that she had clapped in response to a specific comment. Though Ms. Tacker denied having clapped, the reporter failed to note that detail, creating the impression that Ms. Tacker’s behavior was, indeed, disorderly.
It is true that inadequate planning by water board staff and its consequent confusion over procedures wasted everyone’s time, but it certainly was not the story. The woman whom the chairman asked be removed by the officer for speaking up vehemently about the disorganization left the microphone as ordered, under her own power, and sat down. Her compliance with the chairman’s directive went unreported. It also went unreported that this was the only instance in over twelve hours when the officer was called upon.
At times, we were treated like school children, but those details also were not the story. In reporting insignificant, irrelevant, half-true, and patently untrue details in order to reinforce a broadly held stereotype of Los Osos citizens, created by the media, Mr. Welton, failed to fulfill his mission as a legitimate news reporter.
Mr. Welton failed to report that the Honorable Sam Blakeslee, our Assemblyman, attended the hearing and addressed the water board about his continuing plans to work on the state level to help find a solution to the Los Osos wastewater issue. Citizens greeted him warmly and respectfully. His face appears in the very large photo accompanying the story on the front page, yet nowhere in the story was Mr. Blakeslee mentioned. His assistant was present with him, and she was present at the end of the hearing, yet she was not mentioned.
Mr. Welton failed to report that District 2 Supervisor Shirley Bianchi also appeared at the hearing, announcing that she would answer questions from the water board only. She refused to take questions from her own constituents. He did not report that Ms. Bianchi had received a subpoena to attend the hearing. He failed to report that the chairman of the water board quashed her subpoena, even though Ms. Bianchi’s testimony would have been critical to the cases of many Designated Parties, and given that she had already indicated that she would not voluntarily cooperate in answering questions from Designated Parties.
Mr. Welton failed to report that Designated Parties had issued at least two other subpoenas, which were also quashed by the chairman of the water board, though the testimony of those witnesses would have been very important to their defense. He did not report that the recipients of these subpoenas had failed to appear that morning, which raised the question of improper prior communications between the board and these subpoena recipients. The chairman addressed this question, himself denying any improper communication with the subpoena recipients, yet that fact went unreported.
Mr. Welton failed to report that the RWQCB chairman addressed the Designated Parties directly, as a group, to determine if we believed that those being prosecuted had not been chosen at random. Receiving a strong affirmative, the chairman stated that the point had been established, and he refused to permit further questions or comments on that issue.
Mr. Welton failed to report that in cross-examination, Dr. Dan Wickam, a wastewater expert witness for the Los Osos CSD, stated that frequent pumping of septic tanks may be in violation of EPA standards and could, therefore, be illegal. This information seems highly newsworthy, at least as newsworthy as the Air Pollution Control District concern that frequent pumping may have an adverse impact on air quality, which the Tribune did report a few days ago. He referred to Dr. Wickam as simply, “Dan Wickam, president of engineering firm AGB,” neglecting to mention Dr. Wickam’s extensive credentials.
Mr. Welton failed to report that Dr. Wickam testified that no definitive, scientific studies have ever been conducted to determine the source of nitrates in the groundwater in Los Osos, that such studies could easily be accomplished at reasonable expense, and that they would show scientifically the source of the nitrates. Mr. Welton did not report that the RWQCB’s contention that septic systems as the source of the nitrates in Los Osos groundwater is essentially speculation based on correlation and not on scientific data, since the water board has conducted no studies. Dr. Wickam cited several possible sources for nitrates, including septic systems, but would not speculate without data provided by scientific tests.
Mr. Welton failed to report that at least three member of the Los Osos CSD addressed the water board. He failed to note that Lisa Schicker, President of the Los Osos CSD, spoke about the CSD’s current efforts in regard to wastewater management to an impassive water board.
To anyone present for the full twelve hours, Mr. Welton’s story gives the impression that he was only briefly in attendance and missed the bulk of the RWQCB hearing. If he did attend the entire hearing, and if his mission was to waste his day finding and inventing innocuous details to support and enliven a stereotype of Los Osos, then he can say, “Mission Accomplished.” If fair and balanced reporting on an extremely significant event in the history of wastewater treatment in Los Osos with its enormous toll on thousands of families in the Prohibition Zone was his goal, then his failure as a competent news reporter is complete.
His supervisors, whose job it is to look at the stories for content, bias, and newsworthiness have failed to protect the public from gossip disguised as journalism. It does not take a journalism major to look at this story and see its flaws. Surely someone who edited the story had to suspect that something was missing. Surely someone asked this reporter what actually HAPPENED at the hearing. If not, then standards for editing at the Tribune are at least as low as its standards for reporting.
These have not been easy months for those of us who have received Proposed CDOs. We are exhausted beyond your understanding. This prosecution has invaded our lives. We take it to work and home again. We eat our meals with it. We sleep with it. We wake up in the night with it. It is there when we help our children with their homework and when we play with our pets. It is there when we talk to our grandchildren on the phone. It is there when we spend time with friends, attend church, or work in our gardens. It sends us to the hospital for emergency treatment for high blood pressure, heart conditions, and stress. It dominates our thoughts.
We are ordinary citizens who have been singled out extraordinarily for prosecution by a government agency for something over which we have no control. Those who have never faced prosecution by an omnipotent government agency have no idea what it is like to try to keep from drowning in the voluminous, necessary research, paperwork, and meetings it takes to mount a defense of our property while conducting the business of everyday life at the same time.
This group of courageous, hard-working, smart, warm, and compassionate people have done this almost alone, ignored by the media, unless we have made the contacts and they have responded. From the uninformed public we have received reactions ranging from, “It’s your own fault,” to “Keep us posted,” to “We feel for you.” We have received none of the attention we are entitled to as your neighbors who are besieged and defenseless. Many of our neighbors had no idea that prosecution awaits them, as well.
It was too much to hope that our county newspaper would afford us the dignity of reporting the RWQCB hearing as it happened. It is discouraging to discover that our own newspaper would use its power for good once again to marginalize and demean Los Osos and its citizens by misrepresentation, by selective reporting, and by false statements and gossip depicted as news.
Beverley A. De Witt-Moylan
Los Osos Proposed CDO Recipient