Surveillance and Sewage
By BILL VASSILAKIS, TRT Contributing Writer
At 8 AM last Thursday Willow Creek Community Service District Board Chairman Bruce Nelson banged his gavel and proclaimed to the board, the staff, and eighteen people in attendance that the monthly meeting was in session.
The meeting began with a brief water department report from district manager Lonnie Danel. He assured the board that water usage hovered in an acceptable range around some 350,000 gallons per day, the annual inspection of the anthracite coal filter went off without a hitch, a ten-gallon-per-minute leak had been repaired on a service line near highway 96, and the relevant authority was certifying treatment plant operators on schedule.
The board then turned its attention to the meat of the meeting: Unfinished Business, in the shape of 1) a plan recently taking shape to install a system of surveillance cameras downtown, and 2) an engineering report on a wastewater system that’s been in the works for years. Though the hired consulting engineers were eager to tell their septic system story and be on their way, the meeting’s attention would first linger on the camera plan, which had finally found a forthright critic.
In a previous meeting, the board had requested that Danel find out whether or not the recently formulated plan to install surveillance cameras in the name of the service district would require LAFCo approval. LAFCo (pronounced “laugh co”) is sadly not an industrial producer of comedy, but rather the acronym for Local Agency Formation Commission, an entity which claims to “facilitate…promote…and encourage…” something, according to their rather dull, obligatory website.
Grateful Californians can thank the state legislature of 1963 for the existence of the commission, which the state created to regulate “the formation, expansion, or dissolution of cities and special districts.”
For example, if the Willow Creek Community Service District wanted to become the Willow Creek City Council, they would need to undergo some kind of process to appease LAFCo. While service districts typically have legal “corporate power” and “tax power,” they don’t typically have “police power.” They do, however, usually have what is called the “security power.”
So, it would seem, the Willow Creek Community Services District doesn’t need any kind of approval from LAFCo to begin operating a system of surveillance (“security”) cameras. Which is not to say the camera plan is a foregone conclusion, at least until Danel ushers the proposal through a process required by CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act. Then, he says, they can begin planning for the funding and design of the system.
Danel seems to have confidence that CEQA won’t hold up the camera plan, though, as he apparently is already shopping around. “The camera people will get back to me on the price,” he told the board, before Nelson opened up the discussion to public comment.
Tom Peterson addressed the board in an eminently reasonable tone. He voiced his concern that a system of surveillance cameras would invade his personal privacy. Peterson cited the state constitution, which enshrines privacy as an inalienable right.
“You’re not a city or a mayor or a city council,” Peterson reminded the board, asking “why is a water district exercising police powers?”
Peterson said that, while he’s not opposed to cameras per se, “the devil’s in the details,” and he requested information regarding where they’d be located, what capabilities the cameras would have, how the data would be stored and who would have access to it under what circumstances. Whether the cameras would include facial recognition software, or license plate readers, was also a concern.
Peterson’s comments ran longer than the three minutes allotted to members of the general public, but Nelson let him finish, even when the deliberately spoken man took a pause before asking, “What is your purpose?”
Nelson answered that the camera project was intended as a crime deterrent and as a resource for law enforcement. The board is still in the early stages of the project, he said, encouraging Peterson to stay involved in the discussion.
Next, engineering consultants Pat Kaspari and Susan O’Gorman presented their report (“WCCSD Downtown Wastewater Development Preliminary Engineering Report”) to the board. Despite the absence of a projector in the board room, the powerpoint format prevailed in the form of twenty six color printed pages handed out and posters. The report is the product of a grant from the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB), which promises also to pay for a subsequent environmental impact report, permit applications and an application for yet another grant for design and construction.
A brief history of the service district’s septic saga begins in 2002 with a feasibility analysis funded by a Community Development Block Grant, and continues through various grants pledged and rescinded, which paid for three previous studies. Since 2011, a wastewater committee has been meeting monthly.
The presentation included photos of a recent wastewater committee field trip to the septic leach fields of Weott (where there was “absolutely no smell,” said board Mike Davis) as well as Steve’s Septic in McKinleyville, where modified dumpsters containing sewage “solids” are injected with polymer for reasons the engineers cared not to describe.
The engineers estimate that the total cost of the project would be just over $5 million, and would cost $114,000 annually for operations and maintenance. This cost would be borne, by state law, by user fees.
After a series of public meetings in 2015 that would be part of the environmental impact report, construction could begin as early as 2017, but more likely in 2018.
Following a short break, a sheriff’s deputy thanked the board for their support of Measure Z, which he promised will fund “twenty-four hour staffing” of deputies in the area, and the local firesafe council lamented a mere $8,000 FLASH grant.
The next Willow Creek service district meeting will be held at the 135 Willow Road office at 8 AM, December 18.