Playing Politics With Our Health And Quality of Life

Marion Ashley, our county supervisor up for re-election this year, is playing politics with my children's health and the future of our quality of life here in the Pass. I am not going to just sit back and wait and watch him run out the clock.

I have heard over and over how skilled a politician Mr. Ashley is. He is pulling out all the stops to get the Shopoff project approved, more commonly known as the the Gateway center. Unfortunately for Mr. Ashley, and maybe for us as well, some of our local politicians are not as skilled. I offer as evidence last night's Beaumont city council meeting.

Let me catch you up first on what's been happening recently. Or as they say on TV, "Previously on Shopoff's Industrialization of The Pass"

A zoning change to the County's general plan from residential to industrial to allow The Shopoff Group to build a massive warehouse at the gateway to our community is working it's way through the County of Riverside's bureaucracy. The zoning change will come up before the five County Supervisors and since the project is in Ashley.s district the four other Supervisors will follow his lead.

A couple Beaumont Council meetings ago, a number of us asked the Council to overlook the fact that the project is not in the City of Beaumont's jurisdiction and since it will impact thousands of Beaumontians we asked the council to come out against the zoning change. Councilman Castaldo took the lead and argued against the zoning change.

In the next episode, we see Mr. Castaldo plead to a packed house at the Cherry Valley Acres and Neighbors meeting. He asked for everyone to come together to fight the warehouse. And later, Castaldo went before the Calimesa Council to plead with them to also join the fight.

Following Castaldo's lead, in the last council meeting, Mayor Knight, and council members Berg and DeForge agreed with Castaldo to pass a resolution to oppose the Shopoff project, Councilman Fox was absent. Roger Berg said Cherry Valley wasn't the appropriate place for the project. Mayor Knight told the audience about a lunch she had with Supervisor Ashley where she told him her citizens were very concerned about the Shopoff project and she assured us the county was listening.After the Beaumont Council voiced their support for a resolution, the No Way Gateway committee at Solera gained momentum and a citizen sponsored online petition reached 1,600 signatures.

Seeing opposition to the project he has supported for a number of years by a developer, and campaign contributor, from Irvine gaining traction, Supervisor Ashley issued a press release about his Project Review Committee. A committee that will have the opportunity to ask for things like "project improvements, changes, and/or redesign." There is no authority to recommend rejecting the zoning change. This change had been the focus of Mr. Castaldo's opposition and the primary strategy of the Solera committee. In Mr. Ashley's press release he noted "residents and local elected officials continue to raise concerns. Given those issues, he said, it would be appropriate to slow the project down and seek community review and input."

At last week's Beaumont Cherry Valley Water District board meeting, Dr. Ball asked for the Shopoff project to be put on next month's agenda. And in Monday night's Calimesa City Council meeting, the council members also agreed to add a discussion item to their next meeting's agenda. This was even after Calimesa Council Member Jim Hyatt showed his disappointment in hearing Mr. Castaldo's ask Calimesa to follow Beaumont in opposition of the project. Mr. Hyatt reminded the audience that Beaumont hasn't always been very neighborly.

Now that you're caught up, here's what happened at last night's council meeting.

The show began with Mayor Knight announcing the Beaumont members of Mr. Ashley's newly formed committee. The list included Councilman DeForge; Councilman CastaldoSolera No Way Gateway driving force, Nancy Carroll;CVAN President Patsy Reely; Beaumont Unified School Board Trustee, Wayne Hackney; longtime Beaumont Chamber of Commerce Leader, Lynn Baldi; and Calimesa City Council Member Jim Hyatt.

I am sure those selected for the committee all believe they are doing what's in the best interest of our community. I told people, who asked me if I was going to apply for the committee, that I believed the committee was a political move to silence the opposition and buy some time until the primary election in June where, if he gets 51% of the vote, Ashley is re-elected.

After hearing the list of members included two of our councilmen, including the highly vocal Castaldo, and the leaders of the two main groups opposing the project, I voiced my concern with the council.

The latest episode, "The Resolution" began as the second to last agenda item last night,  Mayor Knight began by saying the resolution they were considering was a draft and not the final version. Then she suggested that because the committee was just announced this morning (a coincidence? I think not!) that the resolution should be "continued" to a future meeting to give the committee some time. 

While Mayor Knight was making her point, myself and others, including Nancy Carroll, quickly put in requests to speak on the resolution issue. Steve Mehlman, already scheduled to speak, said he had planned to thank the council for showing leadership by passing the resolution but after hearing Knight's suggestion he argued that the council should follow the will of the people. 

Then I explained that I believed the overwhelming support of the public, the actions of the BCVWD and CalimesaCity Council to add agenda items for discussing the Shopoff project were a direct result of the Beaumont Council agreeing to take the first step. I argued that the committee was designed to silence the opposition. I believe our two councilman were put on the committee because they had been the first two elected officials to publicly oppose the warehouse. Nancy Carroll and Dr. Blair Ball asked the council to follow the will of the people and pass the resolution. Carroll told the council she believes she may be in the minority on the committee since she was against the project but, she argued, she would do what was in the best interest of her neighbors and asked the council to pass the resolution.

Now it was the Council's turn. After Fox motioned to approve the resolution and Berg seconded it, we heard from each of them why the resolution should pass. Fox suggested the resolution would improve Beaumont's negotiating position. Berg, once again, laid out a solid argument for building a warehouse somewhere other than in Cherry Valley. Then, Castaldo told the audience he agreed with the resolution but that in order to keep his credibility as a committee member he would have to abstain from the vote. De Forge asked the city attorney if he had to abstain and was told it would be his personal choice, so he did not.

Finally we heard one last argument from Mayor Knight. She argued that she believed the citizens in opposition, the Solera group, were prepared to accept an alternative land zoning change and that the resolution would limit the discussion of the committee members to consider another option. Obviously she hasn't been following the opposition too closely. All I've heard from Castaldo, No Way Gateway and CVAN was a plan to stop any zoning change.

After all was said and done, the resolution passed 4-0 with Castaldo abstaining.

In my opinion, Mayor Knight's attempt to continue the resolution and Castaldo's abstention, were exactly what Supervisor Ashley was hoping for and why he created the committee. Castaldo said he was not going to be a puppet on the committee and would resign if he came to believe, as I do, that the committee is just a political tactic

We need to know now, before the primary election, why this project is so important to Mr. Ashley. Why is he doing everything he can to keep it moving forward. I can't believe it is because of the $3,500 the Shopoff contributed to his campaign. I can't believe this is the legacy Mr. Ashley wants to leave in what may be his last term. The number of jobs, even if it is the thousands Shopoff claims, can't be worth jeopardizing the health of thousands of seniors and children that live within a mile of the proposed site. 

I'm not on the committee. I don't have to abstain from anything. And no one will silence me. This is too important to the health and welfare of my family. This is not the time to let Ashley run out the clock. This is the time to put the pedal down and turn up the heat on Mr. Ashley and his fellow councilmen.

Finally a message to Mr. Ashley...

Mr. Ashley, Standing up and supporting the community that has supported you for so long to protect our way of life is a much better legacy to leave for your long and distinguished tenure of representing Beaumont, Cherry Valley and Calimesa. If this project is important enough to be something you will be remembered for generations to come, please tell us why.