Every so often in my decades in Washington, D.C. clients would ask me for assistance with pending legislation. I would have to remind them that I was their foreign business development consultant and not a lobbyist. If they pushed me further, or just asked innocent questions about lobbying, I would explain that not only is “lobbyist” a specific political term of art, but that it involves money. Lots of money.
California’s “Big Daddy” Jesse Unruh, a major political player in this state for decades, was the author of the classic phrase “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” What was true a half century ago is even more so today.
Big corporate money has now come to St. Helena’s politics. Measure F, the Rent Stabilization Ordinance (RSO) ballot issue we’re about to vote on, is the political creation of a Sacramento lobbying group, the Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association’s Issues PAC. It spent more than $12,000 to get the RSO on the June ballot and has wagered about $50,000 campaigning against it.
This Sacramento lobbying entity is closely aligned with the Republican Party; in the last two years it contributed $70,000 to the state Republicans. Alas, they didn’t get a very good return on their investment.
In past St. Helena elections, we have seen large contributions, but typically these have been local dollars. In their initial mayoral campaigns both our current mayor and his predecessor threw in many thousands of dollars more than their opponents. But not only was this local money, it was their own. If anything, they should be commended for putting their bank accounts behind their own campaigns.
Big outside money brings with it political arguments that are dramatic and all too often wrong. In this instance, Western Manufactured Housing Communities Association calls the St. Helena RSO “government-mandated rent control.” But there’s nothing mandatory or obligatory about this Ordinance. It’s totally voluntary for affected renters.
We have been subject to portentous arguments on both sides of Measure F. Not many of these statements have been helpful for voters. St. Helenan Mary Stephenson, a longtime housing advocate has, however, made an enlightening contribution. She writes, “We need only look to our nearby neighbor Calistoga, which has had RSOs for all its mobile home parks for 30 years, to see that this type of regulation is beneficial both to park residents and the community at large.”
We will survive this orchestrated election and then can turn our collective attention to a far more impactful problem, fire season. As they might say on “Game of Thrones,” “summer is coming.” Our fire danger can stretch out for six months, from June through November, with the highest risk in the latter three months.
From here, it looks like PG&E is playing a highly sophisticated political game this fire season. It is using blunderbuss tactics to get attention from both its bankruptcy judge and state regulators. Its latest blast is to warn St. Helena that even if a fire isn’t close, we may still lose our electricity for days at a time. Indeed, a Cal Fire official assures me that “St. Helena itself is considered a low-risk area.”
PG&E wants to expand its preemptive power cut-offs to include all its customers. This policy should not go unchallenged; our municipal, county and state leaders need to proactively intercede with PG&E and state utility regulators so that they can then campaign and petition to limit outage impacts on our town.
This power problem may be the biggest challenge facing city government in decades. There are many issues here that the city needs to grapple with if the planned outages aren’t reined in. Here are a couple. Will city departments distribute bags of ice throughout town? Will the city formulate a policy on household generators? That is, will the city streamline permitting of standby generators or consider them a public nuisance or danger and make them hard to get? For these and other concerns, Mayor Geoff Ellsworth says we must develop a “culture of preparedness.” That, understandably, will take a significant coordination effort involving both public officials and residents.
The pattern of our daily lives may change. We may be visiting gas stations more frequently to maintain full tanks. We may be shopping at Sunshine and Safeway daily to make small purchases to keep the amount of refrigerated and frozen food low. And we all should be ordering battery-operated radios now.
This may be a summer and fall unlike any others in St. Helena’s history. If that sounds alarming, it should be.