Mission Creep — the gradual broadening of the original objectives of a mission or organization. (Miriam-Webster)
Motion Creep — the gradual blathering into nothingness of the simplest proposal by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. (Mark Scaramella)
At present, Mendo maintains an Excel spreadsheet of the pesticides, herbicides and insecticides deployed by Mendocino County “Agriculture” — aka (primarily) the wine industry — to produce the maximum amount of high-priced booze for the least cost. But the spreadsheet is typically two years behind. If you want a copy of the list of poisons applied, when and where and how much, you have to formally ask the County’s Ag Department via a Public Records Act request. (Apparently you can’t just ask for it, you have ask in the form of a Public Records Act request.) The Ag Department then peeks into their semi-secret spreadsheet and prints out what they decide is responsive to your request. If it’s not responsive, you have to try again by revising your Public Records Act Request.
Last Tuesday, Supervisor Ted Williams suggested that the County post the Excel spreadsheet (or the data in spreadsheet — basically just a list; there’s nothing “spreadsheety” about it, no calculations or analyses are done) on the County’s website.
“ITEM 6a) — Discussion and Possible Action Including Direction to Agriculture Department to Collect and Publish Pesticide Application Details, Including Chemical Agent, Quantity, and Assessor’s Parcel Number (Sponsor: Supervisor Williams). Recommended Action: Direct Agricultural Commissioner to collect pesticide application details, including chemical agent, quantity and assessor parcel number (APN); and publish via County website within fifteen days of receipt.”
Williams’ agenda item is also significant for being the first specific non-routine proposal placed on the Board’s agenda by a Supervisor in years!
The last time we recall an independent agenda item from a Supervisor was back in 2013 when Supervisor John Pinches proposed that the Board reconsider the water arrangements between Mendocino County and the Sonoma County water agency which owns most of Mendo’s water in Lake Mendocino (which is in turn is mostly diverted from the Eel River via the Potter Valley Project tunnel). A small fraction of the water not owned by Sonoma County is controlled and sold cheaply by Potter Valley wine growers to themselves and other Potter Valley wine growers. Pinches’ proposal — again, to simply re-examine the arrangement — couldn’t even get a second from his spine-free colleagues at the time, probably because the wine industry didn’t want anybody looking into or messing with their cheap water arrangements.
On Tuesday, Williams’ colleagues seemed surprised that a Supervisor would even suggest anything — so much so that the Supes and top officials drifted into their usual unscripted, knee-jerk, meandering, irrelevant — and sometimes very ironic — free association that under normal circumstances effectively shoves whatever proposal is at hand behind the back-burner and onto the floor behind the stove, never to be heard from again.
Supervisor Williams is a little harder to shove behind the stove than the average Mendo supervisor.
Williams first pointed out that having the chemical stats on-line would save having to respond to Public Records Requests, adding, “If hundreds of gallons of poisons are being used upstream from residents, they should have the right to know; they may want to consider water tests. … Sometimes residents expend money on tests when they’re not close, not directly downstream. So they need to know the location,” hence Williams’ inclusion of APN (Assessor’s Parcel Number) in the agenda item.
The wine industry’s Board representative (aka the Mendocino County Farm Bureau rep) and grape grower (and Board Chair this year) Carre Brown responded that the assessor’s parcel number was not being collected; then she referred to the Public Records Act (PRA) request process and the "pin numbers" that are required. "I believe there are approximately 200 entities that have permits if they are going to make a pesticide application and I think there is approximately 50 reports a month and if you have used any type of, even organic, like dusting, material, that all has to be reported and then it has to also include at some point an inspection by the Agricultural Department to go in and make sure that that is the type of applications that can be made by the applicator and I know that it gets very complicated and I do see it as a cost to the county and I don't know as though there is the personnel within the Ag department to handle this, so just for comment back.”
Williams: "I would like clarification on where that cost would be today if the Ag department does collect this data. Setting up a script to generate web reports seems like a one-time information services endeavor. I don't see where there would be ongoing staff time. Can you explain?"
Brown: “Yes I can. You are also asking for a posting within 15 days I believe.”
Williams: “Yes, but if it's automated it doesn't require any human intervention.”
Brown: “Yes, but it doesn't necessarily, you're going to have to go in and have staff work on it.”
Williams: “No, that's not what I'm suggesting here. This recommended action is that it be automated. I'm not asking for any ongoing staff time.”
Brown: “Well, I still think it's going to take staff time but we may get some clarification on that.”
Ag Commissioner Dr. Harinder Grewal said they do get monthly computerized reports of pesticide applications through the "Cal-Ag system.” But 10% is still done the old way with paper input. Grewal said it would be extra work and "a burden on staff to do all that work," and that training would be needed for staff. But, “If the information services people can do it, that would be fine.” He went on at length about all the steps involved in transferring the “Cal-Ag” data and inputting and transferring it.
Williams suggested replacing parcel number with location in his proposal.
Grewal noted they have site ID and field location number.
Williams thought that would be fine. Then he volunteered to help information services automate the process with a script that runs periodically and generates the web content ready to publish.
Grewal thought that would work.
Supervisor Dan Gjerde wondered if the data could be transferred from the state back to the county.
Supervisor John Haschack was reminded of a neighbor who made a request that had to do with well water “and it was a major concern for that person. It seems like you shouldn't have to require a public records act request." He thought automating the process would be a good thing to do.
Grewal said he responds to Public Records Act requests. But it would not be possible to get the state data. “It is only available to users of that system.”
Williams repeated that to minimize the impact on the Ag department existing location data would be fine along with monthly automated posting.
Frost Pauli, president of the Mendocino County Farm Bureau (a.k.a. the wine industry), son of Potter Valley grape growers Bill and Janet Pauli, said that the information is available "in aggregate form" to “protect private property information and people's personal information. This will be a costly endeavor for the county. There is no way to possibly fully automate this system. Even if we bring in IT to try to streamline it, which I think is a good idea on its face, there is no way to fully automate this system because we are dealing with the state and anytime we are dealing with the state we are going to have some of our local staff time involved to get that to work both ways." Pauli noted that the information "would not be fully vetted."
Pauli continued, "This will also be a burden to our Ag producers who are already complying with all the rules and regulations on the box [the pesticide container]. We will have to follow additional rules if this comes into existence." He went on at length about parcel numbers and field numbers and locations and GPS coordinates and physical addresses and how complicated it is. “It would be a large burden on growers if it were to include parcels.” But even using the data as is, "it is still duplicative for producers to provide this information if they are doing it again. It sounds like if they are already doing Cal-Ag permits and then if they are required by the county to provide this information for the public, for the county website, they would have to submit it twice and it would be duplicative.”
Devon Jones also of the County Farm Bureau claimed that pesticide use is down in recent years, implying that nobody should be concerned, and that in fact the poisoners should get credit for using less poison.
Williams then asked again how it could be duplicative if the data is already being collected.
Pauli repeated himself, saying it would require extra work on the part of the applicator because of the 15 day posting time frame that Williams had already withdrawn. Pauli continued repeating himself about the difficulties in getting data from the State Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR) and having to "vet" it.
Williams repeated that he was not proposing anything more than publishing what was already collected in the timeframe it was already collected.
Deputy CEO Janelle Rau said she was representing the information technology department staff and that there were "automated opportunities that need to be worked out. There may be some manual portions of this that would be an operational requirement of the Ag staff. I'm only speaking in very general terms."
Alex Land, Information Services Manager, was up next.
Land grudgingly said he was “willing to discuss” pulling data out of the state and the data transfer mechanisms. “There might be some things. I have not looked at it. Automation is certainly possible. But there will definitely be some manual processes. You know, I don't know how much those will be because we just got this."
(Let’s pause a moment to consider how many managers there seem to be who are so very worried about “putting a burden” on staff or on wine growers, a "burden" that is light-to-non-existent.)
Williams then asked Commissioner Grewal how much time it would take to simply export the data from the spreadsheet to information services for posting on the county website.
Grewal replied that the information in the spreadsheet could be exported, but they are “always a few years behind. Grabbing the information from Cal-Ag, that must be done through the Ag Commissioner because Information Services will not have the password and we can't give the password to Information Services. I imagine it would be about ten hours or so," adding that they have to "sometimes clean up the errors." Grewal went on about complicated timing considerations during the requesting and posting process.
Williams asked if the Cal-Ag data really has errors requiring correction.
"Yes," said Grewal, then, reversing himself, "or no. The data we get from the state will be correct but they are two years behind. And, yes we do have to correct errors. The growers submit a notice of intent which shows which pesticides they are going to use on which sites and then the application takes place and when the application takes place, on the tenth of every month they submit pesticide use reports. So we look to see if the notice of intent matches with the pesticide use report so those are the corrections we make and if there are any red flags we ask what they used and that's when we go back and ask for corrections to be done."
Grewal seemed to be saying that if more poison is used than was applied for, the only thing they do is correct the data to show the unpermitted amount. This is apparently what “vetting” means.
Williams replied, “That work needs to be done anyway, it's not tied to this request. Since the public already accesses the data through Public Records Act Requests, it seems like we are already doing it periodically. And I suppose if we are manually correcting things, we do that when we respond to the request.”
Grewal: “Yes, when we get a request we respond in 10 days and we have 10 days to make corrections for that request.”
Supervisor John McCowen: “It is required that a notice of intent be filed prior to an application and then an additional report afterwards saying what was actually applied. But the public's ability to know about that intent may be limited. How would someone gain that information? If someone wanted to know in advance of the application, what would be their mechanism to request the notice of intent that an application would take place?”
Grewal: “It would be the same, a public records act request.”
McCowen: “And by the time that request was filed and filled the application would probably already have taken place.”
McCowen seemed to be convincing himself that asking for advance public notice of poisoning plans would be pointless, but he didn’t ask how far in advance the notice is.
McCowen went on to say that nobody really needs the info anyway: “Who is there who lives next to a vineyard, an orchard, or an industrial timberland who is not aware that pesticides are being applied? Who doesn't have that knowledge that the application is occurring?”
Haschak: “How long does it take for your office to deal with a Public Records Act request?
Grewal: “We have to respond in 10 days and we do.”
Haschak, “Yes, but how long does it take for a person working to get that information together?”
Grewal: “It depends on the request, what kind of data they are asking for. Each request is different.”
Haschak: “So it could be very short or kind of time-consuming?”
Grewal: “Yes. A month ago we got a request for all the applications in 2016.”
Brown: “There are certain types of pesticides that cannot be used unless you get a special application permit from you. Is that correct?
Grewal: “There are some pesticides that do need a special permit.”
Brown: “And what does the Ag department do at that time? Maybe it's an infestation and it needs to be used. I can't think of any examples at the moment. How do you work with the applicator and the land owner?”
Grewal: “When we get a request we follow the state process, and most of the time these are special pesticides that are approved by DPR and we just look to see if it's approved by DPR.”
Brown: “So DPR has the list and protocols need to be followed even during application. And there is integrated pest management which is a whole different style, organically and biodynamic farmers need to come to the training classes because of the dusting they do with organic materials, so there's a lot of ins and outs with that.”
Grewal: “We hold pesticide use enforcement workshops twice a year explaining the laws and what applicators need to do.”
Oh, so it’s mostly the hired poison applicators who suffer the burden of reporting the poison use data, not the overburdened wine growers themselves.
Haschak: “It seems like this information is needed for the people and they should not have to go through the Public Records Act request. But I don't want to put an extra burden on the Ag department or on the farmers. The Ag department and Information Services could figure out how to do this in the most expedient way and come back with a report to tell us what they can do without creating a burden on anyone.”
McCowen — who has spent the last three years burdening pot permit staff and pot growers with mind-numblingly detailed rules and regs and enforcement and reporting — agreed that there should be no additional burden on staff or Ag producers.
Williams, cutting to the chase, “We seem to be derailing a little bit talking about training and regulation and burdens on Ag producers. I don't see where any of those topics are relevant to this matter. We have collected the data and I suggest we make it available to the public. It's purely about local government being transparent, it's not about additional burdens, it's not about training or whether they should use it. It's just we have the information, let's publish it so the public can make use of it without going through a public records act request.”
McCowen: “The last time I made a comprehensive review of the county website it was astounding the number of errors of basic information that things were not being updated and I think it's often the case that no one is really assigned to stay on top of that. [Looks around room] No? I would hope for improvement but, websites do have to be updated constantly, it does require somebody's time. We have the information, is there a time effective way to make that more readily available? I think that's worth looking into before we give direction to move forward.”
Brown: “I would like to comment respectfully to Supervisor Williams. I have a statement to make. First. I disagree with you on training, reporting -- there is a lot of regulation that surrounds the use of any chemicals whether they are organic or not. Pesticides. Herbicides. Insecticides. Also pest management. When the house is tarped next door to you by pest control officers, what happens then? I think all the knowledge and the more knowledge that people have, it gives them more confidence in government and what's going on so I just want to push back on your comments that it's important, the training, the education that goes along with that, so respectfully I disagree.”
Williams: “I don't know that we disagree necessarily. My point was that this agenda item is about releasing data that we've collected. It's not that I disagree about training being important or any of the other things you brought up. I think we agree. I just want to stay on track. This is not about — I don't want to have motion creep and start throwing other items into this. It's just an attempt to be transparent.”
Brown: “Again, respectfully, there was only one sentence, it really wasn't background to be able to understand how this is coming forward and a lot of the concerns needed to be expressed in a summary of the item for which there was only one sentence.”
Williams: “There's not a lot to this. That's why there's only one sentence. We could go in to different directions and say the number of business licenses should be public or the cost of the cannabis program should be in real time available to the public. Throughout the county we are missing data. People make better decisions with data. This is one attempt to maybe create a little bit of pain which is the catalyst for us to come up to speed in the world and I don't think we should be saying that our website has errors or is out of date and nobody's maintaining it and therefore we can't be transparent. Instead we should be saying, We have this problem and we need to be addressing it and this is one place where we can.”
Gjerde repeated Haschak’s request that staff should get together and see if it could be automated and bring a proposal back to the board.
Brown then required everyone to back up and restate the motion. Gjerde restated the motion to bring a work plan back to the board.
No dates were mentioned.
The board boldly voted unanimously in favor of the motion.
Brown concluded: “So this will come back to the board at a later date, so we will now go to break as requested by staff.”
The discussion which produced only a motion for staff to bring back a work plan “at a later date” had taken 45 minutes of board and staff time. Nobody complained about that burden.