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LAFCO: A Beginner’s Guide (February 25, 2004)

In the February 20 edition of the Record-Bee’s letters section, the question of whether the county has any agency devoted to long term development planning is asked by a resident of Hidden Valley Lake, where land use and development issues are front-and-center. The answer is of course yes, the county has a general plan update committee, the planning commission itself — and then there’s LAFCO. Every county in the state (except San Francisco) is required to have a LAFCO (local agency formation commission), and Lake County’s LAFCO’s number one official goal is to “encourage orderly growth.” But it’s not hard to see why people have the impression that we’re just “winging it” when it comes to planning issues, since whenever the county seems to have one development disaster safely behind it, another one is usually already in sight. Many believe that much of the blame can be traced back to LAFCO, which has developed some troubling tendencies of it’s own. 

LAFCO is comprised of five commissioners and an executive director, two of the commissioners are members of the board of supervisors, one is a citizen representative and the other two come from Clearlake’s and Lakeport’s city councils. The commissioners spend much if not most of the time during their monthly hour-long meetings figuring out how to enlarge the already bloated budget of LAFCO, a budget that includes stipends for commissioners that pay them roughly $60-per-hour, which our two county supervisors (Jeff Smith and Gary Lewis) get on top of their regular salaries. The grueling schedule of an hour of work a month requires that the commissioners get a chance to unwind, which we the taxpayers have been providing in grand style. Last year we provided the $7,000-plus spent to send the commissioners and executive director to the posh beach-front Fess Parker resort in Santa Barbara for a weekend get-away where they were supposed to be soaking up bright ideas from the conference they were attending. 

The lavish spending doesn’t stop there, as the agency that according to its meeting’s minutes does virtually nothing apparently needs $18,000-a-year worth of legal advice, which is provided by an attorney who’s based in the central valley. Also outsourced is the task of executive directing — if you want to send Lake County’s LAFCO something in the mail it goes to the executive director’s office in the upscale Sacramento suburb of Granite Bay, which has caused many to wonder why Lake County’s future is being decided by someone who doesn’t even live here. When questions began to be raised about the spending habits of LAFCO, they insisted that our Lake County auditor wouldn’t be able to handle the job of sifting through LAFCO’s $140,000-per-year budget, and they’d get their own for a mere $8,000. This was later whittled-down to $6,000, which LAFCO’s executive director demanded from the auditor in person, backed-up by the presence of an equally insistent supervisor Lewis. 

LAFCO is also quite resistant to the idea of cutting its budget by the 10% that almost every other county department had to do, in fact they not only said they wanted more money, they were going to sue the county if they didn’t get it! This shocking news was delivered to the county administrator by supervisor Lewis, who apparently thinks this kind of extortion is business as usual, even if the victim is the county itself. 

What LAFCO really needs to do is cut-back its duties to the minimum of reports and studies required by the state, and to get a better deal on the legal services needed from a Lake County-based attorney. The executive director job should also be filled by a local citizen who has a good working knowledge of development issues, and commissioners’ stipends should be eliminated along with the much-abused travel budget. Completely redundant, totally ineffective and inefficient, if not required by the state (but funded entirely by the county, of course), Lake County’s LAFCO would have never been born if it weren’t for the state hanging this gold-plated albatross around our necks. If we can’t kill it off we at least need some better people staffing it, which means that commissioners Dick Lampkin, Jim McMurray, Jeff Smith and Gary Lewis should be replaced as soon as possible with members who can show some signs of fiscal restraint and genuine competence.

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