The largest group of stories listed on the Merced Sun-Star’s website under City/County during the last two weeks concern growth. Since the arrival of UC Merced, Merced County has been widely reported to be one of the three fastest growing counties in California. Yet, neither Merced nor San Bernardino and Riverside have achieved the growth level of Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas, which, according to 2005 estimates, is the fastest growing county in the nation.
Nonetheless, one would have thought it somewhat important, at least to the Sun-Star’s readers, to report the county decision to hire Robert A. Lewis as its director of development services, and to demote Bill Nicholson to the position of assistant director.
Lewis’ arrival was a surprise to the county planning staff as well. One of them said they didn’t know anything about Lewis until he was appointed, Tuesday, at the board of supervisors’ meeting (Agenda item 31). Demitrios O. Tatum, county CEO, reported at that time, “Pursuant to the County’s Recruitment and Selection Resolution, Human Resources has conducted an open recruitment for the Development services Director. An offer of employment was extended to Mr. Robert A. Lewis on December 9, 2005, subject to confirmation by the Board.”
The board confirmed the appointment.
Rumors began to float about the county. Lewis came from Henderson, Nev., some said. North Las Vegas, others said. Another planner said he thought Lewis had been in the planning departments of both Henderson and Las Vegas. There is a reference on Google to a Bobby Lewis, of Tetra Southwest, representing Creative Choice West, an apartment developer, before the North Los Vegas City Council on July 5, 2005. The project was referred back to staff.
Henderson’s public information officer said Wednesday she did not remember him as a member of the planning department, but knew him in his capacity as a consultant for developers. She said she was pretty certain our new Robert Lewis wasn’t related to the Lewis Homes’ Robert Lewis, a major Clark County developer. A Clark County PIO said he never worked there. I wasn’t able to get through to the planning departments of the cities of Las Vegas or North Las Vegas. I'm not claiming Lewis’ resume is not as honest as the day is long. The question is, where is the resume? The newspaper seems completely indifferent to this appointment and the staff report on the confirmation was devoid of all information but the man’s name and Tatum's authority to hire him.
Members of the public who take a deep interest in county planning issues wonder how exactly Lewis was found and appointed with about as much fanfare as an ant breaking wind. Tatum informed the board of supervisors Lewis arrived via the CEO’s authority under county Ordinance Code Section 2.08.150 (B) “Selection of department heads and officers.
Appointment to the following positions shall be made by the county executive officer subject to confirmation by the board of supervisors … 12. Planning Director.
Lewis was appointed as director of development services. Nicholson was demoted from director of planning and community development to assistant director of that department. Nowhere, except on a county organizational chart, does the office of director of development services appear. Yet, everyone seems to agree that Lewis has been Nicholson’s boss since Tuesday.
In Merced County, there is a legal theory that a county ordinance is law, regardless of how it conflicts with state law. This theory was recently rejected in Superior Court when it was argued by county counsel, who is now looking for a new job. The secrecy behind the hiring of Lewis totally violates the intent of the state Brown Act, governing open meetings. The county planning department has habitually misused the state Public Records Act, requiring that anyone who wants any public information from it to file what amounts to a Merced County Public Records Act request. Presumably Tatum will require a state Public Records Act request to find out what the A. in Robert A. Lewis stands for. The public would like to know what Lewis knows about other peculiar California laws, like the California Environmental Quality Act, the Agricultural Preserve and the Williamson Act.
Lewis brings to five the number of non-elected officials with major, contending control of county planning and who can be counted on to recommend approval of any development project (if one considers that Nicholson will enjoy some advantage of information over his new boss and long-time involvement with most of the current projects).
· Nicholson, now assistant county planning director
· Lewis, director of development services
· Bob Smith, former county planning director, former director of the former County of Merced UC development office (University Community Plan), now with an office in the public works department
· John Fowler, director of commerce, aviation and economic development (Riverside Motorsports Park)
· Paul Fillebrown, director of public works (Campus Parkway)
Lest this list confuse you, be certain all are firmly under the control of CEO Tatum, who last year appeared, according to county documents, to buy a piece of property in Planada for an estimated $254,000 from Pacific Holt Corporation a day before the county Housing Authority sold the parcel to Pacific Holt for an estimated $509,000. The Sun-Star reportedly looked into the case but found it amounted to as little as the appointment of a county director of development services.
The word on the street, to which McClatchy’s local snoozers reduce us, is that the supervisors doesn’t know any more about Lewis than the public does. Under this ordinance, Tatum decides, period, and the supervisors have no responsibility for who runs planning in their county. Therefore, it really doesn’t matter who you elect.
Merced County supervisors have become developer pets. They serve without term limits, they vote themselves raises whenever they wish, and in this state they dominate our land-use planning. Developers indemnify them from any legal expenses arising from lawsuits challenging the legality of their land-use decisions. Their CEO decides – in consultation with whom? – who runs our planning department. The local paper doesn’t bother to challenge the racket. Predatory development investment swarms into the Valley demolishing farms and natural habitat for wildlife and the few remaining native plant species, and the warmth under greenhouse gases rises to the Sierra snow pack.