This is an excerpt of On Assignment, education writer Theresa Harrington's blog on Contra Costa County schools. Read more and post comments at IBABuzz.com/onassignment. Follow her at Twitter.com/tunedtotheresa or Facebook.com/TheresaHarringtonBANG.
A proposal to create a sustainable farm on Central Contra Costa Sanitary District property appears to be fraught with political wrangling.
Although it is one step closer to coming to fruition after trustees voted Thursday to allow staff to enter into negotiations with the project's organizers, the deal is far from done.
Project creator Carolyn Phinney and farm manager Bethallyn Black dreamed up the idea of the "CoCo San Sustainable Farm" with the goal of growing organic produce using recycled water to provide salads for schools and fresh vegetables to the local food bank.
But politics overshadowing the deal bubbled to the surface during the meeting, when Board President James Nejedly accused Phinney -- who was not present -- of posting false accusations about him on Facebook. Nejedly also noted that the media (me) was videotaping the proceedings.
I videotaped part of the debate to provide a record for the public, since the district doesn't videotape its own meetings. For links to video clips of the meeting, visit the OnAssignment blog.
Nejedly and some of the other trustees said details of the plan were vague and confusing, including basic information such as how much property is needed for the project to be successful. Although it was originally conceived to encompass 33 acres of land next to the district's Martinez treatment plant, it was later scaled down.
The district wants to consider leasing some property for other potentially more lucrative uses, like allowing agencies such as Caltrans to dump dirt on it.
The farm proposal was embraced by trustee Mike McGill, who served on the Enterprise Committee that reviewed the proposal, along with Nejedly. But Nejedly said the Facebook posts accused him of being a "sour grape" who wanted to "gut" the project.
The committee recommended pursuing an agreement for 10 plantable acres, with the condition that five acres could be vacated if necessary with 60 days' notice. The committee also recommended pursuing a Request for Proposal for the remaining acreage, and a land use permit for the entire property. Staff recommended that the board create an ad hoc committee to negotiate the lease terms.
After back-and-forth discussion between Black and trustees, some questions remained. Based on the Facebook posts, Nejedly said Black was being given inaccurate information by Phinney. Black said she hadn't spoken to Phinney in about a week and hadn't seen the posts.
Still, Nejedly was determined to clear his name. He read several of the Facebook accusations aloud, then refuted them, saying he has always supported the project and that he was the one who suggested the district should provide the land for free.
He reminisced about his childhood growing up with wildlife and said he is so committed to advocating for recycled water that he once drank some to show John Coleman, an East Bay Municipal Utility District director, that it's not so bad.
By the end of the discussion, trustees agreed to McGill's motion to pursue an agreement for 15 acres, which would allow 10 acres to be planted and five to be used for educational purposes. Trustees also agreed to protect two of those acres from a requirement to vacate in a short amount of time, which could allow structures to be built.
In addition, trustees agreed to pursue a Request for Proposals on the remaining property, in case someone might want to pay to dump dirt on it or propose other ideas that could generate money for the district. Trustees also agreed to pursue a land-use permit for the new uses.
But they balked at McGill's suggestion that the proposal should come back to the full board without first returning to the Enterprise Committee. Other trustees said they wanted the committee to review it and make a recommendation. Nejedly abstained.
Phinney said afterward that she stood by her Facebook posts and she didn't go to the meeting because she didn't want feeding thousands of children to be about "personality or politics."
It may be too late for that.
However, she's looking at the bright side.
"I'm trying to be optimistic," she said, "now that the farm can move forward and bring great benefit to the community."