Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, has been holding town hall meetings in Hollister for 20 years that are in essence lessons in civics. By definition, civics is the education of citizens on their rights and duties to one another and the government.
The Sept. 1 meeting held at the Board of Supervisors’ chambers was cordial, yet spirited, as residents voiced their opinions that ranged from gratitude for Farr’s efforts on behalf of various causes, to concerns about the location of the proposed homeless shelter, the new four-lane road to be constructed between San Juan Bautista and Hollister, and the Iran nuclear deal.
He began the meeting by referencing the Pinnacles National Park.
“I’m very excited about that because we don’t have a national park anywhere along the central coast,” Farr said. “To have something between San Francisco and Los Angeles offers a growth potential in drawing people here to what we call gateway cities where you can stay and enjoy other things. It’s up to us to figure out what those things are.”
He said preserving lands, whether for agriculture or parks, is only the first step.
“Then it’s about interpretation," he said. "How do you explain it so when people come here they understand what’s going on? This is the first time we’ve created a lure that says to the people along the coast come inland to see some real mountains? The Pinnacles is the first time we’ve had a big, nationally recognized destination off the coast. There are 36 million people in the state and many have never seen rural California. Your job is to protect it so people will come, but like the tourists in Carmel, they come, spend money and then leave. And leave this beautiful open space. You want to keep it rural. That rural character is going to sell.
“In Monterey we were once in the taking mode," Farr added. "Catch all the fish. Kill all the whales. Shoot all the seals. We were all in go out and take it. All of a sudden, someone saved the sea otters and people started to come to Monterey, not to fish but to watch little fuzzy animals. Then we ended up saving the whales and we’re making a hell of a lot more money watching whales than we ever did killing them. We’re making money selling sea otters; you’re making money selling condors. This thing has a future. People want to see wildlife.”
Farr shifted from local concerns to national politics. He explained that government in Washington “is stuck.” There’s no central focus on how to describe the American culture, he said, describing local governments as the laboratory for social and policy changes. He said Americans often view change as threatening with too many immigrants, a bloated government, opposing desires for a larger military and gun rights.
“I’ve been in Congress 22 years and I’ve seen a change from a moderate Congress that has shifted to the extreme right, which is described as the Tea Party that isn’t really a party but a philosophy that is playing out in the excitement for Trump,” Farr said. “He’s anti-government, playing very effectively on a lot of the fears that Americans have. People like that right now. They want someone to get elected to fix these problems.”
On the Iran nuclear agreement, Farr said it is, “one of the most magnificent, diplomatic, global agreements that anybody has ever reached. He stated the sentiment straight from the lyrics of John Lennon’s 1969 song, “Give peace a chance,” and said there is a need for Congress to debate the agreement on its merits rather than politics.
“Instead, we line up in a partisan way. We (he was referring to Republicans) don’t like or trust Obama. Israel doesn’t like it,” he said, then prefaced, “The House doesn’t have one Republican Jewish member. All the Jewish members are Democrats and they’re split on which way to go. The big battle will be on if there are enough votes to override the president’s veto.”
Farr said he believes it will be embarrassing when votes go against the agreement.
“The world is going to be watching and they’re going to see that Congress does not support its Executive Branch or its diplomatic arm or all the people who negotiated that agreement,” he said. “All the other countries had their top negotiators at the table and they all agreed that it is a really good agreement.”
He said the United States will not be able to walk away from it hoping to negotiate a better one.
“Over the last few years we’ve gotten them (allies) to go along with the incredibly tough boycott that they’ve been a part of. This deal was just about the stopping of building a bomb. It wasn’t about having to recognize Israel. It wasn’t about eliminating the violations of human rights. It was about stopping a country that was three months away from having a bomb. The inspections are very tough and they go on forever. They don’t end after 15 years. If they’re up to anything bad we’re going to find out right away and we bring the sanctions back,” he said, and then quoted Lennon, “I think it’s time to give peace a chance and use diplomacy.
“Maybe Iran is saying one thing internally for their own politics and to the external world they’re saying we want to be a player. I think they realize they don’t need the bomb. It’s their detriment. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll have diplomatic relations with them and they’re not going to annihilate Israel.”
Farr shifted from a possible Armageddon in the Middle East to the civics lesson on how money is made available to communities.
He explained that money from state and federal government is given out by formulas. First, it is collected nationally and then redistributed based on need, which, he said, is usually defined by population. Any left over money is then set aside for grants.
“We don’t have enough to give everyone in the country some formula money, and we wouldn’t want to do that anyway, because we wouldn’t have any fresh ideas, so we put some money in grant pockets and allow competitive grant giving,” he said. “You send us your ideas and we’ll run them up the flagpole and compare them to other ideas and we may give you the grant.
“When you look at the formula money for San Benito County, you’re one of the lowest in the state. Even though you have a national park, it’s not like those up north where most of the counties are in national parks and they have what’s called ‘payment in lieu of taxes,’ where they’re not generating any property taxes, so the federal government makes up for them.
“Those payment in lieu of taxes have given those counties more money than San Benito County has. So we’re stuck in that formula unless you get bigger. What you want is grant money that says we want to build a court house, or a library, or something special, and we can’t generate enough revenue locally.”
He said there are two considerations when trying to land grants.
“First, the county needs to think about its revenue base because nobody will give you grants unless you have money in the game,” he said. “When you go to the federal government or private foundations they’re always going to ask how much money are you putting into it if it’s so important to you? You’re going to have to look at whether your revenue base will allow you to have enough skin in the game for all the things you want to do. You don’t ask for enough money in grants.”
Farr then scolded the county, in a not-too-harsh tone: “About 10 years ago, you hired a San Francisco grant writing firm for around $100,000. I think there was not one single grant. They ought to go to jail for that. You don’t need a San Francisco grant-writing company. You have grant writers in this community. I want to help you in any way that I can.”
One area where Farr sees growth potential for San Benito County is its airport.
“A lot of companies want to locate near an airport where they can use their corporate aircraft to have on-time delivery,” he said. “And the word is out with the Super Bowl coming that the fastest way to get your corporate jet landed and get the passengers to Levi Stadium is to land in Hollister. There’s a lot of opportunity here, we just have to make sure the infrastructure is there: the runway is long enough and strong enough. We’ve got about $10 million in grants that you’ve requested to do the paving there and I think it has a great future.”
The first to make a comment was Susan Thompson, representing the board of directors for the Community Food Bank of San Benito County. She thanked Farr for his part in helping pull together a $1.5 million federal grant for a total of $2.1 million to construct a new building.
“In this community we’re feeding over 3,600 people a week from food that comes from our growers here and through the National Feed America Network,” she said. “The work that you’re doing to keep that an issue at the national level is extremely important. We’re hoping there will not be a lot of cuts in that program because we’re still desperately in need.”
Farr explained how he had once been able to earmark money for the food bank, but said the Republicans stopped earmarks because they were being used improperly.
“I think it was right to be more critical about them, but I didn’t think we needed to wipe them out because they do help rural areas,” he said. “After they wiped it out it was fortunately that the money was put into a kind of a lockbox. We didn’t know it in our office until someone wondered if it was still there and if San Benito County could get that money. We found out it could. But don’t sit on it too long. Use it or lose it.”
In a related topic, Farr said the big battle during the effort to pass the health care bill was how to “grow healthier Americans.”
“Our fast food industry has been so successful we’re raising kids that are too big to qualify to go into the military. We have a lot of unhealthy people, so why don’t we just change the way people eat,” he said, then drew attention to his own generous girth. “Yeah, that’s easy, look at me. I talk about it all the time, yet I can’t change the way I eat.
“Change is so difficult. We have to teach kids about the value of nutritional eating. If we go into McDonald's and Chuck E. Cheese and say we’re only going to buy healthy food they’d sell it to you. I don’t have anything against the fast food industry, but on the demand side we haven’t asked that all those things be nutritional. When that happens guess where it’s going to be grown. Here in this state and in this region. We have an incredible, historical agriculture base here and we just have to make the demand for the products that we grow here even greater.”
One town hall attendee made his views clear by stating: “Why can’t the federal government force corporations to label their products with GMOs? If the government wants to show what it’s made of, they need to step up and make sure corporations label their products for what they really are.”
Farr, who was a biology major in college, answered with another civics lesson.
“We have a sugar policy in this country where we guarantee the price of sugar. We only have two ways of supplying natural sugar: sugar beets, grown mostly in Minnesota, and cane sugar in Florida. Every country in the Southern Hemisphere grows sugar cane, so there’s a lot of dumping (on the U.S.), so we had to guarantee a market. We actually help out the Central American and Caribbean nations that if they sell us their cane sugar we’ll guarantee this price.
“The confectionery industry was determined to find a substitute for sugar -- corn syrup. The corn industry loves this, so there is a lot of investment to make sure the fructose and other sugars are being substituted for sugar.”
Fructose does not include GMOs, Farr explained, adding that he believes the public will hear plenty about GMOs during upcoming presidential debates, and that there will be a state-wide initiative.
“No one has shown the FDA or CDC that there’s any correlation between modifying genes of plants and your health care,” he said. “Organic people say this is Frankenstein science and it’s going to have all kinds of effects on the environment. I find it interesting that we have great demand for human embryos and stem cells to try and find ways of curing diseases in the human body. Yet, when we modify plants to make a super tree or super corn we get all concerned with it. We’re a society that says it’s right to do this research and modify humans, but by god don’t do that on the plant side.”
When asked about his views on proposed construction to widen Highway 156 between Hollister and San Juan Bautista, Farr everyone agrees there needs to be more infrastructure, but no one agrees on how to pay for it.
“Half of Congress doesn’t want to raise taxes and the other half says we have to raise the gas taxes,” he said. “The trucking companies support a raise in gas tax. Granite Construction was testifying before the Transportation Committee that it wants to raise it a dollar and they had private sector support for that.
“We don’t have any new money, so we authorized the formula to transfer money to the states until December. You’re not going to build that highway between now and December. I’ll support raising taxes for transportation because we’re investing in ourselves. Government doesn’t pave the roads. The private sector does. It’s a great job stimulator.”
One resident, who lives on 4th street, where the construction will take place, suggested the road should be built off Shore Road and said: “All that property out there is garbage land. Put that four-lane freeway through there, but Caltrans said screw you guys. You guys live in nice residential areas and you don’t hear those trucks.”
Farr said that it looks like the road will move forward, but Caltrans will most likely declare that because of the lack of federal funds coming in it's going to have to move that schedule back until Congress gets its act together.
“Politics is bottom up. It doesn’t come from the federal government,” he said. “We don’t decide how San Benito County or California wants to build highways. There’s got to be a local politicking that supported this choice verses alternatives. I frankly agree, it would be much better to keep that heavy traffic away from Main Street.
The town hall meeting heated up a notch when the topic turned to the homeless shelter. One resident complained that if the shelter is built as planned, 600 homeless people will be walking around an area where there are two schools and there aren’t enough police officers to patrol. He said residents near the planned shelter were not given any notice and that other areas of Hollister were given the opportunity to object to it being placed there.
In answer, Farr warned: “We have to stop ghettoizing people. In California we’re starting inclusionary housing. Each city and county has to recognize what is the stock of housing in their community and what levels of income have that housing. You can’t have the attitude that you’re going to become a fancy town where poor people have to go somewhere else. You have to incorporate in your community housing opportunities for low-income people.”
Then he challenged those objecting to the homeless shelter being in their neighborhood: “How would you feel if these were elderly women? The biggest problem we have on the Monterey peninsula is elderly women living in their cars. That’s unacceptable. What about veterans’ families that might be homeless? Would they be okay?”
Farr said his advice to the community is the same he gives to his own kids.
“Be part of the solution,” he said. “If you can’t stop the building of it, make sure it’s designed to look like it fits in the neighborhood. You can get in with the Department of Social Services and say this is a family community. Put families in here. Set priorities on who can live there.”
The free-wheeling debate turned back to the Iran nuclear deal as one individual questioned why four American citizens being held captive were not part of the negotiations. Farr agreed that it was wrong not to do so, but said there was only one issue at the table—stop the Iranians from building a nuclear bomb.
“It wasn’t about how you treat our prisoners, human rights, or the ayatollah’s politics,” he said. “Do you think Russia and China are worried about our prisoners? No. We have all kinds of other ways of dealing with them. When they start coming into the real world we have much more pressure. I don’t know if we could have made them part of the package because who knows how many Chinese or French or others they have.
“It will be great to watch the debate and I think the president will have to assure Israel that we’re going to have their back. They’re really terrified that Iran is going to cheat. Ronald Reagan said, ‘trust but verify.’ This agreement has no trust. It’s built on total verification. You cheat, we slap you back.”
County Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz returned the conversation back to local issues in asking about possible federal funding of a cultural center in Hollister.
Farr said he doubted if there’s any federal funding available specifically for a cultural center.
“Usually, communities fund them from their tourism tax,” he said and added that he will look into the possibility of available community development grant money. “But you’re going to have to initiate that. There should be some discussions with San Juan Bautista because you have some major attractions here. They want one there and you’re not going to get two, one for them and one for Hollister.
“There’s not enough money or political support. You’ve got to have a buy-in. There’s going to be a new collaborative in politics. I would think that San Benito County is ideal for developing a new vision. It’s going to take newly elected people with fresh ideas who sit down and talk to each other about what it is they need most. Is it a cultural center here or should it be in San Juan Bautista? Maybe they get that and you get something else.”
The final question for the night was on his view of the importance of rural high-speed Internet.
“We’ve got to wire rural America,” Farr said. “I was in the middle of the Serengeti Desert. They don’t have the Internet, but everyone has a cell phone. They don’t have electricity in their homes, but you have children who guard the cattle against lions with a stick and they have a cell phone signal. We don’t even have that in this county. You can’t get a signal in some parts. There’s some money to do that in the Department of Agriculture and I oversee that. You’ve got to ask, though. I can’t get it if you don’t ask.”
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