There are times when government largess is appropriate. In the midst of a life-threatening pandemic, when millions of Americans are put out of work without warning, programs like the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which distributed $800 billion to nearly a million American businesses, are necessary to keep the economy from falling into an abyss.

It’s what happens in much smaller slivers of government in more normal times that tears at the confidence of taxpayers everywhere, including here on the coast. A thousand dollars here, $10,000 there, and it starts to add up. Consider some recent taxpayer expenses right here:

- Coastside Fire Protection District responded to complaints about the bright outdoor lights at its new El Granada fire station by muting lights on 13 poles. The Midcoast Community Council, which advises the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, says that work was done without necessary approvals and that means the final cost could be even higher than the $40,000 spent so far to dim the lights.

- The San Mateo County Harbor District crowed about saving money on a new headquarters when it paid $3 million for the building at 504 Avenue Alhambra in El Granada. It didn’t mention that it was offered the building for 40 percent less eight years ago, but balked because its property inspector uncovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in necessary repairs. It’s not clear whether those repairs have been completed. Even if they have, it won’t make up for eight years of rent in the interim, nor the fact that the district had already paid $1.3 million for land on which to build a headquarters — land it had previously sold to the fire district for a quarter of what it paid this year.

- Then there is the mother of all ongoing Coastside clusters, the pending Half Moon Bay lawsuit against Montara Water and Sanitary District and the Granada Community Services District over an intertie pipeline for the sewer authority the three agencies jointly run. Eighteen months of mediated negotiations have failed to produce a signed settlement. The Midcoast Community Council, which recently pleaded with the city to make things right, estimates the legal expenses at more than $1 million between the three agencies — and the matter hasn’t even gone to trial.

What do these three local examples have in common? They begin with distrust and acrimony among competing public agencies that sometimes serve the very same citizens.

Collectively, we have been through a lot in the last year and a half. The upside, if you are an optimistic sort, is that we can see our petty concerns for what they are. No one cares about an arcane feud between public agencies when thousands of neighbors are fighting for their lives against a mysterious virus.

Let’s not return to “normal.” Let’s use what we have learned about the big picture to solve costly government feuds and put the resultant savings to good use planning for climate change, educating our children, and building homes taxpayers could better afford if not for government waste.

— Clay Lambert

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(6) comments

John Charles Ullom

Thanks to Clay and his team for doing the work required to obtain the numbers. Especially Ms. Wright who must have done the math.

Investigative reporting at its finest. We need more of it.

Steve Hyman

Clay you are just scratching the surface when it comes to local waste and it’s been going on for decades. Let’s not forget the lawsuits against North Wavecrest, Beachwood, Pacific Ridge, and soon the Gearing Eminent Domain suit. Then there are numerous wasteful spending on the Kelly Ave lot, house on Kelly, the $3 million dollar parking lot, etc.

the problem is really the government mentality that thinks spending more is what we want and that’s what keeps them in power.

Spending money wisely is good. Unfortunately what we continue to see that basic rules of common sense or fiscal responsibility go out the window when it comes to bureaucrats.



Ric Lohman

Clay: Thanks for the article highlighting costs, especially the wasteful HMB lawsuit against the two Northern Districts. The issue I have is that you appear to blame all the agencies for not coming to a mediated agreement. As pointed out in Gregg Dieguez's great articles, there is only one party at fault here, and that's the HMB City Council. The Northern Districts were forced to close their plants 40years ago and form the JPA known as SAM. All costs that were to be shared were specified. HMB now wants to re-nig on that contract after 40 years and have the other Districts subsidize its costs. Why should the Northern Districts agree to that? The HMBCC has issued several letters attempting to blame the Northern Districts for not acceding to their demands. Ask your council what their demands were. They won't tell you, of course. Let's keep the blame where it belongs. The Northern Districts have met their contractual obligations for 40 years and have never paid any obligations under protest.

John Charles Ullom

"...there is only one party at fault here, and that's the HMB City Council." -- Director Ric Lohman

Director Lohman. If you really believe that the Northern Confederation is without blame in this CF, they must be putting something in the water up there.

I have attended a couple of SAM meetings. Shameful and embarrassing behavior by all involved. None of any of them should be in charge of these vital functions. We don't need three water districts and three sewage districts. This is one community.

A pox on all of them. There might be only way for the people who paying for this whizzing contest can stop the people who represent us from whizzing away another million dollars. We need a ballot measure to create a workable water and sewage district.

We are not children Director Lohman. Even though we often behave as though we are. Your screed for example. If you really believe that one side is 100% accountable, I surely hope you are not in charge of anything.

"Ask your council what their demands were. They won't tell you, of course." --Director Ric Lohman

Because they can't and if they did you would be whining about it. What are the demands of your district? Care to share? Of course not. You can't. Right? So, your attempted insult is nothing but hypocrisy on your part. Your argument is insulting to all. Including your side.

By the way, Director Lohman, why are the Montarians afraid to disclose their legal costs to their customers who in fact are paying for this CF? Looks like you were part of that decision Mr. Lohman. Care to share? Of course not!! Your lawyer said no.

And Director Lohman, how the heck is it useful for a member of a board that is part of this litigation to be publishing childish accusations and the implied assertions. Do you really think your words accomplished anything other than blowing hard? Do you really believe that your side is pristine and without sin in this matter?

The waste generated by the Northern Confederation smells the same as that generated by the Fiefdom of Half Moon Bay. And it all flows into the same ocean.

Time to grow up.


“… there is only one party at fault here, and that's the HMB City Council.” Caught my eye, too.

I can’t help but wonder - how many of the same elected are still representing their respective bodies since this whole mess started? We’re talking over decades here. Perhaps that is the problem.

Blame games, with public money no less, are costly and hurtful in numerous ways.

Perhaps there is a solution: “Compromise”; an agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.

We could have so many things that truly benefit our community if we (and it seems like every other government agency including Congress) tried as hard to compromise as we do to fight - things like free internet access on the coastside, to name one, would be sweet.

I know what I’d rather have.

Thanks, Clay.

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