Truckee utility board boots planning commissioner | SierraSun.com

Truckee utility board boots planning commissioner

Andrew Cristancho
Sierra Sun

Two weeks ago the directors of the Truckee Donner Public Utility District approved a list of about 20 potential members for a new citizen advisory committee on water and electricity conservation.

But the directors dropped from consideration a Truckee planning commissioner whose public comments during last fall’s divisive negotiations over a coal power contract made him a controversial figure among district officials.

The utility board voted 3-1 to reject the application of Bob Johnston, chairman of the Truckee Planning Commission and a professor emeritus of environmental science at UC Davis, who was at the heart of aheated debate over coal versus green energy.

As the debate raged, Johnston was a tough critic of the district’s proposed coal-generated energy contract.

“We can do better than this,” Johnston wrote in a November letter to the editor. “This is no longer a small rural utility that can operate on limited information.”

In public comment, Johnston identified himself as a Truckee town planner, and criticized the board for misrepresenting the cost of the coal deal and concealing details from the public, a view he still holds today.

“I have to say that the board members didn’t know what was going on,” Johnston said in a recent interview.

Johnston’s critical remarks were enough for some on the utility board to question his ability to work with others. During a June 20 board meeting, directors commented that Johnston was hard to work with and not open to compromise.

“I’m concerned with one person on this list,” Director Ron Hemig said at the meeting when reviewing candidates for the advisory panel.

Board President Tim Taylor and Director Joe Aguera joined Hemig in opposing Johnston’s selection, while Director Bill Thomason supported Johnston and Director Pat Sutton was absent.

The executive director of one environmental organization defended Johnston’s vocal opposition to the coal contract.

“As anyone who’s really knowledgeable, he’s got strong opinions,” said Perry Norris of the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

“He’s helped me understand planning issues,” Norris said of Johnston. For his part, Johnston said in an interview that his history with the Truckee planning commission demonstrates that he is a team player.

“I stand on my record at the planning commission, and think I’ve worked successfully with the members there,” Johnston said.

Duane Hall, a planner for the Town of Truckee, said Johnston always comes prepared to meetings and contributes useful knowledge. Yet, Johnston conceded that he can be combative.

“I’ve said some things that are over the top at board meetings … but they are never incorrect,” the retired professor said.

But Director Hemig said its not about his record or his contributions, but about his attitude.

“He’s not the sole reason for [the rejection of the coal contract],” Hemig said in an interview. He maintained that among the hundreds of citizens concerned with last year’s coal debate, Johnston’s net effect in the community discussion was zero.

“If anything, he hurt their position,” Hemig said.

The vice president of the utility board, Pat Sutton, stuck up for Johnston.

“I, of course, would have opposed that action [ousting Johnston] of the board,” Sutton said. “He’s not a pretentious man; he doesn’t throw his weight around.”

Sutton missed the board meeting that ousted Johnston due to an injury she received in a fall.

In keeping with his drive to influence local politics Johnston said that despite the board’s decision he will still attend the conservation committee meetings and will attempt to participate actively.

The purpose of the conservation committee is to recommend to the board of directors a plan for water and power conservation. The board decided to establish the citizen group during last year’s coal debate because of public concerns that the utility district had not done enough to encourage conservation of water and electricity.