By Royal Calkins
Maybe I’m just becoming too suspicious in my old age.
When I heard that Keith Vandevere was leaving the Monterey County Planning Commission, after 14 years of service, my first thought was that it was a big loss for county government and the environment and my second thought, which formed a short moment after the first, was that he was a victim of politics, the bad kind.
I heard about his resignation from District 5 Supervisor Mary Adams, who said he was leaving because his role on the commission conflicted with his day job as a hearing officer, principally for matters involving the county Behavioral Health Department and Superior Court.
I figured that Supervisor John Phillips was behind this. He used to be a judge and he’s much closer to the developers than he is to the folks who worry about development. He also seems to have power enough to get a lawyer to cook up a conflict.
“Hey, Tony. Here’s how we get rid of that Vandevere guy,” I imagined Phillips saying to someone.
Or maybe it was Charles McKee. While he was county counsel, the top lawyer heading a staff of county lawyers, McKee was likely the most powerful county employee. And now that he has been promoted to county administrator, the top position, there’s no question that he’s in charge.
What would his motive be? Well, he can count to three, the three supervisors on the five-member Board of Supervisors who tend to put their votes where the money is, especially when it’s a Peninsula issue. With Cal Am Water’s desalination proposal very much in the news lately, Adams and the other Peninsula-based supervisor, Jane Parker, voted against the venture, well representing the prevailing view of their constituency, while Phillips led the Salinas Valley supervisors to vote yes. At the Planning Commission level, Vandevere had been a strong no. (If anyone out there truly understands how Big Ag feels about the desal plan, please lemme know.)
So, yeah, I figured. Phillips and McKee figured out a way to eliminate a squeaky wheel, a planning commissioner who does his homework and votes the logical way rather than the way he is supposed to. Vandevere has carried a heavy burden on the commission, following the public service traditions of his father Jud and mother Joyce, longtime Peninsula activists.
But then I talked to Keith. My conspiracy bubble burst.
“No, it was nothing like that,” he said via email on Wednesday. He explained that his working hours are simply conflicting too often with Planning Commission meetings. And, he went on, there could be conflicts of interest when he’s hearing matters related to the Superior Court. Planning decisions often end up in court. But, he said, “No one suggested” there was a conflict.
I had noticed that Vandevere, 60, was absent when the commission voted last week in favor of expanding and reopening the Paraiso Hot Springs resort in the hills above Greenfield, a move that clashes with several elements of the county general plan, which governs county planning decisions except when there is serious money to be made. The commission vote was unanimous. I suspect it would not have been if Vandevere hadn’t been busy working, which wouldn’t have mattered. Which also could explain his thinking.
I should have asked Vandevere if his decision had anything to do with the perception that development interests are essentially running the county planning operation but I could tell he was busy and didn’t have time for what might have become a long conversation.
By the way, Vandevere was first appointed to the commission by then-Supervisor Dave Potter, now mayor of Carmel. Potter mostly stood on the enviro side of the divide back then.
Planning Commissioner Martha Diehl, the commission’s other chief protector of the environment, also had little time to talk about it Wednesday. Of Vandevere’s departure, all she had to say, via text, was, “I’m sad.”
The good news is that Supervisor Adams gets to appoint Vandevere’s replacement for a term that expires in 2021. The appointee has to live in Supervisorial District 5, which takes in most of Monterey, Pacific Grove, Carmel, Carmel Valley, a slice of the Highway 68 corridor and Big Sur.
Her office can be reached at 755-5055 and 647-7755 or at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have something to say about this story? Send us a letter or leave a comment below.