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Keep big money out of local politics
Elaine de Man | Dec 17, 2021 on: Walt Ranch


Pedroza election contributions since 2016

Democracy dies when the voice of the people is drowned out by big money. Unfortunately, that is what is happening here in Napa County.

At the Dec. 14 Board of Supervisors’ meeting, hundreds of concerned citizens showed up to protest Craig and Kathryn Hall’s Walt Ranch, a project that will convert 316 acres of forest and woodland into 209 acres of vines with an estimated loss of 14,000 trees.

Testimony from the Center for Biological Diversity and members of the community, aged 9 to 95, was compelling. No one spoke on behalf of the Hall’s project with the exception of individuals employed by the Hall’s. Nevertheless, and despite the heart-wrenching pleas of the people who will be impacted by this decision, the Hall’s prevailed by a vote of 3-2.

The three supervisors who voted in favor of the Hall’s unpopular project (Supervisors Pedroza, Gregory, and Ramos) are also the recipients of large campaign contributions from Craig & Kathryn Hall and Hall Wines. (Supervisors Diane Dillon and Brad Wagenknecht, the two “no” votes, have not received any contributions from the Halls.)
The Halls have been especially generous with Board Chair Alfredo Pedroza who has received at least $42,300 from them since 2015: $7,300 in 2015, $5,000 in 2016; $5,000 in 2017; $10,000 in 2018; and $15,000 in 2019. (Not to mention invitations to lavish parties and who knows what else.) That makes the Halls the single biggest source of funding for Pedroza’s political aspirations. Is it any wonder that he continues to vote to support their plans despite concerns of independent scientists and community members?

The Halls have also made sizable campaign contributions to Supervisors Ryan Gregory ($10,000) and Belia Ramos (at least $2,000). Added together, this represents an investment of $54,300 that the Hall’s, who reside in Texas, have made in our local decision-makers. (There is also a recent $17,500 donation to our State Senator Bill Dodd.)

And it doesn’t stop there. Looking to the future, the Halls are also the single biggest contributors to St. Helena City Council Member Anna Chouteau’s campaign to replace Diane Dillon as District 3 Supervisor. (Incidentally, Chouteau’s husband, Matt Mumford, is the VP of Acquisitions for Hall Wines.)

An alarming twist in the Walt Ranch proposal was the Hall’s threat to plant half as many trees as mitigation if any challenge is filed against an addendum to their Environmental Impact Report: “…..the applicant is proposing to reduce the number of trees to be planted from 33,580 to 16,790 trees in the event the County’s decision to approve the revised GHG mitigation is appealed or challenged in court.”

Aside from making them look like a bunch of bullies, this poison pill and the County’s acquiescence to exchange responsible environmental mitigation for silence is unconscionable, undemocratic, and quite possibly unlawful.

The obvious need for more rigorous campaign finance reform is a subject for another day. But, given how closely Pedroza’s political ambitions are aligned with the Halls, Pedroza should have recused himself from this discussion and decision. But that didn’t happen. Instead, he disclosed that he had “met” with Hall Wines President Mike Reynolds, (as had all the other supervisors). What transpired at that meeting was not revealed.

As the scientists from the Center for Biological Diversity pointed out, there were many things wrong with the Walt Ranch proposal, and it holds negative consequences for all of us.

Among other things, it deserved more time for scientific studies based on current conditions. For example:

• We are in the midst of an unprecedented drought. Yet the Walt approval relies on water availability data from 2009! It would have been prudent to get more recent data before approving this project.

• We don’t know how many Walt Ranch trees were actually killed by the 2017 and 2020 fires. Let’s not count them as dead, already, when they are in the process of recovering. And we need a science-based analysis of the carbon cost of cutting down those that survived.

• We should be wary of “fake” mitigation. Planting a seedling does not make up for cutting down a mature tree. It will take more than 50 years for any seedlings that survive to meaningfully contribute to the carbon sequestration process. We don’t have that kind of time.

And finally, let’s restore some semblance of local democracy here in Napa County. Alfredo Pedroza should have recused himself from a clear conflict of interest. The voices of hundreds of residents who will have to live with the consequences of this project every day should have held more sway than money from a wealthy couple in Texas.

Until we can get the influence of big money out of local politics, we are doomed to decisions being made on behalf of those with the deepest pockets, and not on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent. That is not how democracy is supposed to work.

Elaine de Man

NVR version 12/19/21: Keep big money out of local politics
Sharon Macklin LTE 12/26/21: Support campaign contribution limits