By Inga Barks
It all started when I caught sight of a billboard asking me to make a difference. I'd heard and seen the commercials by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District about cleaning our air. I'd also heard warnings that the valley will continue to face steep federal fines if we don't curb our greenhouse emissions.
It's not the first time we've heard this plea from our air board. In 2010 it asked parents NOT to drive children to school so as to avoid a big spike in greenhouse gas emissions during that period. This was followed by a first-of-its-kind vote by the board to raise vehicle registration fees by $12 for valley car owners to pay the $29 million annual federal fine we must pay for at least three years.
But let's get back to the billboards. One features Kern County Supervisor Ray Watson, an air board member, smiling and saying, "Make 1 difference. Carpool" while another says, "Make 1 difference. Walk."
Now I like Watson. He's a good man. And I'm sure when he recorded those commercials, voted to raise taxes and smiled for that billboard, he sincerely believed he was helping those he represents: Poor people who need their old, polluting car to get to work, middle class moms who drive their children to school in an era of neighborhood registered sex offenders, and those of us who prefer a cool car to hoofing it in the Bakersfield heat.
As I read those two billboards, I had to know: Does Watson walk to work? I had this image of him calling his fellow supes yelling, "Step it up, Scrivner! I don't want to idle this engine more than necessary," or "Hey Goh, tomorrow let's break out your tandem bike!"
But just to make sure, I called each member of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District board and asked.
Of the 12, I heard back from seven, or their spokesperson. None, not ONE, rides a bike, carpools or even takes a bus to work, except for Stockton Mayor Ann Johnston, who recently participated in a ride-a-bike-to-work day! One whole day!
The spokesperson for Kings County Supervisor Tony Barba explained that his age prevents him from walking or bike riding. The secretary for Ceres Mayor Chris Vierra and spokesperson for Tulare County Supervisor Steve Worthley said they live too far away to ride a bike or walk. Fresno Supervisor Judy Case explained to me that the ads and billboards are about changing people's state of mind.
That's why taxpayers bought her a hybrid car, which gets 54 miles to the gallon so she can travel around the county and to air board meetings. The car has more than 130,000 miles on it. That's 130K in gas emissions.
San Joaquin County Supervisor Leroy Ornellas, I was told, carpooled to Sacramento once, but otherwise it is more convenient for him to drive to work. And my favorite conversation was with Watson (did I mention how much I like him personally?). His answers were classic: When I come to work, if someone is also going in, I would be thrilled to carpool.
He said the reason for the billboards and commercials is the $29 million fine from the federal government, which we're stuck with for three years but can get lifted if we stay under a federal ozone standard the rest of this year and the next two years.
He said the San Joaquin Valley air district is trying to save jobs because the feds will fine businesses if we fail the standard. When I told Watson that my spare car is a gas-guzzling '72 Chevy that I would have to drive if something happened to my Jeep, he said, "You're one of the people who are the reason we pay $29 million and lose jobs."
Here's the deal: I don't care what anyone drives. I celebrate your bike and bus riding and carpooling. Most of us drive what we drive because it's what we have. And like many on the valley air board, we drive where we drive because we need to.
We don't carpool because it is not convenient. We don't take buses or ride bikes because of our age or the heat or just the plain reality of our schedules. Probably most of us don't have a taxpayer-funded car or a government reimbursed gas allowance. And I bet most of us, if asked, would rather have representatives who fight for us AGAINST over-burdensome regulations and fines, than fight FOR government with taxes and billboards, against the people they serve. Especially when they themselves don't do for the air what they call on us to do.
-- Inga Barks, who hosts a talk show on KMJ AM 580, is one of three community columnists whose work appears here every Saturday. These are Barks' opinions, not necessarily The Californian's. Next week: Ric Llewellyn.