The Union roundtable: Bruce Conklin |

The Union roundtable: Bruce Conklin

The Union photo/John HartBruce Conklin
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Start us off with a little background – who is Bruce Conklin?

My family lived in the same vicinity for about 300 years, in the Hudson River Valley. When I was a kid there were over 200 farms in our county and today there are two. The county, Rocklin County, was swallowed by the New York City area, growth . . . . When I was a kid, one of our cousins had the Conklin family farm, and it was the oldest continuously existing family farm outlet in the continental United States. My mother’s side of the family went to Canada during the Revolution, but my father’s side stayed.

People don’t realize that the Hudson River Valley was really settled in a feudal fashion by the Dutch. If a wealthy Dutch person could bring X number of families with them, they would get a grant from the king for so many thousand acres, and that’s why you see huge estates next to the Hudson River Valley and lots of poorer folks out in the poorer soil.

I had that sense of history growing up, a sense of anti-colonialism, because of the American Revolution. We also had a sense of being hemmed in by the feudal background, and that’s one of the reasons I’m attracted to being in California. And in particular Nevada County ” looks just like Rocklin County in New York. So I love it here.

I went to public schools; we had a good public school system in those days. And my parents retired to Florida, and settled in Palm Beach County. And during that period Palm Beach County became the fastest growing county east of the Mississippi. So I kind of got a double whammy of seeing what rapid population growth can do to an area. I also experienced the Palm Beach County chads – my first election, the first time I voted I was 19 ” and they hadn’t changed the system since then. It was bad then and I think it still is.

I went to college – at first I received a congressional appointment to the Merchant Marine Academy, but I became ill so I dropped out. I came back to my hometown and went to community college, and went to senior college, then went to graduate school at San Jose State for a master’s in psychology. I have a community college teaching credential in psychology.

So that’s what brought you out to California, then?

Yes – and when you come to California you never want to go back there. The job market was not very good for people with a master’s degree in those days, so I went to work for my brother. He had a tree-planting, reforestation business in Montana, and I did that for awhile. I ended up starting my own business and did that for approximately 25 years. I traveled all the way from Georgia to the Northwest planting trees wherever there had been forest fires or clear cuts. Planted millions of trees ” between one and two million myself with my own hands, and taught many other people how to do it.

How many employees did you have, at your peak?

Seasonally, a peak of maybe 30.

What years would that have encompassed?

The years that I was in business were from 1975 on, and I’ve actually continued doing some forestry-related work, even while I was on the Board of Supervisors in the years 2000 and 2001.

What brought you to Nevada County?

The first time I came here was to plant trees, that was in 1977, and I met a number of folks then and was very impressed with the community. When I was in a position to purchase a home, I visited Nevada County and found a property, believe it or not, a house for $25,000. No regrets about that. That was in the city of Grass Valley in 1980, and I’ve lived in the third district all of that time since then, 24 years.

I visited communities from central Oregon south to the Bay Area, and many of them are very nice places, high quality of life, but when I came here this was the best. And at that time the housing was affordable – that was a big consideration for me.

And since then?

I brought my business with me when I came here, so I continued in business until, when I was 48 years old, I decided to go back to school. The degree in psychology was never anything very practical, so I went to law school, and was admitted to the McGeorge School of Law [at University of the Pacific] in 1993, graduated in 1996, became a member of the bar the same year. And I thought that that might be a more practical thing for me as I got older.

And have you practiced law?

No (laughter). But the education was terrific.

How did you get into politics?

Probably one of the first things I did when I arrived here was I saw a notice in the local newspaper – The Union ” about a small group called People for a Nuclear Free Future who were meeting in 1980. I went down and observed their meeting, got to know the folks, and I guess I’ve been involved ever since, with one thing and another.

You’ve been a member of the Board of Supervisors . . .

Yes, for 4 years.

Before that, were you in any elected or public position?

I had not held any elected position before that. I was elected in June 1998 and took office in January 1999.

Interesting that you were elected as a political newcomer.

As a matter of fact, in that election I ran against two incumbents, I like to say, because there was the incumbent member of the Board of Supervisors, Mrs. [Fran] Grattan, and there was also an incumbent City Council person and that’s Mr. (Gerard) Tassone. They were both in the race against me and I received 51.4 percentage of the vote in the primary, so I became supervisor the next year. I was chairman of the board in the year 2000, and I left the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2002.

That was a tough election; you lost by 19 votes.

It’s always tough when you lose.

Having been a supervisor in a very volatile era, what are the things you’re proudest of from your tenure?

There are two prongs, and the first is environmental. People in Nevada County care very much about the direction of growth. And it’s the reason I’m running this time – it’s because I can’t sit back and see us go headlong toward what I see is a looming disaster. I don’t see other candidates who are willing to take the problem on head-on. We need better planning; we need to look at the big picture and the details at the same time. So environmental issues are one.

The other is better administration. When I was on the Board of Supervisors, we were committed to creating an intelligent and well-trained administrative center for the county that had tremendous results in solving problems – like the airport problem when the FAA had decertified us and we were going to lose the right to use the airport. Like the financial problems – we brought the county from a bond rating of C to triple A, refinanced county debt and saved $20 million in interest.

When I first came on the board there were 19 bargaining units of employees and we had one year contracts with each unit. The board could spend almost all of its time just on labor negotiations at that time. The current board hasn’t spent any time on labor negotiations because we consolidated the bargaining units into a smaller number and we insisted on multi-year contracts. Which was good for everyone.

How many bargaining units are there now?

I think there are nine. And the overwhelming thing that people pay attention to is what’s happening with growth and traffic. They know that I may be more environmentally inclined that the average person, and they think that’s not a bad thing. Because they care about their community, they care about clean air.

I was the only county supervisor in the state to testify before the Legislature on bringing Smog Check II levels of enforcement to the Bay Area, and the Bay Area was the only urban area in the state that was exempt from that. At the same time, when I was chair of the Air Quality District, we actually had to sue the State of California to enforce the existing law regarding Smog II in the Bay Area. Now the Bay Area may only contribute 15 to 20 percent of our ozone, but that’s progress that we can do that.

We need a county supervisor that can have an affect in the county as well as statewide, and I think I’m the only candidate that can do that. It’s very significant that I have the experience on the board because it is an unusual term – it’s a two-year term and not a four-year term. Everyone that I know who has been on the board says it takes at least a year just to figure out how to become a county supervisor. So I’ll have a full two years knowing what I’m doing, and the other candidates would not.

Let me ask you the flip side of that coin. The years you were supervisor saw the county conflict over the Natural Heritage 2020 project. Do you feel that hurt you in your re-election bid?

When you lose by 19 votes, it could be anything; any small thing or any large thing. It became a large thing in people’s minds. Many other rural counties did open space and resource planning with zero input from the public and zero controversy. What created the controversy was the openness, the very openness of the board toward getting public input. And what I saw happen was that a very small number of people tried to intimidate others and prevent them from being in meetings ” physically threatened them and pushed them around. And once that happened I felt there was absolutely no going back.

You should never close down a public meeting or public process because citizens are being threatened. That’s a complete threat to democracy. No matter what you think about open space planning or planning in general or resources or if you’re an anti-environmentalist, it doesn’t matter, you still should support the right of people to peacefully gather and talk about community planning and community problems.

How do you feel about the eventual outcome, the decision that was made to accept the report but then put it on the shelf, so to speak?

The grand jury said it all. They said that the county really can’t put it on the shelf. They can’t ignore knowledge – ignorance is not a defense here. The grand jury said it would be a waste of money, and they’re right.

So in your opinion the report should be used in planning?

It is being used. All of the data – well, not all of it, but most of it – was pre-existing data that was brought together in a format that could be used layer upon layer through a global information system. And some of it was ground checked, which had not been previously done. And I think that was a good thing, because the federal government or the state government might make decisions based on data that hadn’t been ground checked and it was up to the county to ground check it. So I think it was a very good thing.

I have to say that even the most vocal critic of it ” who was Mr. [Drew] Bedwell, who defeated me ” after the election said, “Oh, there are a lot of good things in this report.” So I feel that it is no longer an issue, that the whole community – particularly the grand jury who are very independent and have come to a nonpartisan conclusion – have found that it’s a useful tool.

Did you feel that NH2020 became more of a symbol of a philosophical or political conflict within the county, above and beyond its actual use as a benchmark?

Yes, as a manufactured symbol.

Is that rearing itself in this election?


The Union editorialized about the appearance of conflict of interest “at the eleventh hour the board giving grant money to the Nevada County Land Trust, which then after you were out of office hiring you to manage those funds to restore the North Star House. Is this an issue in the campaign?

First of all, the characterization of it being eleventh hour – many decisions by the Board of Supervisors get postponed because you deal with the things that you have to deal with as they come up. This money had been left to the county and had been hung up in the courts for about two years. We knew it was coming, and then when it came we decided not to decide for awhile, because there was no emergency, no reason to decide.

But certainly a lot of people were talking about it, thinking about it, drawing up different plans for it. And it took quite awhile to achieve consensus on where the money was to go. It became clear that a fiscal crisis was looming, the county planning department was being cut back, and we were in danger of losing our recreation planning. We were not in a position to do the planning or work with that money that was necessary to acquire parks and open space, which is what everyone wanted.

So we contracted with the Land Trust. There was absolutely no sense of a deal or anything that would influence my vote, because I had been working to save the North Star House, the Loma Rica Ranch, and create parks and recreation districts the whole time I was on the board, long before this money came into play.

It is partly my passion for those things that influenced the Land Trust to know that I should be considered a serious candidate as a person who could implement it. But the idea that the Land Trust could obtain a political advantage by hiring an ex-supervisor from the losing party is kind of backwards. Because if anything, it was very brave of them to go out on a limb and hire me because they thought I was the most qualified person in spite of my political background.

Talk about the North Star House a little bit. There is some controversy over whether the trust is restoring it properly.

The Land Trust has made very good decisions regarding the house. They set up a committee. There are two architects on the committee that guided the restoration ” or I should say repair work ” that has been done so far. The disagreement basically comes down to a couple of people who feel that the very early work that was done should have been purer to the original house. On the other hand, the Land Trust feels they acquired a house that was in danger of falling down. The roof was gone, the windows were gone, the doors were gone, and it was constantly being vandalized when they got it. It was in an emergency condition.

They got it in August of last year and set a goal of getting a roof on it before the next winter and getting it protected from the elements. They succeeded in all of those things. They’ve been criticized because they didn’t use wood shingles on the roof. Well, we all know that wood shingles are very flammable. But the Office of Historic Preservation says that you could use any kind of roof that had been on that building for a historically significant period of time – it doesn’t have to be the original roof. And the North Star House had three previous roofs. The second roof was a cementatious tile, and that’s what we installed, a cementatious tile. Now, it is different from the ones that were on there before because those had asbestos in them and obviously you can’t do that. But the architects selected a tile that will last 50 years, completely fire resistant, and it’s designed to resemble a wood shingle or shake.

So they felt that was the best product to put on the roof. And I agree with them ” they made a terrific decision and have managed the program. The bottom line for anyone who wants to see the project, it’s open on the first and third Saturday of every month, and you get a historic tour with that, and it’s free.

We have a huge number of volunteers out there – I’m one of them. I’m usually there on Saturday mornings, with my chain saw and stuff and helping to clear and clean up the property as much as possible. I’m very proud of the volunteer program, as well as the professional work.

Do you envision a point in the future when that home will be restored to its former glory, and how long might that take?

Next year, 2005, is the hundredth anniversary of the house. So we’re hoping there will be a lot of publicity and events there to celebrate that hundredth anniversary because it is a very significant piece of architecture in our county. It will take another year beyond that to raise the funds and probably two years of construction. So by the end of 2008 I would certainly like to see it occupied. But there are four historic buildings on the property, although each building will be treated differently.

The North Star House is a pretty special place, it’s one of Julia Morgan’s earliest designs. She did it in the first year after she was licensed as California’s first woman architect. And it’s a work of art in itself. That’s why you have people in the community who say it should be done exactly as Julia Morgan would, and boy, we would love to. But given that materials change over time and fire danger changes over time, we couldn’t.

The original owners of the house had two monitors, you know, those things you shoot water with? One on each side of the house, aimed at the house all the time. And they lived there all the time. If there was a fire, they could go out there and shoot this water. We don’t have that. We don’t have anything near that kind of water pressure or supply or people available.

We have some questions from The Union’s Reader Circle. Here is one: “Locally and nationally it seems the democratic process is carried out in group form than by individuals. Activists on both sides run campaigns, attend government meetings and influence officials. What of the average too-busy voter? How will you reach out to them?”

I walk door to door in my campaigns, and this is now the fourth time of walking door to door. And I don’t look down at my feet to see whether I’m putting left before right or right before left. I just try to walk with balance and listen. I feel like my training, first in psychology and then also in law school, is in listening. You’ve got to listen to people. And your reader is correct that the majority of the people need to be heard, but it’s up to the representative to go out and find them sometimes, and I’m willing to do that. Because after you’ve walked door to door four times, you start to know where people live who are concerned about this issue and who might be concerned about that issue, and I’ve been very responsive to that.

The first time I ran for office one of the biggest complaints I heard over and over was about leaf burning. If you burn properly, you don’t create a lot of smoke, but if you don’t burn properly you do create a lot of smoke. We have air quality problems already, and over 18 percent of our preschool children have asthma in this county already. And so we can’t afford on top of the ozone problem to add smoke.

I responded during my time on the Board of Supervisors by rewriting the smoke control ordinances. And my opponent made fun of the ordinance, but it worked. That was the bottom line. We’ve had a dramatic drop in the number of smoke-related complaints in the last few years. In going door to door this year, I haven’t had one smoke-related complaint; not one person say that they’re having a problem in their neighborhood.

So here’s a greater awareness.

I think awareness was the key because it’s not . . . most Americans want to obey the law and want to do right by their neighbor. But you sometimes have to raise awareness. And just the process of passing this ordinance and getting the publicity about it raised awareness. Plus on top of that we did work for a green waste pickup program. When I was on the board, we did the first demonstration projects in Grass Valley, got some green waste pickup programs going. Now we even have it in the county, and that’s helping a lot.

You mentioned traffic and growth issues. Here’s a reader question related to the four major housing developments seeking to be annexed to Grass Valley: “How do you plan to mitigate the resulted unavoidable problems that will create traffic chaos on highways 49 and 174?”

The proposed annexations to Grass Valley have not been approved, and we are going to have a new majority at the City Council this fall, no matter how the election or non-election shapes up. There will be a new majority. It will be up to them to determine what goes into the City of Grass Valley and what mitigations are determined.

I feel that for the city to annex all four of the areas is inappropriate. I think they need to annex very, very carefully and very conservatively. They need to annex only as there is a need for the annexation. However, those decisions will be made by the five people on the City Council, and as the supervisor representing the Grass Valley area my pledge is not to tell them what to do – because they are very independent people – but to work closely with them, to try to mitigate whatever effects their decisions have.

Another reader question: “Methamphetamine use is probably the single largest problem for law enforcement in Nevada County. What ideas do you have to address this problem?”

It’s a serious problem. It’s a problem for the users, a problem for their children and a problem for their neighbors. It affects the whole neighborhood. The big answer – the long-term answer – is prevention. And I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish on the Board of supervisors in the area of prevention. I was the first chairperson of First 5 Nevada County, which is designed to enhance the early childhood period from zero to 5. And we developed the behavioral health intervention program, where we sent county behavioral health people to special training for dealing with young children.

Most people think, oh, young children can’t be mentally ill, but the seeds of future mental illness may be sown in those periods. So when we had a child care worker or parent or neighbor who found the young child had disturbing behavior, they could call on these specially trained county workers – and this is in place today ” who will come out and talk about some simple changes in the environment or in the way that person can respond to the young child that will make a difference and hopefully it’s a lasting difference.

But I can get excited about prevention because we also have an asthma prevention program for young children. We also developed the best program for a rural county to encourage people to go into early childhood education and early childhood development – it’s called the educators’ support program – and I believe we helped the vast majority of people who are in early childhood to enhance their skills through continuing education. We paid their health benefits while they were in this program. Nevada County – because of some of the work that I and others, particularly Superintendent of Schools [Terry] McAteer – created a model that’s been followed in many other counties.

Here’s a good question: “If there was one thing you hoped to change about the current Board of Supervisors, what would it be?”

Calm down. When I was on the board, I was the chairperson in the year 2000. At our first meeting that I was the chair, I invited back every living former supervisor – and I think we got the majority of them – and we took photographs, had cake together, and we talked together and we listened to some of their stories and experiences.

One of the former supervisors said she was so surprised to get my note because she had never been back to a county building since she was county supervisor. And I thought to myself, wow, what a waste of talent. These people spend years learning about county programs and then they’re not elected, they’re just out there. And I guess my critics could say that’s all just symbolism, but I think it’s the right symbolism, and I would love to see us bring back some of those experienced people and make sure they serve on advisory committees and things like that.

During the same year I also did another thing that my critics say was all symbolism, and that was to write a civility policy for the county and a declaration that we would have one month every year that was symbolically called civility month. I just wanted to remind people that we need to be civil, and we need to return to that. We are going to reach better decisions when we are civil with each other, as members of the board, and also when the board is civil with members of the public.

This reader talks about how we live in a powder keg, and asks, “The Nevada County Fire Plan was just submitted to the Board of Supervisors. Of all the recommendations contained in the plan, please identify five recommendations you would support for immediate implementation.”

The educational component certainly could be acted on right away. But many of the other suggestions require staff. And I have to work with the other supervisors to find out where we’re going to get the money to pay the staff. But I think what jumped out at me about the fire plan is what it doesn’t say. The one topic that is just glaring in its omission is any discussion of building materials.

We adopted a uniform building code, and it’s possible to go beyond the building code and be stricter. The uniform building code only calls for exterior materials that are five-minute resistant to fire. That’s not enough. We need one-hour resistant materials, and it doesn’t have to add to the cost of a home. I just recently put cement siding on my house – it’s beautiful, it requires less maintenance than wood siding, and it’s one-hour resistant instead of five-minute resistant. If new homes were built with one-hour resistant materials, it would give our fire fighters a lot more leeway in how to approach saving homes. It would mean saving homes and ultimately probably saving lives. But there’s no mention of it.


Because the board of directors of the Nevada County Contractors’ Association decided they didn’t want any discussion of a change in materials.

And they had enough influence to do that?

Absolutely. When I was on the board, they prevented it from even being talked about at the board level.

Is there anything you can do to raise that issue?

I’m doing it right now, raising the issue. People need an understanding of building materials. We talk all the time about defensible space – we never talk about building materials. It’s a taboo. But there are studies out there that show the importance of it – and I’m not saying that there is one thing you can do that’s going to solve this problem. Because if we have a bad enough fire, all of our preparations are, well, it would be difficult. But it certainly could be a huge part of the mix.

A District 3 resident says: “What can the supervisors do to increase the safety nets available to the seniors? One nonprofit agency providing services has already failed and others are on the verge of closing their doors. Do you think the supervisors should do anything to improve the situation? More importantly, can they do anything?”

Absolutely. I was our county’s representative to the Area 4 Agency on Aging – it’s a seven-county agency. During the years I was there, I made a huge difference in our representation to make sure we got the benefits that were coming.

I wanted to say something about the nonprofits because I was sort of the nonprofits ombudsman when I was on the Board of Supervisors. When we had a budget crisis – there was a danger that the budget was not going to be signed and wasn’t signed on time – that blocked state monies from going to nonprofits. I came up with a plan and got my fellow supervisors to endorse the plan by which the county would take monies out of reserves and loan them to nonprofits temporarily, only in the case where there was zero risk because we knew the money was actually coming eventually.

In other counties they tried to adopt our plan or did adopt our plan. Fortunately the budget crisis ended fairly soon. But we made sure that there was a continuity of care. This made a huge difference to some of our nonprofits. One of them was the Lutz Center, which was already in financial difficulty at that time, and the director there told me they couldn’t stand even a one-month loss in cash flow. So we made sure that that was available to them, and gave them the security of a safety net. And it cost the county nothing to do that. Because the county treasury does have money in it that is ultimately earmarked for other purposes, but for the short term that was absolutely the best use of that money.

There may be many areas in county government where creative thinking like this could be worthwhile.

Absolutely. The Nevada County Housing Development Corporation – the people behind the Manzanita House, and Penn Valley Gardens – came to me and said we have a problem, our lender wants to be first in line. I had taken real estate lending law in law school and I knew exactly what needed to be done. The county as the signatory for the lending for the purchase money was first in line. So all that it took was a subrogation agreement.

So I said, I’ll just go to the Board of supervisors and we’ll do this. The others loved it, we did it, and didn’t put county money at risk, and the project went forward. I could point to many examples like that — the Habitat for Humanity had a bureaucratic snafu and they couldn’t figure out a way to get around it. They called me and so I figured out a way to satisfy all the bureaucratic needs and at the same time move the project forward.

How important do you feel it is that the board, in order to move the county forward, has to have some sort of collaborative glue ” that has them on the same page?

Conflict at the board is not a bad thing, because there are many conflicting opinions out amongst the population. Within any given individual there are conflicting opinions, from day to day. But those need to be worked out in a peaceful way. And that’s what I think I can bring to the board.

Are there things we haven’t talked about that you want to mention?

We need to come full circle and talk about growth. We need candidates who are willing to confront the issue straight on. We have explosive, rapid population growth – but there are different ways to grow. And I would like to see our county growing as a community, growing young people who care about our community and who have better skills of survival, and growing the older generation who will continue working as volunteers even after they’re retired.

Those are ways we grow as a people, as opposed to the exclusive use of the word growth by those who want to see rapid population growth. Rapid population growth can take away our sense of community, our sense of safety and independence and rugged individualism that we cherish. Also, if the growth is too rapid it can bring us crime, pollution, and bring us things we don’t want ” traffic jams of course. So we need to confront those problems head on and we need a candidate who is willing to do that.

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