The Union roundtable: John Spencer
Tell us about your background and how you got involved in politics.
I was born and raised in Long Beach – southern California – and after graduating high school enrolled in Long Beach City College and was pursuing an architecture degree, and then got drafted into the army and served in Vietnam. When I came back, I started my family, went back to school a little bit.
But before I left for Vietnam, I got a job at the city of Long Beach engineering department in land surveying. So when I came back I went back to work for the city of Long Beach. I was involved in the major downtown redevelopment of the shoreline – we did all of the surveying for that work and also for moving the Queen Mary around to its final resting place. And then I took a job running the survey section of the Long Beach Water Department.
In 1976 we came to Grass Valley – my young family and I – to visit a friend and we fell in love with the place. We decided to look for housing here while we were visiting. We ended up buying a new house on 10 acres, with the thought that maybe one of these days in the future we would possibly move to Grass Valley.
Well, it took about one year of owning this house here, and continuing to work in Long Beach, for us to decide this is it, we have to leave. I was concerned with the possibility of being killed, working out in the city streets in downtown Long Beach. And there were other things – our kids were small and we thought that if we were going to make a move, that was the time to do it.
So we moved to Grass Valley and I had no job to come to. I looked around for work and, of course, at that point I had worked for the city of Long Beach for 10 years so I was a city employee. So I went and applied at the county – Nevada County – for a job and was hired in 1977, working for the Department of Transportation. During that time – the seven years I worked for the Department of Transportation – I worked in the land use section where I was part of the parcel map review committee, and reviewing and approving land divisions, commercial developments and all those things that had to do with the General Plan and the zoning ordinance and regulatory powers.
So in 1984 I decided that in having a land surveyor’s license that I was going to leave employment with the county and start a business for myself, because I thought I could do a pretty good job representing the people that came in front of the county to get things done. So I started my business in 1984 and have been doing it ever since.
So for the last 20 years I have represented clients, working with the county government in land divisions, lot line adjustments, commercial developments, minor divisions, major land divisions, subdivisions, those types of things.
What’s the name of your company?
Spencer Land Surveying. During the time that, I was doing that I got active with the Grass Valley Chamber of Commerce – and that started back around 1994, I think – to get involved with the community. I worked on the Ambassadors Committee, and later ran for the board of the Grass Valley Chamber and was elected to the board, and I also served one year as chairman of the board.
I also got involved in the update of the 1995 General Plan, and attended many of those meetings where they took, oh gosh, three years or so, four years, to review and come up with a new General Plan. And then after that they started to review and update the Nevada County zoning ordinances.
Because I was heavily involved in the community at that time, I wanted to get involved in that process, and I was one of 12 members of the zoning ordinance update committee, where we worked for approximately two years, starting with a skeleton zoning ordinance, and we tried to get a zoning ordinance that would work for Nevada County and be less cumbersome than the one we had been using previously.
So I was heavily involved in that process, and once we finished our work then, of course, the zoning ordinance update went before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors to get finalized. And in that process they changed it somewhat and ended up with what we’ve got today.
Did they change it for the better or for the worse?
I don’t know if we accomplished what we set out to accomplish, and that was to make a zoning ordinance that was less cumbersome and easier for people to use and comply with.
So you feel it’s still cumbersome, but cumbersome in a different way?
And do you think was the motivation for the changes that were made?
It started with the General Plan. The 1995 General Plan made a statement that they were going to conserve and protect the environment. Our previous General Plan did not deal with that. So with the goals and policies as set forth in the 1995 General Plan, they had to have a zoning ordinance update that echoed the same things, the same important issues as in the 1995 General Plan. So it became the acting ordinance that implemented the General Plan. So now our emphasis in the General Plan, and the zoning ordinance is to protect the environment.
Do you feel that gets in the way of people being able to deal with their property and get through the bureaucracy?
Yes, in some respects, but what it did for the most part is make everything more expensive to do and more time-consuming.
You feel that there are some things within the county General Plan that you would want to reconsider if you were on the board?
Yes, because I think the main emphasis now is on protecting the environment at all costs. So if you look at the main words or topics of environment, people and several other things, environment is on the top and people come second. So I would like to put the people on the top.
The General Plan and the zoning ordinance have done a good job protecting the environment. The regulations are there – I think we’ve got that handled. I would like to deal with helping the people get through the system in a better way.
You were involved in the zoning reconfiguration – then what?
I got on the Fire Safe Council as a board member. It was a position that was open, and I thought that would be a good thing to experience. That was 2000.
Right after a controversial period in our county over the NH2020 project, [former Supervisor] Drew Bedwell appointed you to the Planning Commission. Can you give us kind of a capsule view of where you came down on that controversy over NH2020?
I could see where they were going with that, that it was an extension of more protections to the environment. They wanted to make a total inventory of what we had in the county for environmental purposes and then further protect that and weave that into the General Plan and zoning ordinances.
I thought that was going a little bit overboard – I believe it got too close to intruding on people’s private property rights. And I liken that to possibly going into someone’s home and making a total inventory of what they have in their house, by looking through their drawers and inventorying everything. Sure, it would be good to know what everybody has, but do we need to know? So I think it was just a little bit over the top.
Were you involved in any particular anti-NH2020 group?
No, I was just an individual. I was interested in what everyone was doing.
You were Bedwell’s second appointee to the Planning Commission, after the first appointee moved out of the district?
Yes. I told Drew Bedwell in his campaign near the end, when I knew he was going to have to appoint a planning commissioner, that with my background I could help if he could not find a suitable planning commissioner. I didn’t want him to be left with no options or bad options. So he did finally appoint me and so I took that position.
So obviously it must have come as quite a shock when Mr. Bedwell had to resign for health reasons.
Did it occur to you at that time to step in and run for that seat, or did it take some persuading?
I’ve been so close to the county government and how it operates for the past 20 years, and I’ve always been interested in the Board of Supervisors and what they do, and the Planning Commission and each of the departments, because that’s where I operate, is working with them. So I’ve been interested in the Board of Supervisors.
And I’ve thought for the past eight years or so that possibly I would run. But it just seemed that something always got in the way, it was the wrong timing, and I had other things going on – so that I did not do it. At this time, when Drew had to resign and I was on the Planning Commission, I was probably closer than I’ve ever been before. And I thought that this is it, I have to do it.
Within the last year or so you were married to Patti Ingram, currently the mayor of Grass Valley. Was she helpful in your decision to plunge into the political arena?
She’s very supportive, but it is totally my decision. I talked with her about that, and she tells me that it’s up to me; if I want to do that, she’ll support me. So that was a decision I had to make alone.
I’ve got some questions that members of our Reader Circle group sent in. Here is one: “What would you do to ease the polarity of our county? How might you bring us together, to use our talents and energy for the good of everyone?”
First of all, I have no particular agenda. I enjoy listening to everyone’s viewpoint. I don’t operate to accommodate any particular group, so I think I can sit on that board and objectively make decisions based on the merits of the project.
Given that you were appointed by Bedwell, and given Bedwell’s nature as a political lightning rod, is there a need for you to separate yourself from him?
Well, I don’t think I’m connected to him other than that we share some of the same beliefs. He, of course, is a different person than I am, and he’s his own person. And likewise I am, too. So I think we differ in some respects.
What would be the differences?
I’m probably not as strict in my beliefs. I have a tendency to be flexible.
Here’s a related question: “Do you have the leadership skills and desire to foster a winning strategy of planned growth for the county and take into consideration of the various contentious camps?”
Yes. I think all of the different groups that operate in Nevada County, whether they be CABPRO, RQC, SYRCL – whatever – all have some good ideas. And I believe that on the Board of Supervisors it is my charge to understand or take all those different beliefs and congeal them down to some kind of decision that will be the best for Nevada County.
On growth, I think growth happens, I think we can manage it in some respects, we can direct it, and we need a goal – a written goal – that tells us what direction we’re headed in. I think we don’t have that.
Would that be the housing element?
All of the elements in the General Plan give us some direction for how we’re going to deal with those elements – noise, open space, housing.
Traffic. But I believe things are happening here that we don’t or haven’t planned on, and that can be seen by possibly the average age of our county. I was talking to someone just the other day and they were saying that the average age of Nevada County residents is up in the 40s, and the average age statewide is in the 30s somewhere. So what does that tell us? We’re headed in a certain direction.
If we have decline in school enrollment and our average age is higher, are we going to do anything about that? We need to have a more balanced age group in this county, and we need to provide for our young families, and we need to look at all of that whole spectrum. I don’t know that anyone is addressing that. Do we do nothing and end up some place in the future? I don’t think that’s good planning.
Let’s follow up on that question. A lot of people are concerned about workforce housing, or affordable housing. A lot of the construction and development that’s going on is toward the high end, toward that older demographic you were talking about. What can the county do, what can a supervisor do, to help make sure we provide a place for young families and young people to stay in the county and drive our economy?
First of all, we need to be flexible. In the past nine years or so since the 1995 General Plan was implemented and our strict zoning ordinance, we have taken a strict application of those requirements. And what they have done is they have made everything more expensive. And if we don’t become a little more flexible about the application of our zoning ordinances, there won’t be any way to provide for affordable housing other than subsidies or making someone build those things.
There already are provisions in the General Plan and zoning ordinance for helping, in larger subdivisions, provide for a certain percentage of affordable housing and inclusionary housing, but I don’t think that is the only way we can go. There are other options. It’s a complicated issue. The market forces have a lot to do with it as well. The cost of materials. We need to look at all of the different facets of what we can do to help that happen.
If we don’t provide something for our young families, that’s even more reason why they’re going to go somewhere else. I want my children to be able to live here. But it seems that the price of housing, the cost of housing, is outstripping our young families. There are things we can do – there are second dwelling units, granny units, those types of things we need to look at a little more specifically to allow.
Let’s build on that. We have a pending crisis regarding sewer treatment in this county. Any thoughts about those types of growth issues that the county will be facing?
There are also other influences that act upon our county, and those influences come from state mandates. So regardless of what we do, the state may hand down regulations and tighten up on, let’s say, septic disposal, sewage disposal systems on private properties that we are going to have to deal with and that’s going to severely affect us.
Maybe we need a regional sewer treatment facility. That subject was brought up recently by one of the supervisors, and I believe was rejected as a growth-inducing measure. Well, growth is happening whether we do something or not. So we better get serious about taking care of infrastructure so that we can handle what we have, and not sit back and say everything is growth-inducing and do nothing.
Is there one thing that you would hope to change about the current Board of Supervisors?
I would change the divisiveness and the polarity.
How would you go about that?
On the type of people that get elected to that board. We need people on that board that are open-minded and flexible and able to work together.
You’re in a three-way race in District 3. One of your opponents is Bruce Conklin, who was defeated in a reelection bid by Drew Bedwell. The other one is Linda Stevens, who is currently on the Grass Valley city council. In the spectrum of it, as somebody facing these three choices, how do you place John Spencer as the person that stands out and should be elected to the Board of Supervisors?
My experience and background covers the regulatory process in working for the county in land use issues, and then 20 years of experience on the other side of the table. So it is a major benefit for someone on the Board of Supervisors to have well-balanced experience.
Switching topics to 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?”
Probably providing our sheriff’s department and police force with enough law enforcement officers to get the job done, to get them the men and equipment to handle the situation. Also, education for the people. I know when our economy is better, when our living conditions are better, that it is better for that situation.
As a followup to that, there are very few trials in Nevada County. It’s kind of a joke when someone gets a jury duty notice because no one ever goes to trial. And those drug cases where often the most serious charges are dropped and they’re reduced to very little if any time.
I believe in a strong judicial system. I believe they ought to uphold and enforce the law, and if someone breaks the law they need to be prosecuted or punished. When the police officers bring the people into court, they need to be able to run through the process, and if they are found guilty they need to be prosecuted and punished for it.
A centerpiece of your campaign is the economic vitality of the county and quality of jobs here. What can the Board of Supervisors do to help improve that?
The main issue is for us to make sure we are flexible in the application of our ordinances and regulations, so that we can help things happen. We can help projects go through that are providing affordable housing, that we don’t do anything to make projects cost more.
Sometimes we stifle development by our rigorous application of our regulations. We need to work with those other organizations that are working on that issue, the Economic Resource Council, and make sure they have all of the resources they need to be able to pursue additional jobs and new business to come to this county, so that we can keep people to work here so that they don’t have to commute to other areas.
You also talk about eliminating waste in county government and better customer service. Do you have any specifics?
We do a lot of things that don’t need to be done. We have created a process there of paperwork and regulations that could be narrowed or condensed to better serve the public. When a person comes in to get a building permit, for instance, if it takes 60 days to process that paperwork and review their plans, we need to do something to make that time shorter.
Maybe we need to do away with some requirements or consolidate or better apply our regulations. We’re taking care of the environment really well; we need to start taking care of the people. When someone comes into the building department or any of the other departments and they have a checkbook in their back pocket and want to do something that is allowed, we ought to treat it like a business and take care of them and get them out of there and on the road to doing something in the shortest amount of time as possible.
And you feel that’s not really taking place right now, that the process is not user-friendly?
No. And they’re doing a good job and everybody cares about their jobs there – the staff and the people that work behind the counter – they’re trying their best to do the best they can. They need some direction from their department heads to be sensitive to that matter. Is it taking two weeks to do something that we could do in three days?
Do you have any sense of why so many department heads have left county government in the last year?
There are a number of reasons. In the latter part of the ’90s, the majority on the Board of Supervisors did a fairly good job in changing the department heads and the major structure of the county to better suit their way of thinking. And lately there has been some uncertainty as to what might happen. Of course, now there is a 2-2 majority gridlock on the board. And things aren’t getting done, the people are frustrated, there’s a lot more uncertainty, and that doesn’t foster a real healthy environment. So we need to get a handle on that.
You mentioned you had some background on the Fire Safe Council. The Nevada County Fire Plan was just submitted to the Board of Supervisors. One of our readers wants to know: “Of the recommendations contained in the plan, are there any that you would support for immediate implementation?”
I read through the draft, I haven’t read the final. I think they are moving more towards helping make things work better. There are still some areas in the fire plan that I think they need to deal with, and I believe the board hasn’t totally finished with the fire plan. But I don’t know much more than that to make those kinds of recommendations.
Several readers also wanted to know about your position on the Yuba River’s Wild and Scenic designation.
Whenever you apply a Wild and Scenic designation to anything, you invite additional regulation for that area. I for the most part am against additional regulation, and certainly federal regulation. I think our rivers and some roads are scenic, the rivers are wild and scenic, and I think there are enough people dealing with that issue here locally to protect and conserve them. I just wouldn’t want to make it more regulatory.
The county’s financial situation vis-à-vis Sacramento and the state has been a rocky one in recent years. Very often the county has been caught in the middle between forces that often it can’t control. As a member of the Board of Supervisors, what can you do to make sure that the county stays on a financially secure base?
That is a good question. Counties and cities all over the state of California are having to react to that. The state definitely is in a financial mess, and will be that way for a couple of years to come. That’s why I believe we need to be now more than ever flexible in how we address our financial issues and regulatory issues so that we can react accordingly to protect ourselves.
And the state’s budget is going to affect a lot of people. It’s going to affect our county, which is going to affect our citizens, and the board is going to have to be flexible in order to meet that need.
One of your three opponents has served on the board, Bruce Conklin. What was your perception of Mr. Conklin as a supervisor?
HE was one of the majority that was on the board at that time. I don’t know much about what he did, other than voting with the majority and agreeing with that particular philosophy. The people will have to decide, based on their interpretation of how good of a job he did. So he’s got a record; he did things that the people will have to recall and remember and vote on, whether they liked the way he performed or not.
If you are elected and you have four years to make a difference, what’s the most important thing you’d like to get done?
Streamlining government. Changing the focus from the environment to the people. We’ve got the environment handled. We need to enhance the interaction with the people and our county and set a goal and work on jobs and housing and traffic and those issues that are important to everyone, and work together on the board.
There is a lot of time wasted now with arguing, with philosophies, and if the philosophies could be more in tune or in focus with one another, and we have some flexibility, then we can get a lot done.
Are there points that we haven’t talked about that you want to cover?
One important point that a lot of people bring up in my walking the neighborhoods is the special development areas in the city of Grass Valley. There are four large developments that are being proposed. A lot of people have misconceptions about that process. There are small groups of people that are out there talking about the special development areas and possibly misleading the citizens of Grass Valley into believing that within several years our population is going to double and these special development areas are going to be approved and the roads will be impacted and all of the bad things.
The special development areas are simply proposals at this point. They have yet to be annexed to the city. The city is studying their impact to the city, and there is little information to lead a person to think that one of those developments will be approved, or two together, or all four.
So at this time they’re proposals. If one of those developments is annexed, it still has to go through the city processes for approval. They have a look about them right now; when they’re approved they may look quite different. So I would just like the people of Grass Valley to not be afraid of that process.
Speaking of large projects, the town of Truckee is really worried about the development for the Martis Valley right over the line in Placer County, with as many as 6,000 units proposed. Is there a possibility something that large could pop up within Nevada County?
I don’t know.
Regarding the special development areas, if annexation were not possible, could they could go to the county for project approval? If so, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, what would be some of the things you would look at if any of the four decided to take that route?
We would have to review each project on its own merits. Certainly each of those projects sits on the edge of the city limit line. They will impact the city more than anything. If they are going through county process rather than city process, the city will have input and will probably have their own conditions of approval for approval. So I doubt seriously if they would go that route, because the city realizes they would impact the city more than anything and they believe that they need to be in the city.
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