The Union roundtable: Olivia Diaz |

The Union roundtable: Olivia Diaz

The Union photo/John HartOlivia Diaz
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Because we did an extensive interview with you for the primary that included your personal background, let’s start this time with a question about what you learned from the primary that you’ve brought into your campaign leading up to November.

 The big difference between now and then is that I’m no longer an unknown, and my campaign is not about giving me name recognition anymore. I have more time now to deal with the issues. When I go door to door, which I’ve been doing since mid-June, I find people say, “Oh, it’s Olivia,” when I’m walking to their door and they recognize me. So I don’t have to give a big long spiel about who I am. I think my campaign did a good job in the primary of giving me name recognition.

The other thing is I feel much more comfortable. When I give speeches, I’m able to be a little more – I’m more comfortable. You learn with practice. Everything gets better with practice. So those are two big differences.

Now another thing to have come about is I’ve had time to learn more of the issues. One can always learn more, but you know many of the issues that we’re dealing with in this campaign are complex and I’ve had time to read and to meet with people and to be informed. So those are just in general three things I feel are different.

Some of the questions we’ll ask are from readers ” members of our new Reader Circle ” because in many cases they match questions that we would ask, too. This is from one of several people worried about from past elections:  “What would you do to ease the polarity of our county? Philosophical extremes seem to use up energy that could go to other things and our county suffers. How might you ‘bring us together,’ to use our talents and energy for the good of everyone?”

Well, I have given that some thought. I don’t know exactly how much freedom I’ll be given once I become supervisor. It may be that I won’t be able to do some of these ideas that I have. But it seems to me we need to have some kind of long-term planning session where the various groups of people are able to come together and try to work out a vision of what we’d like the place to be in about 20 years, and where we would start, and I think it would require a facilitator at this point – a very skilled facilitator – to start out with the things that we have in common.

There are a lot of things we have in common. And I think that some of the things that have happened have been deliberately . . . There’s been a drumbeat, some things that didn’t really pertain to what was going on. And if we can start with somebody that can keep us on track, and start with things that we share, values we share, then we can begin to hammer out some other areas that are more controversial or less common to us. And then come up with these compromises that nobody’s happy with, which means that each person has to give up something. I think that’s possible to do.

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do in my campaign is to keep my campaign nonpartisan. This is a nonpartisan office and I think a lot of the issues that are important in the campaign are nonpartisan issues. Like fire safety for example. I keep saying to people, you know fire is not going to ask you if you’re a Republican or Democrat or how you feel about national issues. It’s just going to burn your house down if you don’t take proper measures. And sometimes even if you do take proper measures it’s going to take your house. That issue and where we put houses and how we deal with our roads – those are really nonpartisan issues, and if we could keep to that it would help to slow down some of the rhetoric.

One of the controversial issues to come out of the primary was a flyer you sent out about Nate Beason. Here is a question from someone who probably supports Mr. Beason: “Can you pledge to run a clean, honest campaign with no last-minute mailers attacking your opponent with questionable charges and out-of-context quotes?”

Questionable charges? Oh, my goodness. I made a pledge to have a clean, issues-oriented campaign. I didn’t break that pledge. The mailer had to do with issues. There was a rumor going around that I was hearing at the door in the last campaign that said I wasn’t tough enough to stand up to [former Supervisor] Drew Bedwell, but that my opponent was. And I kept thinking, why would he stand up to Drew Bedwell? In that article he wrote in July of 2003, he said that he supported Bedwell. That he thought he was a reasonable man and that he had some good policy ideas. He was in support of him.

The other thing my opponent was saying was that he was going to bring us together. Now when you read that particular article, it was full of inflammatory language. He was calling all kinds of people names. Now I did not call him names. All I did was I quoted what he was saying. I pointed out in that an issue that he was in favor of Bedwell. The other issue was that he was someone who called names and who used inflammatory language. Those are not attributes of somebody who’s going to bring us together.

I thought those were important issues, and that’s why I did that. It did come out at the last minute. It was in response to stuff I was hearing at the door. So that’s why it came out when it did. It also took us a while to do it because we had to check on all kinds of things. We wanted to be sure that all the attributions were right on.

Do you feel the flyer helped you or hurt you in the primary?

I don’t know if it helped me or hurt me. We didn’t do a poll. We didn’t do any polls at all, so I don’t really know. There were some people who were very offended – I frankly thought it was unfair that the first line in the article about it from your newspaper said that the mudslinging had begun. I did not sling mud. I did not call names. I did not go back into his personal life. I didn’t go back into the distant past. We were talking about his public record here in Nevada County within two years. So I thought that was a nice catchy first line, but . . .

The point of our editorial at the time, and still our view, was that it’s time to talk about what people are going to do for the next four years and not what their opponent may or may not do. The focus needs to be on what you’re going to bring to the table.

And that’s what it had been.

In light of that, one of the topics you mentioned earlier was fire. We know you have been very involved with the Cascade Shores fire issues. They just came out with the Nevada County Fire Plan, and one of the readers asks: “Of all the recommendations contained in the plan, please identify five that you would support for immediate implementation.” I don’t know if there’s five or two or three, but what are your thoughts about the recommendations?

Well, first of all it’s brilliant that they are taking the approach of looking at the entire county. That is wonderful and I don’t know who to praise higher, whether it was the Board of Supervisors who gave [California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention chief] Tony Clarabut that mandate or the way he approached it. But that I really love.  

The chipping program is so important. And he is saying that it is so essential to this whole thing that we are trying to accomplish that the county needs to find reliable funding sources for that, to keep it going so that it’s not going from grant period to grant period. So that I certainly support.

Now when we were here talking before the primary I talked a lot about finding adequate egress routes. And that people need to talk to each other. So the fire plan says that the county should identify the main corridors and bring them under county maintenance and maintain them.

One that I didn’t quite know about, but after I read it I saw that it was a good point, was the thing about the community water tanks. Right now under certain circumstances certain property owners have to have a water tank of 2,500 gallons or 1,500 gallons, depending on the size of the property, and that they’re supposed to maintain it themselves. But our county is so bad about code compliance and inspectors checking on things that when the fire fighters go to it they have no idea if there’s any water in it, if it’s rusted out, if it’s useless ” and half the time can’t find them. So better to have the county maintain strategically located tanks someplace.

Now the funding for this, I don’t know how that’s – that’s going to take some creativity, and maybe some of these ideas won’t be able to be implemented until we come on better times. But those were the highlights I thought, the things that were really important, starting with the chipping program.

As for the defensible space, the fire fighters have been saying for years that 30 feet is not nearly enough and we just have to bite the bullet and start looking at 100 to 200 feet for defensible space. One thing that worried me about the fire plan is that people, when they hear defensible space, think that it means a moonscape, that you just have to cut down every tree. And while they say it in writing, they need to have diagrams or they need to have photographs of what an ideal defensible space looks like. So that people will be able to create sort of a park-like atmosphere instead of chopping down every tree because that would not enhance the beauty . . .

So it doesn’t really mean clear cutting?

That’s right, it doesn’t. And a lot of people don’t understand that, so they protest. But somehow the county fire plan has to do a good public relations campaign in defining to people what defensible space looks like. Also we talked about ornamental trees. I attended one of the workshops and I didn’t quite understand what he meant by ornamental trees, and tended trees, but he said a tree that you tend is one that you water, you fertilize, and you prune and take care of. Whereas the cedars and the 80-foot pines that you have, you don’t take care of them.

They’re fending for themselves.

 Yes. And if you take away some of the bushes and other kind of vegetation that’s sucking up the water and the nutrients, then you help the trees.

Obviously a major topic in this county is the growth issue. Here’s a question: “Housing prices continue to rise while jobs are scarce and pay is substandard. Is affordable housing a reasonable goal in Nevada County and how do you plan to help provide it?”

Yes, affordable housing is a very complex issue. And we have to address it. That’s one of the questions I keep getting at the door. People say, “Where are my children going to live?” or “I’ve got a high-school senior who is getting ready to graduate, he wants to work for a little while before he goes on to college,” or “She’s going to go to Sierra College but she doesn’t want to stay home and I don’t know where she’s going to live.” So I hear it and it’s a question on peoples’ minds.

There have been some examples of solutions to the problem, like the co-housing thing, for example. Now that has – I don’t remember the exact numbers, I want to say it’s got 45 units in it and 30 percent of them are supposed to be affordable. A certain percentage of them have second units in them that will be rented and are going to stay in the affordable housing range. And even the rest of them are going to be what we call moderately priced houses. So it’s aimed at our workforce – at our teachers and nurses.

We heard that that project starts at like $295,000 for the smallest, cheapest thing – is that affordable?

No, that’s not affordable. Oh, the cheapest ones? Oh, really? No, I didn’t . . .

Don’t you have to put that in perspective? You’ve got to get down to what’s it cost to get into a $290,000 home. The problem is that since 1997 the cost of housing has gone up 97 percent, wages have gone up 21 percent. You used to be able to get into a home for $33,000 down payment, and now it’s like $77,000 down payment on the average home. And therein lies the problem. Loan programs would have to be less rigid.

The other thing is that we need to not just look at home ownership. There here are apartments, there’s condos, there’s townhouses, there’s all kinds of different ways of having a roof over your head. And I think that the young people – the 18-year-olds, the 19-year-olds – they need to look at apartment living. And the second unit idea is a good idea. Apparently Grass Valley’s going to do this thing where they are going to look at their rules and regulations, and I think that’s a very good first step.

I was appalled to hear at one point ” I was meeting with Phil Carville, asking him about his Loma Rica Ranch project, and he pointed out to me that if a developer were to go to the rule book for zoning, it tells them how wide to make the streets, and the curbs, and the setbacks. He said if he were to follow every one of those rules, what it would look like is Cascade Shores. It would be the classic subdivision. So we have now incorporated into our rules – it’s institutionalized – that we are going to grow by subdivisions.

And whereas the places that we love to visit – like San Francisco, Nevada City, Paris, London – these places have houses that are right off of the . . .They’re on a grid first of all, so that when you come to make a turn, you have to really slow down or else you can’t make that turn, so you go down to 15 miles an hour. And there’s parking on the streets, there’s pedestrian places, there’s all kinds of interesting things along the side. Where there are houses that are close to the curb so people walking by if you’re sitting on your porch you wave to the people walking by. So how come we came up with these rules that are keeping the developers who want to do something other than the classic subdivision need to get zone variances? And changing the zone rules? So we really need to look at those rules.

You’re talking about a mixed use –  walkable communities, sustainable communities. . . .

Yes. Having insurance offices above or having an insurance office on the bottom with a house on top, or an apartment on top – where people don’t have to drive to work. My goodness, they might be able to get out and walk around the corner to go to work. My goodness, what a revolutionary idea. So there’s just all kinds of things that we need to look at, and we need to be willing to start from scratch and maybe throw out all those rule books. Of course, you can never do that, but that’s what needs to be done.

What do you think of the Loma Rica Ranch project? If Grass Valley chose not to annex Loma Rica Ranch, if you were on the Board of Supervisors and Phillip Carville  came to the county, would you look favorably on Loma Rica Ranch? Or have you had a chance to compare his project to the other three . . . ?

I’ve looked at his project, it was several months ago, and it had lots of points in it I thought were good. He is trying to create little villages so that you have your dry cleaners there, your coffee shop, a lot of stuff that would lower the number of times you would have to leave your little town, your village, so it would reduce somewhat the traffic. But it still – it hasn’t been made a formal proposal so I really can’t say. The numbers I hear are, it seems to me, too high. But at this point I don’t know. He talked about four villages but . . .

Do you think we’re going to grow anyway and we need to accommodate the growth, or do you think that we should just stop the growth?

I don’t think it’s that simple. I think there is going to be a huge amount of growth coming into California, but it doesn’t all have to come here. I think that we need to keep – we do need to keep building in order to keep what’s here from sky rocketing. So one of the issues on affordable housing is that you have to have enough building going on so that things don’t become too pricey.

Between no growth, pro growth, smart growth – what are you?

Shall we say planned growth? Let’s say planned growth. I don’t think that we have to assume that all of the 500,000 people a year that come to California are going to come to Nevada County. Some of them are going to come here and it would be good to have housing for them. But I don’t think that we should build the housing with the assumption that they are going to come here, because then they will come here.

I think we need to grow more, let’s say, organically, where we build a house here, we build a house there, we have small developments going on. Like up on Banner Mountain, there’s a small development called Altair, and it’s 24 lots, it’s got 18 acres of open space.  When the two developers – it was a pair – decided to build this, they went and they talked to the neighbors and they asked them, if we were to build something here what would be your concerns?

First of all was water. We don’t want our wells to go dry. The second thing was, we don’t want a whole lot more traffic on Banner Lava Cap Road. And the third thing is I’ve lived across the street from a forest for 20 years or 30 years, or however long they’ve been there, and we would really like that to stay there. So these developers went out and they arranged with NID to get water, so that means that they don’t have to drill any wells and they’re not going to threaten the water supply of the neighbors, OK? So that’s good. Secondly, they have two outlets and it’s a small development – there are only 24 houses – so they’re not going to have a huge impact on the neighborhood. Also some of these people are part-time owners, part-time residents, so they’re not going to impact the . . . but you don’t know who is going to eventually live there.

The other thing they did was they created a 200-foot buffer so that none of the houses begin – now that meant that they had to give up land – none of the lots begin until 200 feet from the road. And that’s the back of the lot. So the houses are way down and there’s a little bit of a slope so you don’t see a house when you drive by, all you see is this nice forest. So they addressed all of those issues.

The other thing they did is they cleared the 18 acres that are open space for fire safety. They used the money ” they logged it ” and so they used that money to clean up all the brush and the slash, so it’s this nice park and they made a trail around it that can be used as an equestrian trail or a walking trail, and that will be owned by the homeowners. They have a homeowners’ association, and they’ll maintain it. So this is for the use of the people.

That still sounds like pretty high end . . .

Right, no, it’s not affordable housing, it’s not. It doesn’t address that issue, but you were asking about growth.

But how do we diversify – are we set on being an affluent retirement community?

Well, the way things are going we are, sure. But if we want to be able to keep our young people here, we need to have more apartments and second units. The other thing is the developers are supposed to have 10 percent of their development be affordable housing, and that requirement is lifted. You know they get a variance, and they don’t do that.

Would you try to keep that requirement in any county projects?

Yes, absolutely. I think that the developers shouldn’t be let off the hook. I think they have to keep to that. We have to look for affordable housing wherever we can.

The definition needs to be clearer too.

Yes, I know. It depends on what the median income is for the county and if that goes up, the affordable housing thing goes up and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And also there need to be deed restrictions in it. And in the second unit task force that we saw, [Supervisor] Robin Sutherland didn’t understand the concept and so she lifted the deed restriction. She thought, why should the future owners have to have this low price on it? So they lifted the deed restriction requirement on the second unit. So it’s no longer affordable housing. Now it’s just . . .

An opportunity for somebody to come in at bargain basement and make a whole lot of money down the road?


You’ve been doing a lot of campaigning door to door, so this question is interesting: “What is the most interesting encounter you’ve had while canvassing the county door to door?”

I had one yesterday that was really marvelous. Somebody who is here from another county, just been here a year,  asked me some probing questions about Wild and Scenic [protection status] up there on the South Yuba River, and then engaged me in conversation about affordable housing. Apparently he’d been part of a task force and on the board of directors of some kind of organization that was providing affordable housing alternatives in this very high-end county – probably Marin County, but I forget. He was telling me all kinds of ideas, and I made a note that I’m going to have to go back to him at the point that I become supervisor and need this kind of expertise.  I thought, oh boy, here’s a real resource.

And then there was somebody else, a real old guy. It was up I think on Jones Ridge Road off of Greenhorn, and he was carrying on that he was a developer, he had built 35 houses himself and how corrupt it had been when he was doing this and he had to pay everybody off. I was thinking, man, this guy is a walking history book and I would love to sit down with him.

And then there was another one that I went to visit in the Rattlesnake area. She’s a retired circus clown from Barnum and Bailey. I thought to myself, I wish I didn’t have to see 24 more houses that day. I wanted to sit down and have tea and trade stories with her. She was an active clown here for some years and then recently got hurt. She was close to 80, and she said she had to give up clowning, she couldn’t do it anymore because it’s very physical.

There was a period in my life where I wanted to become a circus clown – I considered going to Barnum and Bailey clown school. And my parents, bless their hearts, they said, well, we always wanted an excuse to follow the circus around, so if you really want to go to clown school that would be great. And I was talked out of it by one of my teachers, who said that clown alley is a very sad place. And she said you hear about being born in a trunk and that’s not far from the truth. Because they travel so much, they don’t have time to develop relationships with people outside the circus, and so they end up marrying within the circus and then their lives are totally confined to the circus.

Sounds like the news business.

Then yesterday also I was talking ” in You Bet, I think – to one of these guys who was complaining to me that he was 80 years old. And I said, aw, my father’s 95 and he’d call you junior. He was telling me that he hadn’t made up his mind yet, that both of us were good candidates and that he was going to think about it. So I directed him to Sept. 22 when we’re going to have this candidate forum that will be broadcast on KVMR, and maybe KNCO, I’m not sure – I think they’re going to record it and then broadcast it later. So I said do that, and also I told him that I was going to be interviewed here and to watch the newspaper for it. Then he could get a better idea.

But if he had any questions, here I was – I tell people go for it, grill me, I need the practice. Once I get on the Board of Supervisors, I’m going to be on the hot seat all the time. Even now, I open my mouth and I make somebody mad.

What would you say is the biggest difference between you and your opponent, as far as the issues?

One of the things is that I’m very straightforward and I tell you what I think, and I don’t think my opponent does. I think he’s pretty good at political speak. He’s got the sound bites down real well, and he does real well with that.

But the other thing that’s significant is our experience. The experience that I bring has to do with private, not for profit, and has to do with utilizing a lot of volunteers. It’s sort of having to do things by the seat of my pants, trying to raise money to keep organizations going.

I created three different organizations over my career. And of course the one I got the most experience from was the science museum that my husband and I founded, where I formed the board of directors and ran the board. I was their president of the board for eight years, and raised the money to sustain the organization the whole 12 years I was involved. So in the process of doing that, I had to form different groups of stakeholders to apply for funds. To get $1,000 is one thing, but if you want to get $50,000 or $100,000 or a $1 million, you really need to demonstrate that you’re going to have a big impact on a large area.

So that meant bringing in stakeholders from various groups and organizations and diversifying it as much as possible to interest the funders. I had to learn how to hammer out memoranda of understanding, identifying goals that we all could follow that met our needs, an awful lot of consensus-building. Those kinds of skills I think are precisely the kinds of skills that I would need as a member of the board.

I  had to work with volunteers – we also were always on a shoestring budget, and we did an annual budget every year. It didn’t say that was how much money I had to spend; it meant how much money I had to raise in order for my various departments to stay alive and be able to do creative things. So I did manage a million-dollar budget for the four years that I was running it – and we built it from our living room into this organization that was serving 100,000 people a year.

We were taking exhibits and programs into the schools of Chicago, and I was going for funding for diversity because one of the missions that we had created when we did our mission statement was to reach out to populations that are underrepresented in math and science careers. So that’s women, your ethnic minorities and disabled people. That’s what I used as a tool to sell to corporations that were also recognizing that in the future, if they didn’t reach out to these groups, they weren’t going to have a workforce.

So we were reaching out into the pockets of ethnicity in Chicago – and that was quite an education in itself, working with those schools. One of the things I learned about the schools there is that those that functioned well had an excellent principal. The leadership in the school is what made the difference. There were some schools where we’d made arrangements and then when we got in, they didn’t know where to put the exhibits. And in a school that was well run, somebody was waiting for us, let us in, took us exactly to the room, all the programs went real well. It was just really amazing, because they are all working with the same amount of money, the same number of students pretty much – everything was the same except the leadership – the leadership is very important.

Back to fire issues, I was at the Cascade Shores briefing on the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District’s assessment ballot, and I heard that the fine print in the explanatory brochure says that the assessment can go up three percent a year. Is that true? Also,  the fire chief pulled up in a 2004 tricked-out 4×4 fire vehicle – the car that he drives home. It may not sit well with voters that they’re buying brand new cars and asking people to spend more money.

Well, that’s one of the things I learned when I was running Scitech.  Capital money is easy to come by; it’s operations that’s hard to come by. And this assessment is going to go primarily to fund firefighters, to fund personnel.

But can it go up three percent a year?

Yes, it can go up. I believe that’s true.

As long as we’re on the subject of the assessment ” pro or con?

Oh, I think we have to do it. Because one of the things that I don’t think is made very clear is that the current assessment is going to end in 2005. So they’re going to lose $346,000 a year, and if this new assessment doesn’t kick in instead, then they’ll just be out that much and they’re going to have to close a couple of fire stations, they’re going to have to let go a bunch of fire fighters, and their demands are just growing all the time.

One person was complaining to me about it when I was walking Pasquale Road. He said the response time is longer than it used to be in the good old days. And I asked him well how many people were here in the good old days – he was talking 20 years ago – and people are not factoring into it how much population growth we’ve had and how many people are living out in the wildland urban interface.

It would be interesting to look at the cost per thousand basis from a financial standpoint. What was the budget then to serve how many people, and is that cost really outpacing the number of people served?

Well, 10 years ago they had 62 calls a year and now they get 62 calls a month. And they’re doing 12 times as much with a smaller number of people.

And in those days they had mostly volunteers . . .

That’s right, there were volunteers and now if you can find somebody who has the time and the willingness to volunteer – this onus of the number of hours that they have to train now is just – it’s become a full-time job.

On the other hand, anyone would tell you that it would be more efficient to have a county fire department and merge all of these little fiefdoms together. It would save a lot of money.

Talk about fiefdoms – I’ve talked to some of the other fire department

districts, and they say, “Oh no, you can consolidate, but you don’t include us.”

We’re running out of time, and there are plenty of issues we haven’t covered.  What do you feel is important that should be mentioned?

I think one of the things that bothers me, that I’m really concerned about, is the lowering of the level of service in our public transportation system. I see our elderly population going up and the transportation services going down, the Telecare services – what are we going to do with all these old people? We have to be careful not to – I know it’s hard times, but we have to be careful not to gut the system so much that you can’t rebuild it.

I’m very concerned about that, I hear complaints about that at the door. People running out of their house, having to hitch a ride. Right now I guess it’s still safe to hitch a ride – but I’ve lived in Los Angeles for awhile, so that’s one of the issues I’m very concerned about.

To read the transcript of an interview with Diaz from Feb. 10, visit

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