Vote Unlikely To Deter Blackwater; Opposition Gets Organized
Blackwater officials say they are undeterred by election results announced yesterday morning and still plan to seek county approval for their project. The planning group is only an advisory body, so a vote against the project by a newly reconstituted board of Blackwater opponents won't stop it.
The real decision, probably a year or so away, will come from the county Board of Supervisors. How they will be influenced by the vote this week recalling planning group members by a 2-to-1 margin remains to be seen. Supervisors are prohibited from discussing issues that will come before them.
Raymond Lutz, an El Cajon-area activist who opposes Blackwater, said the vote signifies a public uprising against the company that has come under scrutiny by the public and Congress for its role as a government contractor in Iraq.
"I think this election really sends a strong message," Lutz said. "This is the first time the public has been able to stand up and say no to this group (Blackwater)."
Brian Bonfiglio, a Blackwater vice president, said the training camp proposal should be judged based on land-use questions only. He said negative feelings about Blackwater have overtaken the issue.
"I feel bad that people that I believe were serving the community were removed based on political influences," Bonfiglio said.
Blackwater wants to build a law enforcement and military training camp on an 824-acre former chicken ranch. The site would include shooting ranges, a driving track, an armory and a helipad. Many residents of Potrero, which has a population of about 800, say the project will bring noise and traffic to their quiet country town.
The planning group gave an early approval to the project last December. As residents learned of the plans, opposition grew and they started collecting signatures to recall the bulk of the planning group. Bonfiglio said an environmental report on the training camp proposal is expected in late January or February. After the report is released, Blackwater will hold a community forum to discuss the project. Blackwater founder and chairman Erik Prince or president Gary Jackson will lead the discussion, Bonfiglio said.
Emboldened by the vote, recall leader Carl Meyer began talking about the next steps opponents will take. He said approval of the project by supervisors would be "a slap in the face to the public" and suggested supervisors who vote in favor could also be recalled. Registrar of Voters Deborah Seiler officially certified the planning group election results yesterday afternoon. Out of 507 registered voters, 299 cast ballots, a 59 percent turnout.
Planning group chairman Gordon Hammers and members Jerry Johnson, his wife Mary Johnson, Thell Fowler and Janet Wright were removed by margins ranging from 63 to 71 percent.
The five will be replaced by Terry Stephens, Janet Goode, Carl Meyer, William Crawley IV and Tina McCunney, all Blackwater opponents. The new members of the board will join Jan Hedlun, who took office in January and had been the only opponent of Blackwater on the planning group.
Three other planning group seats were vacated when officials determined those people had not been properly appointed. Their replacements will be selected by the planning group for appointment by county supervisors.
© 2007 San Diego Union Tribune