By ROBERT DIGITALE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Former Sonoma County Supervisor Paul Kelley will be paid $24,000 over the next eight months to provide consulting advice about agriculture for the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which of late has come under criticism from farmers.
Kelley, who retired in January 2011 after 16 years on the board, knows both the district and the farm community, district General Manager Bill Keene said this week.
At the district, “we don’t really have someone who has an agricultural background,” Keene said. In contrast, Kelley has “incredibly strong relationships with the agriculture community,” he said.
Kelley’s contract calls for him to help Keene develop strategy to work with the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, the wine industry and grape grower groups. He also will provide research on available state and federal grants and will help the district as it works with local and state groups on protecting California’s Williamson Act farm preservation program.
Farmers this year have faulted the district, saying it isn’t preserving enough farmland with the proceeds of a quarter-cent sales tax that voters first approved in 1990. And the Farm Bureau strongly opposed the district’s placement of a $1.5 million conservation easement along the Estero Americano with a proposed public trail. County supervisors approved that easement in March.
Keene dismissed the idea that Kelley’s job would be to mend fences with farmers.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “I don’t hire people to put out fires. I do that myself.”
Farm Bureau Executive Director Lex McCorvey said Tuesday evening he was unsure how Kelley would help the efforts of the district and the bureau to work together on farm issues.
“Is it really necessary?” McCorvey asked of the contract. “Apparently the Board (of Supervisors) must think it is. But I don’t know what the value is to the taxpayer of hiring an additional person.”
McCorvey acknowledged that the Farm Bureau had endorsed Kelley when he ran for office and found him “open and understanding” about agricultural issues. Even so, he declined to say whether or not the district should have hired him.
“That’s a question for the board,” he said. “Period.”
Farm Bureau President Joe Pozzi said he would continue to work to have “strong communication” with the district and county supervisors.
Kelley’s contract was signed last month and runs through Jan. 31, 2013. It’s maximum amount is limited to $24,000.
Kelley will be paid at the rate of $175 an hour for his consultations. He’ll also be reimbursed for expenses and paid $85 per hour for travel time.
Keene said the rate of pay is standard for such work and characterized it as at the “medium-high” end of the many outside contractors the district uses. While an outside biologist might be paid $100 to $125 an hour for a study, he said, the County Counsel’s office bills the district more than $200 an hour for its services and outside legal firms charge more than $300 an hour.
Kelley, 48, started his own consulting firm last year and said his clients already include a few water agencies in the state. He said he expects his work in the county to be mutually beneficial for farmers and the open space district.
“That’s part of what I’ve done for years,” he said.
Kelley said he not only picked prunes and apples as a young man, but his wife is a member of the family that owns the Robert Young Estate Winery.
Kelley’s contract is allowed under county policies for former officials, Keene said.
Such rules prohibit former board members and other officials from lobbying the county for pay for a full year after leaving office. Keene noted that Kelley has been out of office more than a year and said he won’t be lobbying the Board of Supervisors or other county officials.