Tag Archives: Potrero

Blackwater Pulls Plans for Potrero

(full disclosure: I work for Courage)

Score another big victory for the little guy.  The people of Potrero have beaten back Blackwater and kept them out of their community.  After the stunning recall of the local planning board members who supported Blackwater in December, Blackwater was facing clear local opposition to the plan.  Regional groups had been working hard to raise opposition in San Diego County.  Meanwhile, the Courage Campaign was teaming up with the locals to turn this into a broader fight.  There were significant questions about it’s environmental impact on the community and area.  The company was awaiting the official Environmental Impact Review.  Instead of continuing to fight against the town, Blackwater decided to pack its bags and leave tiny Potrero.

The letter from Brian Bonfliglio of Blackwater pulling the project is on the flip.

March 7, 2008

Mr. Jarrett Ramaiya

County of San Diego

Department of Planning and Land Use

5201 Ruffin Road, Suite B

San Diego, CA 92123

Re: Application for Major Use Permit (P06-069)

Dear Jarrett:

On behalf of Blackwater West, I am writing to inform the County of San Diego that, effective today, we are withdrawing Application P06-069 for a Major Use Permit for our proposed project in the community of Potrero.

After examining the capacity of our existing facilities and our business development goals, we have decided not to pursue plans for a training campus in Potrero.

Although our project would have brought a great benefit to San Diego County- providing local, state and federal law enforcement with access to low-cost superior training facilities while brining much-needed jobs to the area- the proposed site plan simply does not meet our business objectives at this time.

Please refund all funds on deposit and not expended for permit processing.  Thank you for your assistance.


Brian Bonfiglio

Vice President

Blackwater West

You have to assume that Blackwater’s declining reputation in this country has had an impact on their “business objectives”.  They are toxic and any agency that hired them for training would have serious public relations problems.

While they have pulled out of Potrero, Bonfiglio is “not going home”.  They appear to have broken this story to the friendly SD Union-Tribune:

Bonfiglio said noise tests the company conducted at the site did not meet county standards, and the cost of reducing the noise was too expensive. He said Blackwater had spent well over $1 million in its effort to get government approval for the site.

Blackwater worked the county hard, at one point a former lawyer pushing for the approval actually went to work for the county.

But all of that is over now.  It is time to celebrate.

“It’s great news for the community of Potrero,” said Carl Meyer, the recently-elected chairman of the Potrero planning group. “I think Potrero will start to rejoice tonight. We’ll have a party.”

Speaking of Carl….here is the video the Courage Campaign put together about the community’s battle to keep Blackwater out.

It sure is nice to watch that again and know that Carl and all of the other local heros in Potrero get to go to bed tonight knowing that Blackwater will not be moving into their town.  Congratulations Potrero!

California Media Being Outclassed on Blackwater v. Potrero

(full-disclosure: I work for Courage)

There is an interesting and troubling pattern emerging.  The California media is being greatly outclassed by papers from out of the state and country on the developing story about the residents of Potrero pushing back against Blackwater’s attempts to move a massive base into their town.  This seems like it could be chalked up to the major cutbacks at California newspapers over the past year, but it is a stark reminder about the impacts of those losses.  California stories are no longer being covered by California newspapers.

It was the Guardian UK who had a lengthy, detailed article on the push for a recall of the Planning Group members who had voted to approve Blackwater’s plans.  They talked to Brian Bonfiglio, Blackwater’s Vice-President who is deployed to San Diego County to work on the project.  The Guardian also interviewed a number of the town residents, including several people who were on the ballot this week.

This week it was the New York Times who dispatched a reporter to Potrero to preview the recall.  The reporter ended up breaking news, even though I don’t believe he knew it:

(much more on the flip)

Blackwater is testing an unmanned aerial vehicle, the Polar 400, a remote-controlled dirigible that can be outfitted with various sensors. Unlike traditional drones, the Polar 400 is designed to remain aloft for several days at a time.

Mr. Strong [Blackwater’s VP for Communications] said that the high-altitude blimp would be ideal for border surveillance operations or drug interdiction. He said the company wanted to win more Homeland Security contracts focused on border security training, and in choosing the location here, just eight miles from the border, Blackwater was banking on an increase in the number of border guards.

This is the first statement by Blackwater that they are aiming for border contracts.  Up until now Bonfiglio had been cagy, saying they would not turn them down if they were offered.  It was pretty obvious that with Potrero being only a few miles north of the border, that Blackwater was maneuvering themselves deliberately for border patrol work.

Heck, even the Virginian-Pilot, Blackwater’s hometown newspaper had a great story, complete with audio slideshow.  They even managed to get the dynamics around the recall right.

The planning board is an advisory body – the ultimate decision rests with the county Board of Supervisors – so a successful recall would not halt the project. It would, however, be an enormous boost for the opposition.

It has been a nasty campaign, marked by bursts of name-calling in which longtime neighbors and schoolmates have lined up against one another. And it has forced Blackwater to practice a brand of retail politics far removed from the streets of Baghdad and the corridors of power in Washington.

The Pilot is correct, this issue has very much divided the town, but the recall laid bare the actual 70-30 fault lines against and for Blackwater moving in.

Contrast that to today’s article in the San Diego Union-Tribune, which lead with:

Strictly speaking, a vote removing five members of the Potrero planning group for their support of a Blackwater Worldwide training camp means little.

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.

There is nothing factually incorrect with what is included in those two paragraphs.  The Planning Group is an advisory board, but the Board of Supes does have to take into account what they say when making their decision.  They cannot simply discount it.

The paper has been fairly biased towards Blackwater and this article is just one more example.

The LAT’s coverage was well, picking up an AP wire story.  It’s not a bad article, it’s just that LAT should have owned this story.  Googling the LAT and Potrero brings up this post from Robert Salladay, reminding me yet again how much of a loss it was for the paper to lose him and that blog.  

And that gets at the main point, cutbacks at the newspapers mean less people available to cover these kinds of stories.  If these stories are important enough to have the Guardian UK, NYT and Virginia-Pilot send a reporter out to California, the least the LAT can do is get a reporter to Potrero.  This is a story begging to be written: little town fights back against Blackwater, which has been all over the news for months.  And well, the SDUT, I am not sure what to say about them.  They are hemorrhaging circulation and their biased reporting is just par for the course.

This will be a long fight, as it moves to the Board of Supervisors and there will be plenty of time for more articles to be written.  California newspapers can and should do better.

Don’t forget to go over to www.BlockBlackwater.com and sign the pledge opposing Blackwater’s base.

Blackwater Potrero Recall an Unbelievable Success

(full disclosure: I work for Courage)

With ten ballots to be counted tomorrow this is a preliminary count, but it is simply huge!  Talk about people-powered politics…  The recall was an overwhelming success.  All five members of the Planning Group who voted to approve Blackwater’s plans were recalled by unbelievable margins.  The election will be certified within two days and the Save Potero slate will take office, hopefully in time for their Thursday meeting.

Keep in mind that Bush won by 25.8% in 2008.  Everybody was recalled by over 60% of the vote.  Gordon Hammers, who has been the most vocal Blackwater supporter and served as chair of the group, was recalled by nearly 70% of the vote.

All of the numbers are on the flip.  Go check ’em out.  Just an incredible victory.  They did a phenomenal job on GOTV, getting 160 or so out of the 190 who signed the original petition against Blackwater to turn in their ballots.  The people of Potrero had an unbelievable victory tonight, but will need all of our help as the fight moves on to the next level: the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Can you tell from the superlatives that I am just a wee bit excited?  These folks are my heroes.

Join the movement to Block Blackwater at www.blockblackwater.com, powered by the Courage Campaign.

Apologies for the formatting, but they should hopefully be pretty legible.  Remember they had to vote to recall and then decide who to replace them.

Recall Gordon Hammers:              196-70%

No                                  84-30%

Succeed Brenda Wise                 68-28.6%

Succeed Carl Meyer                  170-71.4%

Recall Jerry Johnson:               187-67%

No                                  93-33%

Succeed Terry Stephens:  176

Recall Mary Johnson:                189-67.5%

               No:                 91-32.5%

Succeed Janet Goode                177

Recall Janet Wright                 186-66.4%

No:                                 94-33.6%

Succeed by:

               Edward Boryla       48-21.3%

               William “Billy” Crawley IV   177-78.7%

Recall Thell Fowler                 176-62.9%

No:                                 104-37.1%


Tina Brown McCunney                 161-74.5%

Anita Meneses                       55-22.5%

Blackwater Rejection Vote Analysis

When Courage Campaign flew me down to Potrero a few months ago, a couple of things struck me about the area targeted by Blackwater for their California mercenary base. It was very rural. It was so close to the border that it is south of a major Border Patrol checkpoint. Bush had won by more than 25 points. There appeared to be a significant economic gap with starter-castles the next home down the highway from double-wide trailers as we crept along the winding, narrow highway. And it was sparsely populated, last night’s vote had only 509 registered voters eligible for the entirely VBM special election. Yet the people who did live there had no interest in a mercenary camp creating logjams at the checkpoint and increasing the fire danger and guzzling valuable water while filling the air with the sounds of the types of cutting edge weapons are real soldiers wish they had.

When I was in Potrero, it was before the fires but after far more than enough signatures had been gathered to place a recall of the those who sold out the town on the ballot for a special election. And you know something, this small town that had voted for Bush by 25 % pts. rallied against his administration’s entire approach by an even larger margin in what at this point is more than a 50% pts swing. In other words, every other voter in a rural, Mexico-border, conservative town went from supporting Bush to opposing Bush’s cronies at Blackwater.

Clearly, stopping the US mercenary business is an electoral winner for anyone who would rather support our troops than create a blood-money sector for big businesses.

Potrero Recall Update

They are still counting folks, but it continues to look good.

The way this works is that the ballot says for each individual candidate: do you want to recall X.  Then it asks if you want to replace them with somebody else.  It is taking a long time to count all of these individual votes.  Turnout is in the 300s and there were just 8 ballots turned in today.

It is probably going to take another hour or an hour and a half to get the final count.  Rick is camped out in the hallway writing up a post.  Ray Lutz is videotaping the count.  The media has already come and gone.

More later…

Blackwater Election Today: Recall in Potrero

(full disclosure: I work for the Courage Campaign)

I know Courage Campaign has been quiet lately about Blackwater trying to open up a huge mercenary training base in tiny Potrero (509 registered voters), just north of the border, it is with good reason.  There is a recall election, ending today.  A group of local grassroots heroes started an effort to replace the five members of the Potrero Community Planning Group who voted to approve Blackwater’s plans to build a base for 360 staff and “students” on 824 acres of enviromentally sensitive land, consisting of 15 firing ranges, a helipad, and a heavy vehicle.  We wanted to stay in the background, while the locals worked hard on GOTV for the recall, since outsiders working on Blackwater had already become an issue within this small community.

One of those heroes is Carl Meyer, who is featured in this short documentary Courage Campaign put together. P.S. The sweetheart of a cat is named Twister.  There is more on Carl in a fantastic NYT article below the fold.  You might recognize the sign and the pumpkin patch in the photo accompanying the article ;).

Rick Jacobs is down in San Diego right now at the Registrar of Voters, waiting for the ballot counting to begin.  I will update as soon as we get the numbers.  Polls (aka the general store) closed at 8 pm.  It is an hours drive from Potrero to San Diego.  We should know by 10 pm.  Keep your fingers crossed, but the GOTV efforts by the Save Potrero folks has been just great.  There were however reports of one of the pro-Blackwater candidates trying to intimidate voters as they turned in their ballots today.  The Sheriff was called and there were plenty of witnesses.

Keep in mind that the 2004 numbers for Potrero were:

Kerry    105 votes          36.6%

Bush     179 votes          62.4%

Like many Potrero residents, Carl Meyer, 51, a local farmer and environmental activist, never gave much thought to Iraq or private security firms until Blackwater came to town last year. Ever since, he has been opposed to the company’s proposal for 800 acres of rifle ranges, dormitories, classrooms and an armory.

“Having them here wouldn’t be in keeping with our rural character,” said Mr. Meyer, who has helped organize the recall effort. “But it’s more than that for me. They’re not good for our country.”

Carl, like so many of the folks working on the recall in Potrero are accidental activists, more motivated with the impact it would have on the town, than the war in Iraq.

Blackwater has been working hard on this community.  They have one staff member working full-time down in San Diego County.  They show up to meetings.  They sent a 6 page glossy mailer to the residents coinciding with the recall.  As the Times says:

For the better part of the last year, Blackwater has maintained a conspicuous presence in Potrero. Company officials have attended planning group meetings, established a shelter and relief center after wildfires burned down 17 Potrero homes in October – and have attracted some supporters.

The town very much is divided.  Though there have been some bright spots.  Voter registration went up and indeed Billy Crawley, one of the members of Save Potrero who is running for the Planning Group, came to into the store today with a 58 year old man who had never voted in his life while he dropped off his ballot.

This is only one step in the campaign to keep Blackwater out of Potrero.  The San Diego County Board of Supervisors has jurisdiction.  They will be ruling next year after the environmental impact study is completed.  

There is plenty of work to do.  Sign the pledge over at the new site www.BlockBlackwater.com.  It is in beta form.  We will be upgrading it as the campaign rolls on.

Blackwater Election Results

Last night, I was watching CSI Miami with an episode featuring a rogue mercenary contractor outfit killing people stateside. I didn’t get a chance to finish the show, because my phone rang with a reporter wanting to talk about Blackwater. At that point, I realized Blackwater really is the talk of the town, but no where more so than Potrero, California this evening when the voters have a chance to recall the local planning commissioners who voted to allow a mercenary base in California.

Realize, those voting in the VBM special recall election represent a very conservative electorate that Bush won in 2004 by over 25 points. So if the move to recall the Blackwater supporters votes breaks 40%, we’ll see that even Bush supporters aren’t down with the GOP plan to privatize via crisis.

What will the 509 registered voters decide?

I’ve done some stuff for Courage Campaign on this

A Town Beseiged: Potrero Residents Battling Blackwater Now Suffer Ravages of Wildfire

(Welcome Miriam, an award winning journalist to Calitics. More info from on the ground there, following up on my post earlier today. Note: I moved some stuff below the fold. – promoted by Julia Rosen)

Potrero, California, the town that has gained national attention for standing up against Blackwater Worldwide’s plan to build a private military-style training camp in their pristine backcountry community east of San Diego, now faces an even more formidable force.  The Harris wildfire which began outside Potrero early Sunday morning has ravaged the small rural community, where many residents remain trapped without supplies four days after the fire began.

“It’s like the Kalahari Desert as you drive down Potrero Valley Road.  There are sand dunes everywhere-dirt and ash,” Jan Hedlun reported via cell phone on Tuesday.  “We can’t get in or out, and we are running out of supplies.” This morning, however, Hedlun said food will be provided to beleaguered residents at the old Volunteer Fire Department Building.  The County recently began initiating its fire consolidation plan, closing some rural volunteer firefighting departments.  But here in Potrero, some residents complained that they never saw a single fire engine until long after their homes burned down.

Stretches where homes once stood along Highway 94 have been reduced to wasteland.  Many homes have burned, although the town’s store, library, and Post Office are still standing.  “There is looting going on up here,” said Hedlun.  Another source described Potrero as a “moonscape with houses here and there.”

Many Potrero residents never received reverse 911 calls warning them to evacuate.  Some rely on cell phones, which were not included in the evacuation system.

“It’s like Armageddon,” said Jill Michaels, who had just four minutes to pack belongings before fleeing flames that singed her husband.  She and her family tried to evacuate but found all roads blocked.  She returned to witness her Potrero home burn to the ground. 

Others suffered worse losses.  Tom Varshock died trying to save his home on the Potrero/Tecate boundary.  His son remains hospitalized with burns over 50% of his body. 

Fires continue to burn on two sides of Potrero, blocking roads in and out.  For the moment, Hedlun assured me this morning, she and others believe they are safe.  Hurricane-force winds that howled through the mountain area on Sunday night have now calmed, giving firefighters cautious optimism to believe the fires may be contained by this weekend.

Portions of the Cleveland National Forest and Hauser Wilderness area adjoining the Blackwater site are believed to have burned, Hedlun said, though residents have not been permitted near the area yet.  Hedlun said.  Military C130 aircraft arrived late yesterday, dropping fire retardant onto the forest, which provides critical habitat for wildlife.

Blackwater’s 824-acre site in Round Potrero Valley, which survived the initial blaze, may also have burned last night.  “There is a haze of smoke rising above it this morning,” Hedlun informed me at 10:00 a.m. today (Wednesday).

  Brian Bonfiglio, vice president of Blackwater West, said Blackwater remains determined to build its planned facility despite the wildfire’s devastation.  Those plans include 11 firing ranges for small and large caliber weapons, an emergency vehicular training track, bunkhouses for 200 trainees, additional training facilities and a large armory to stockpile ammunition.

“I see a tactical operation center for East County fires,” said Bonfiglio, noting that Blackwater’s proposal includes water tanks capable of holding 35,000 gallons.  “Can you imagine how much of a benefit it would be if we were operational now?”

Opponents of Blackwater have suggested that live-fire operations could heighten the risk of fire starting in the box canyon where Blackwater seeks to locate and note that fires have been started by live-fire at military bases in the past.  The Courage Campaign has mounted a petition calling on Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer to oppose Blackwater’s base in Potrero for reasons including the proposed facility’s location in a “fire-prone landscape http://www.courageca…

Bonfiglio maintains that shooting areas will have berms, cleared surrounding areas, and a standby fire watch person with fire equipment on hand.  No flares or explosives will be used, he said.

But even a fire started off-site could become an inferno, critics contend, if it were to reach the armory full of ammunition at Blackwater’s site.

Blackwater has sought approval for its project under the County’s new “shelter in place” policy.  The valley, which has only one road in and one road out, would include a 9,600 square foot facility equipped with sprinklers and surrounded by enhanced fire modification zone.  Blackwater has offered to shelter townspeople in its facility in event of a future fire.

But one Potrero resident who remained in town despite evacuation orders observed, “There is no way in hell anyone up here would want to go there during a fire.”  Evacuation would have been required from the valley as fire leap-frogged across the area, said the source, who asked to remain anonymous.

Authorities are still investigating the cause of the blaze, one of several major wildfires now burning throughout San Diego County.  Combined, the fires have forced evacuation of over half a million people – more than fled New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.  With over a billion dollars in property damage and 1,500 homes burned countywide, the fires are now the worst in California history.

The Harris fire raises many troubling issues with regard to the fate of the Blackwater project.

Hedlun confirmed that Potrero residents will likely request a new Environmental Impact Report be filed, since much critical wildlife habitat and watershed areas have burned.  The original EIR was expected to be completed in December, followed by a vote of the San Diego County Planning Commission and ultimately, the County Board of Supervisors. 

Those votes would rely in part on an advisory vote cast by the Potrero Planning Group in favor of the Blackwater project.  Angry residents had mounted a recall election of all pro-Blackwater planners.  That election, set for December 11th, was slated to be a mandatory vote-by-mail election with ballots going out in early November.

San Diego’s Registrar of Voters, Debra Seiler, has not yet responded to an inquiry asking whether the recall election may be postponed because of the fire, or how she intends to assure that voters who lost homes or have been displaced will receive ballots and be able to cast their votes.  At least two planners facing recall have lost their homes.  Fates of some candidates running on a “Save Potrero” anti-Blackwater slate remain unknown.  Some voters now face divided loyalties, sympathizing with neighbors who lost homes and another planner facing recall who reportedly saved several houses from burning.

Residents in Potrero, scarred by internal strife and fire,  now seek time to heal. Hedlun held out hope that Blackwater may yet decide to abandon its plan to open up a training camp in Potrero.

“For now,” she concluded, “We are digging out, cleaning up, and looking to see what’s left.”


October 21, 2007 Blog Roundup

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Blackwater Still Planning Move to California

(full disclosure: I am working for Courage Campaign)

Despite the uproar over their murder of 17 civilians in Iraq, Blackwater is still moving forward with their plans for a massive base in San Diego County.  Dubbed Blackwater West, the facility would stretch 824 acres in an environmentally sensitive area, populated by 360 staff and “students.”  The training facility would consist of 15 firing ranges, a helipad, and a heavy vehicle operator’s course covering the equivalent of 10 football fields.  SignOnSanDiego.com:

Despite rumblings that Blackwater might cancel expansion plans, Vice President Brian Bonfiglio said his bosses at the North Carolina-based company are still eager to open a law enforcement and military training center in Potrero, about 45 miles east of San Diego.

“Their charter is to make this thing work even more now,” Bonfiglio said.

These guys sure are stubborn.  Good thing the locals down there are adamant about keeping Blackwater out.  Courage Campaign has been working to build up support for the local efforts.  Thousands of people have signed the letter to Boxer and Feinstein asking them to stand with the California Democratic Party and go on record opposing this base.

Below the fold is more information on the official process that Blackwater needs to follow through on to get this base built.

Last year the local elected officially voted 7-0 to approve Blackwater’s plans to move forward with the base.  Immediately there was an uproar against the Potrero Community Planning Group.  The residents forced a contentious second vote that also passed, though more narrowly.  Now those who voted in favor face a recall election on December 11th.  This is a small town of around 1,000 residents and well over 300 have signed petitions against the approval.  The Planning Group is feeling the pressure and it is reflected in this quote by the Chairman:

Chairman Gordon Hammers, one of the members facing a recall, said Blackwater’s project should be judged only as a land-use issue.

“If they’re turned down, I want them turned down for the right reasons,” Hammers said. “My attitude is: What are we going to punish them for? For being better shots than the Iraqis?”

No.  We are going to punish them for killing innocent civilians.  We are not going to reward them by building a huge base to train more mercenaries.  We are not going to let a sensitive habitat be destroyed by firing ranges and a heavy vehicle operator’s course.

The residents of Portero will have their say in December.  The vote will be a two parter, much like the governor’s recall they will be asked if they want to recall the group and who they would like to replace them with.  If they are recalled it is almost assured that the group would revisit the Blackwater plans and reverse the official support.  In terms of process, the Potrero Community Planning Group does not have the power to officially block the base from being built.  That resides with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

The project is undergoing environmental review by the county and could come before the Board of Supervisors late next year.

Glenn Russell, interim deputy director for the county planning department, said the project would be governed by a permit that sets conditions, but only for land use. If those conditions are violated, such as by adding a facility that wasn’t in the plans, the county could take enforcement action.

Although the planning department deals only with land-use issues when reviewing the project, the supervisors might consider public reaction to Blackwater when weighing approval, Russell said.

“It is a discretionary action, and they have a broad range of authority,” he said.

Land use is why the environmental issues are going to be crucial to the approval or rejection of the plans by the County Board.  However, local opposition can be used.  The recall would be a powerful statement to that effect.

This is a multi-year fight, since the Board does not hold their hearing for another year.  So think of it as a short term fight for the recall, then a longer term battle to ensure the San Diego Board of Supervisors vote the right way next year.

For fun, check out the comments below the SDUT article.  Even though most of the commentors at the SDUT site are pretty conservative, the vast majority writing are opposing Blackwater West.  The case can easily be made that our military, law enforcement and border patrols are the professionals and they do not need the help from the likes of mercenaries from Blackwater.  The fact that the military on the ground in Iraq can’t stand these guys makes our case against Blackwater even stronger.

There are loads more images from the recent protests down in Porero on these flickr streams. (1) (2) (3)