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Mayor Eric Bruen spoke and answered concerns at the Greater Ridgecrest Republican Assembly’s GRRA’s meeting. / Laura Austin Photo

Mayor discusses City’s use of Placer.ai at GRRA meeting

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–  Mayor Eric Bruen spoke at the Greater Ridgecrest Republican Assembly’s (GRRA’s) meeting on October 9.  The primary reason he was asked to speak was to explain and answer questions about the data gathering program, Placer.ai, that the city just acquired for a year-long subscription.  Besides this issue, Bruen also discussed license plate readers, weekly trash pickup, plans for the new Pinney Pool and announced two new franchises coming to Ridgecrest in the near future.

The attending members of the GRRA were concerned about the city’s use of Placer’s technology that tracks cell phone location data of people who are attending certain geofenced events.  Bruen minimized their concerns and compared it to “essentially a Netflix subscription and nothing more than that.”  He explained that Placer gives “data on the traffic patterns we experience through events and locations on a certain date.”  He gave the example of a recent open house.  He said that he set a geofence around the area, set a time, and was able to “see generally how many people went through that area.”  He was also able to find out how long they spent there and “some basics in terms of the general census data makeup of who is attending.”  He assured the audience that “none of that data is being physically collected, tracked, nor surveilled by the city of Ridgecrest.”  He said, “I want to be very clear about that point.”

Bruen said the purpose for the city to pay the $19,000 per year subscription is to “draw in new business and new opportunities.”  He also believes the information gathered can have a practical purpose.  For instance, if he finds out that at a certain event, many of the people went to restaurants afterward, he can make sure the next event has a lot of food vendors present to “have more food options.”    

One audience member voiced her concerns with the technology.  She said, “I am not comfortable. I don’t care if you say we’re not being tracked. I don’t consent.”

To this comment, Bruen responded, “Then you can turn off your phone location permissions.”   He said, “It sounds like there’s been kind of this miscommunication” that because one individual does not want their own phone being tracked, “we should not use it in any way, shape, or form to help the city.”  To that sentiment, he said, “I’m not understanding how this is a reasonable argument.”

GRRA’s president, Karen Taggart, said, “I think that’s part of the problem: it’s not just one person.”    She said, “The majority of people are standing up at the City Council meetings and saying they don’t like the idea and it’s being ignored. We elect you guys to represent us. And you represent the entire community, correct?”

Bruen asked Taggart, “So you think 6 percent should control 94 percent?” He then asked, “Does it seem fair for one person’s opinion to outweigh 30,000?”    

To which Taggart responded, “I mean if they’re doing the right thing, yeah absolutely. And if they’re going by our Constitution.” She was concerned this technology “could go sideways real easily. It could get out of hand or get to the point where we are being surveilled.”

Bruen believed people had received “flawed communication.” He indicated that because terms like “tracking and surveillance” have been used, the public is confused with what the city is doing.  He said he would be “happy to show the reports.”

Besides Placer.ai, the audience members brought up the possibility that Ridgecrest might purchase license plate readers (LPRs).  Bruen cited an anecdotal situation regarding the recent murder of four young people in Idaho.  He said law enforcement would not have produced a suspect without these LPRs.  He said this is where “the scales of justice come into play.”  On one side of the scale is citizens’ privacy and the other side is maintaining safety.  The city’s goal in having LPR’s is “making sure we’re not attractive.”  He said, “If you have two communities that sit next to each other and one has LPRs, ‘Where are your criminals?’” Even though he supports them, he said, “There’s no decision [about LPRs) that has been made.”  But, he said they would be “irresponsible not to take into consideration the request of our Police Department.”

Another issue that came up during the meeting was the frequency of the trash pickup.  A lady in the audience complained about the smell of dirty diapers from a nearby daycare.  She said because they are not being picked up weekly, “it stinks to high heaven.”   

Bruen responded, “I want to answer your question as honestly as I can.”  Referring to the recent agreement made with Waste Management, he said, “We have a very well-negotiated contract.”  He said he has a “high concern with the idea of reinstating weekly trash service and seeing [the currently improved] conversion numbers crash.”  He said that could result in fines up to $10,000 per day.  Bruen suggested that if there are problems, people can always request more cans.   “Every pickup is a cost,” and the current organic requirement mandated by California has forced the city to make difficult decisions to keep costs down.  And besides, “there is nobody else [besides Waste Management] who’s offering to do our service.”

On a happier note, updates on the Pinney Pool project were discussed.  Bruen said, “It still looks like it will be three pools.”  He said there are plans to have a full athletic pool designed for water polo, lap swimming, and scuba diving.  He is hoping that it will be running nine or ten months out of the year and that the maintenance costs will be covered through fees.  He is not sure how the costs will be differentiated between the City and the county population.

The second would be a therapy pool. This would be heated and used for seniors, therapy, and swim lessons.  The third pool would be much shallower (perhaps 18 to 20 inches deep) and would be designed for toddlers, with some type of front fixture attached so children can play at varying ages.  He said they are looking at a lot of different features, some hard and some inflatable.  “We’re trying to be very smart about our maintenance on them.”  Amenities such as a water slide would not be an option because these “beautiful and fun slides add a ton to the insurance costs.”  He said they would know more in November and would most likely hold a community presentation to showcase their final design plans.

After the question-and-answer exchange, Bruen announced that two new franchises were scheduled to come to Ridgecrest. He said they would soon occupy the same space previously filled by Big Lots.  The first is Ross Dress for Less, which focuses on bringing in “a constant stream of high-quality department and specialty store brands” at bargain prices.  Sharing that space will be another discount store, Five Below.  This store markets itself as “a place with unlimited possibilities” and a “super-fun shopping experience” where products cost between one to five dollars.

The local GRRA is a group of conservative citizens who focus on grassroots politics.  They meet monthly on the third Monday at 6 p.m. at Grace Connection Church, 114 Gemstone.  For further information, email Karen Taggart at .