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TRPA chief will stay

Patrick McCartney

The head of Lake Tahoe’s powerful Tahoe Regional Planning Agency has made his decision.

On Friday, Jim Baetge confirmed what he has been quietly telling members of the agency’s governing board the last few weeks: that he has decided to remain at the agency’s helm.

With the decision, Baetge, 59, ended a period of personal uncertainty, during which he worked part-time instead of quitting outright. His quandary surfaced last November, when Baetge said he was frustrated and ready to quit his position as the TRPA’s executive director.

After more than two years at the helm of the powerful bistate agency, Baetge wasn’t sure if he still had enough support from his governing board and the community to complete his goals.

The California Assembly, led by former Tahoe Basin Assemblyman David Knowles, had voted to slash the state’s share of funding for the TRPA in half.

As part of a compromise bill to restore the funding, California legislators ordered a performance audit of the agency, a unilateral action that angered some members of the Nevada Legislature.

“At the time, I was obviously getting frustrated. My intent was to leave,” Baetge said. “After looking at where we were headed, though, board members asked me if there wasn’t something I could do short of leaving.”

Baetge decided he would pull back from some of his day-to-day duties, delegating a portion of his workload to Jerry Wells, the agency’s assistant executive director. The governing board reluctantly agreed to allow Baetge to work just 20 hours a week, concentrating on several key proposals, including the environmental improvement program and a coordinated transit plan.

The political climate quickly began to change, however.

For one thing, the Republican majority in the California Assembly, which was willing to cut the TRPA’s funding, was replaced by a more-sympathetic Democratic majority.

And the performance audit, which had caused so much wrangling between the Nevada and California legislatures, supported Baetge’s goals of streamlining the agency’s regulations and pursuing beneficial projects.

“There was a lot of turmoil at the time, but the end result of the audit was to put a lot of things on the front burner,” Baetge said. “The audit basically endorsed the direction we are going.”

The irony is that, apart from some time off over the holidays and a trip to Idaho following his father’s death, Baetge said he was unsuccessful in reducing the hours he worked.

“I never did get it down to 40 hours,” he said. “But it clearly helped getting away a little bit.”

Now, Baetge said he feels confident that enough support exists for the TRPA to accomplish its goals of halting the deterioration of Lake Tahoe. As the head of the now-defunct California Tahoe Regional Planning Agency from 1976 to 1979, Baetge understands the change in the basin’s politics since the TRPA was first created in 1969.

“You can divide the history into the three decades,” Baetge said. “The ’70s was a time when we brought a lot of development in the wetlands to a halt. Most of the real battle came from people owning parcels in the wetlands. There weren’t many vocal friends in the basin at that time.”

In the 1980s, the TRPA slowly created a body of regulations that changed the course of development in the basin, away from the wetlands and toward urban centers.

“Now that we are in the ’90s, suddenly there’s a buy-in, not just to the problems, but how to resolve the problems,” Baetge said. “The bad attitudes of the past have sort of vanished. Now people want to work with us instead of battling.”

With a list in hand of the $730 million worth of projects the agency believes are necessary to protect Lake Tahoe, Baetge said the agency’s goals have never been more clear.

“The Environmental Improvement Program is the result of 30 years of public participation and planning,” Baetge said as he thumbed through the list of more than 400 projects. “What has to be done is not just a matter of guesswork any more. If you do these things, it will accomplish 85-to-90 percent of what needs to be done.”


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