Jim Graham - Racing, tele-working, & battling multinationals

Dingo2222-1 Jim Graham, AKA Ronjon, is Director of Marketing at The Satellite Telework Centers in Santa Cruz County, an avid Burning Man attendee who ran Media Mecca for several years, and Stock Bug class rally racer. He was one of the founders of the Felton Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW) movement that successfully re-claimed Felton water rights from the German multinational, RWE.

You were instrumental in your town's successful fight to recover its water rights from a major multinational. What happened with Felton and FLOW?

Our town water system had been privately owned since the late 1800s, but in 2001-2002 it was acquired by American Water, which was then acquired by the German multinational RWE. American Water immediately applied for a 78% rate hike with almost zero public notice. The town banded together to fight back and formed Felton Friends of Locally Owned Water (FLOW). We initially planned to fight the rate hike at the Public Utilities Commission, but quickly realized that it was so weighted in favor of big business that our only option was to take the water system back via eminent domain. We got a measure on the ballot to raise $11 million to buy the system. American Water fought dirty, as it has in other communities around the U.S. We were leaked a copy of their campaign strategy, which included using an ad agency to provide flyers that would go out under a co-opted community group and push polling to intimidate our local county Supervisor. We even had an astroturf group surface one month before the election that basically disappeared the day residents voted by 74.8% to raise the money. We eventually acquired the water system and now FLOW members consult with other community groups around the U.S. who are looking at acquiring their water systems from private utilities.

How long have you lived in Felton? What brought you there?

I've been in Felton since '91. I was born and raised in a small agricultural town, Hollister. After a stint as a reporter in Washington, D.C., I got tired of the snow and humidity and came back. Hollister had grown to something like 30,000 people. Too big! I eventually found a place in Felton and haven't looked back.

It always fascinates me how much energy is spent on online communities. Community to me is talking to someone at the grocery store, sitting in a meeting at the town hall or being involved in a community project. Maybe because I'm older, but the IRL stuff is a lot more interesting. That being said, I'm also mayor of pretty much every business in Felton.

As a co-working entrepreneur, how has the landscape of work changed with respect to location? Tell me a bit about co-working and The Satellite.

Some people are saying we'll all be freelancers within a decade. I don't buy that, but I am seeing a lot of people wanting more flexibility in where and when they work. Co-working facilities are opening everywhere and I think that's great, particularly for independent contractors and some start-ups. Where we're different is that we're going into small towns that surround large metropolitan areas, building professional office space in established commercial districts and renting it to telecommuters, home-based business owners and consultants. Where co-working spaces emphasize collaboration, we find our members do their collaboration with coworkers and clients somewhere else and come to us for the quiet, uninterrupted time they need to get their work done.

How did you end up involved in off-road racing? Would you talk a bit about Desert Dingo and your efforts in the Baja 1000?

Back in December 2006, I'd rented "Dust to Glory", a documentary on the 2003 Baja 1000. Ten minutes into it I turned to my wife and said, "I've got to do this." She said, "You don't know anything about cars." And I said, "I don't care." Eleven months later we went off the start line in a '69 VW Beetle. We lasted 144 miles. We were total n00bs.

The thing about the 1000, particularly for us in the Stock Bug class, is it's not about speed, but survival. I cold-called Eric Solorzano, who has 42 Baja wins, including nine Baja 1000s and said "You don't know me from Adam, but I want to race, you're the best at it and I want to meet you." He ended up building our engine and helping us tune the suspension, which is key. Now I'm working on convincing him to retire, because I think it's the only way we can beat him.

The greatest challenge racing Baja is communications. Race radios are pretty much useless unless you've got line-of-sight. Everyone has satellite phones and it can take half an hour or more to get a call through. One of our sponsors, EMS Sky Connect, loans us communications and tracking system called Rugged Text and Track, that allows my wife, sitting in front of several laptops back in California, to track the car and our three chase trucks - and communicate with them - in real time. It came in handy when I broke my leg getting out of the car during the race in 2009.

We were one of two teams (the other being Robby Gordon) using Twitter during the race in 2008. Last year was our first with the satcomm system. This year, I want a UAV.

Two guys on the team have Type 2 diabetes and many of the rest of us, myself included, have a history of the disease in our families. We partnered with the International Diabetes Federation to raise money for their education and awareness programs. We're the official World Diabetes Day race car of the 1000. We also hand out thousands of hero cards that have a photo of the car on the front and the warning signs of diabetes printed on the back in English or Spanish.

We're first in Class in the VORRA series and are racing this coming weekend in Reno. This will be our fourth attempt at the Baja 1000 in November and our goal this year is to finish.

What is your relationship with Burning Man. Are you still a passionate attendee? Do you maintain a Burning Man storage shed?

The joke has always been if you ever want to go camping, borrow gear from a burner because they've got everything and it's only used once a year. My first year was '96 when I got to shoot a fully automatic machine gun and toss homemade hand grenades. I ran Media Mecca for seven years when we'd have 300+ media outlets at the event. Now I head out with a Camelbak and a sleeping bag and mooch off of friends. Sure the event has changed, but I still recommend folks go out at least once. If you want to go to something that never changes, there's always Disneyland. I have tremendous respect for the artists and everyone who volunteers to make it happen each year. I still volunteer on the fringes, but for the most part, I'm your consummate spectator.

So, you live among the redwoods of the Santa Cruz mountains, you fought for Felton's water rights, and yet you seem to deeply enjoy deserts. Is there a common, maybe archetypal thread that connects the two?

Big cities don't do much for me. We live in the redwoods at the end of a potholed dirt road. Our dogs get skunked. I wake up to deer eating my freaking roses. I even saw a chupacabra once. We're within driving distance of the ocean, the mountains and the desert. I never take that for granted for a second. I've been very fortunate in life and when I can, I try to give a little back.

If you had one thing to say to Santa Cruz County, what would it be?

Pffft. No one listens to me :).


  1. Ahhh the power of the online community to connect even those locally who haven’t had a chance to bump into one another until now… ;D

  2. I have long maintained that the core of BB’s readership resides in the San Lorenzo Valley.

    Ok, off to get 1107 teched.

  3. Before anybody starts squaking about “look at your libertarian paradise here,” I just want to comment that this was almost certainly a case of the local government selling the water system to a large corporation..which is a common story.

    Rally racing original bugs is something that just went somewhere near the top of my “to do before you die” list :)

    1. But they did it in 1890-something! In any case, wouldn’t libertarian theory have made it a for-profit business in the first place, with no government control to sell off?

      Still, I suppose it’s somewhat libertarian in the end, as the local residents got together to raise the money to buy it back, forming a sort of group ownership, since it benefits everyone. Hmmm, what is that called again? Oh ya, local government.

      1. Ah, your first point is a good one. I had misread that part of the article. In fact, that rather throws a monkeywrench in my whole argument :(

        Rather, yes, this case is an argument against pure libertarianism.

        But as to your second..well, I don’t have such a problem with local government. Of course, people will always get together to pool their resources to find common solutions for their problems. This is natural, right, and always should be encouraged. If you want to organize a pool of your fellow citizens to buy a local utility under the umbrella of a non-profit trust, wow, that’s fantastic! I think it’s a beyond wonderful idea, and I wish you the best with it. My only problem is with using coercion to solve those problems…

        I once saw Ron Paul speak, and I thought one thing he said was very interesting (i paraphrase)..”I have no problem with you setting up a communist society, with no private property. Just as long as you make it voluntary who joins and who doesn’t.”

        The problem is that, the larger and larger governments get, the further and further they become from the people who they actually effect, and the harder it is to opt out through any means at all.

        So yes, this is absolutely a fine example of the positive side of government, and if all government initiatives would be limited to things so directly linked to the will of the people and strictly limited in scope, I would have no problem with it!

    2. Just to clarify, the Felton system was never publicly owned, going back to when it was created in the late 1800s. What was unique about the American Water and RWE acquisitions was the huge rate increases they went for almost immediately upon acquiring the system. It’s part of their business process that they’ve done again and again in communities across the U.S.

      What’s interesting, at least in RWE’s case, is that they’ve decided to exit the water industry because they couldn’t get the return on investment they wanted. They couldn’t find a buyer for the American Water, canceled the first IPO due to poor market conditions and finally went with a second one, taking a breathtaking hit on the valuation of the company. There’s a great piece that the WSJ did on RWE and the Felton fight. You can read it here if you’re so inclined: http://tinyurl.com/6r5qs6

      Now I’m off to go prep for today’s Xtreme Outlaws 250. Wish me luck :)

  4. Water&Sewer systems have a literal “Life Safety” status that cannot be safely outsourced. The overall category of what’s often grouped as “Utilities” has been a frequent victim of blatant profiteers or worse. Enron comes to mind as a categorical example.

    The sheer Good Karma convergence in this case might be ascribed to a few other convergences. Like the ones embodied in Jim Graham himself.

    Folks who are involved with “hands on” tool use tend to be differently aware of systems interaction as a concept. No disrespect to people of equally valued skills of course- It’s just amusingly evocative of:


    And when you consider events such as Burning Man? That’s an experience that WILL forever alter how one thinks of water.. When a community is educated by/composed of tool users that also are Burn alumni- it’s very likely to become openly activist in self-determination.

    Everyone involved in the community activism that took back their water system has racked up some enviable “Good Deeds” cred :>:

  5. FLOW was a great achievement, Jim. Now let’s scotch that fossil fuel burning desalination plant that all out monterey bay governments seem bound to build. feh!

    1. In an ideal world we’d have no need for “burning” of anything excepting perhaps- ceremonial etc reasons. Out of “our world” is where we should be powering the world from. There’s a rather stable, self-contained Fusion power source only 93 million miles or so away from us. Which is a nice safe distance for power plants :) We’re already using it for desalination in some places.

  6. Having lived in Felton, I’d say the water was particularly worth fighting for. Best tap water I’ve ever tasted. Great work Jim, thanks (from a former and hopefully future resident).

  7. Water bug rally yeah yeah yeah. What I want to know is why the guy in the photo is flipping me off.

  8. If I ever see another reference to “BURNING MAN” I swear I’ll never come back

  9. > The greatest challenge racing Baja is communications. Race radios are pretty much useless unless you’ve got line-of-sight. Everyone has satellite phones and it can take half an hour or more to get a call through. One of our sponsors, EMS Sky Connect, loans us communications and tracking system called Rugged Text and Track, that allows my wife, sitting in front of several laptops back in California, to track the car and our three chase trucks – and communicate with them – in real time. It came in handy when I broke my leg getting out of the car during the race in 2009.

    How about a stratospheric relay platform, like those which JP Aerospace launches using hams for ground crew? Put some repeaters on a balloon platform and you’ve got good communications without timelag and slow packets.

    1. The EMS Sky Connect system worked flawlessly for us. But I will check out JP Aerospace. Thanks for the tip.

      BTW, if anyone cares, we either finished first or second at the Xtreme Outlaws race this weekend, waiting for a final report from the organizers re: time.

      Next up, the Fallon 250 Night Race on July 16. We’ll be running electroluminescent number panels from Trailglow (http://www.trailglow.com). If anyone has access to a couple sets of 4th Gen night vision goggles we could borrow…we should talk. :)

      Thanks for all the great comments, btw. I am, as a matter of fact, flattery-operated. And I’ve learned a tremendous amount from comments on BB articles.


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