Taking a drone flight with a Salinas councilman in violation of FAA rules.

Mary Duan

“Wait. He did what?”

That phrase is often used in relation to Salinas City Councilman Jose Castañeda, whose issues (including failures to pay a $5,000 court-ordered fine and to at least pretend to play nice with city staff ) have made him a media anti-darling.

But in this case, the speaker was referring to Salinas Councilman Steve McShane. McShane’s had his share of crazy moments: handing out coloring pages and crayons at one City Council meeting and sponsoring a brownie bake-off at a recent community gathering where legalizing cannabis was being discussed, just to name a few. But he recently took crazy to a whole new level – sky high, in fact.

On July 4, when many neighborhoods in Salinas sounded like Baghdad circa 1991 thanks to the profligate use of illegal fireworks, McShane and members of the Los Olivos-Riker Neighborhood Association contracted a company to fly drones over the neighborhood to capture video of all the illegal boom-booming.

Also present: Dennis Revell, a spokesman for fireworks-manufacturing company TNT, whose product line includes “maximum charge” goodies with names like “Call the Law” – and items considered “safe and sane” and sold by local schools and nonprofits as fundraisers. TNT provided funding for the drone flight.

The drones were operated by Monterey Drone, an aerial video and photography company. In April, Monterey Drone received permission from the Federal Aviation Administration to – and I’m quoting from the FAA’s letter – “operate an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) to conduct commercial applications for produce field management, real estate and marketing purposes, electrical engineering inspections and live sporting events.”

Curious, because in this case, Monterey Drone was working for the neighborhood association with a law-enforcement application in mind.

FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford isn’t sure that use puts Monterey Drone in violation. But they flew at night, and that is a violation. Video shows the drones in the sky at dusk.

Other violations laid out by a city insider: They failed to notify the Salinas Airport and tower manager of the operation; they likely failed to keep a 500-foot distance from non-participating people; they failed to get authorization from all property owners who were affected; and they failed to notify the FAA’s Flight Standards District Office.

Revell’s reaction to my questioning the legality of the flight? In essence, sez you. Salinas Airport Manager Brett Godown’s reaction: Monterey Drone seemed unaware of flight rules, and broke more than a few.

Monterey Drone employee John Ivy says the company won’t discuss the drone flight until they find out what the neighborhood association wants to say.

“This was their program. We were doing what they asked us to do,” Ivy says. “It was a test.”

A test of what? The 4th Amendment?

As McShane stated coyly on his Facebook page: “Last night I helped bring drone technology to my neighborhood in an effort to aid public safety to control illegal & dangerous fireworks. A firestorm of opinions has ensued. Thoughts? Opinions? Any lawyers out there?”

There were a lot of thoughts and opinions, many supportive, many not. As for the city or police using the footage, that’s a non-starter. Officials can’t seem to put enough distance between the city and this clusterfuck.

City Attorney Chris Callihan says in no way was the flight a city-approved event. Police Chief Kelly McMillin says several officers attended a drone demonstration last month in advance of July 4.

“There was some discussion of them using drones and reporting to us, and I said, ‘Look. I have tremendous privacy concerns with law enforcement getting involved with flying cameras around,’” McMillin says. “We need to do research before we get involved.”

A cynical person might wonder if TNT didn’t throw their financial weight behind this to muscle the city into sponsoring a fireworks show. But the city doesn’t have a few hundred thousand dollars to blow on a spectacle like that.

Instead, they have a far cheaper spectacle on their hands.

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