Columns

Inside The BOS’ Partisan Dysfunction

Mike Brown of COLAB (Source: Paul Wellman – Santa Barbara Independent)

Leading up to the Jan. 10 SLO County Board of Supervisors meeting, there was a lot discussion about something that’s not normally contested.

For decades, deciding who becomes chair of BOS was particularly uneventful. The board decides who would be chair and vice-chair. The motion is made, passed and board business proceeded as usual. For the past two years, that decision-making process has turned into a partisan debate — and it’s all centered around one supervisor.

District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill was supposed to serve as chair of the board in 2015, but residents filled the chambers to complain about him. Hill, an outspoken supervisor, has come under fire for his unfiltered candor and criticism of political extremism. His frustration is understandable, given he’s been associated with various conspiracy theories — from being involved with the United Nations in a conspiracy to take away personal liberties to somehow orchestrating the DUI arrest of self-styled “reporter” Karen Velie.

Being the outspoken supervisor that he is, Hill mocked the extremism that he faced in a Jan. 2014 New Times editorial. Though he rattled off cartoonish depictions of the opposition, Hill never referred to anyone specifically. As his critics caught wind of the editorial, they appeared before the board to complain about his “abusive behavior,” asserting they were personally targeted in the editorial. Critics felt they were personally attacked, yet in communicating their talking points, they would often speculate about his behavior — whether or not his behavior was exacerbated by alcohol or drugs. At times, they would mention some of the unverified accusations published on CalCoastNews.

When it was time for Hill to become chair in 2015, they were ready to oppose him.

Leading the effort to bypass Hill as chair was the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business (COLAB). COLAB’s Government Affairs Director Mike Brown is one of the leading voices in Hill’s opposition.  Brown was once criticized by Hill from the dais for mocking low-income families (he referred to Brown’s comments as “bloviating foolishness”). Brown was referring to an agenda item that proposed sending a letter to the Federal Communication Commission supporting the public benefit of affordable high-speed internet service for low-income households. Hill was also critical of Brown for his ex-parte lobbying of Hill’s conservative colleagues, District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton and District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold.

Brown urged residents to appear before the board to complain about Hill, his New Times editorial, his behavior, and the notion that approving Hill was reinforcing the “good ol’ boys club.” This is the same Mike Brown who was accused by several subordinates — including a number of female employees — of workplace harassment for over two decades. His employer, Santa Barbara County, paid over $1.3 million in settlements from lawsuits filed against him.

Frustrated with the criticism from Hill’s opposition, then-District 1 Supervisor Frank Mecham made a motion to support Arnold as chair and Compton as vice-chair. The media characterized the move as “surprising” at best and petty politics at worst.

On Jan. 10, 2017, history repeated itself. On a 3-2 vote, the board overturned last year’s resolution to make Adam Hill chair. With COLAB’s coaxing, the board appointed newcomer, District 1 Supervisor John Peschong, to the chairman position one week after he was sworn in. Arnold and Compton supported the move.

“I really believe we need a chairperson who’s respectful to all the other board members,” said Arnold.

The decision came after several public comment speakers supported and opposed Hill’s chairmanship. Hill supporters urged the board to continue the rotation as previously approved in a nonpartisan manner. Hill’s opponents — many of whom contested Hill’s potential chairmanship in 2015 — urged the board to abandon tradition and recycled their previous criticisms of Hill.

But something was different.

Arroyo Grande resident Jeannette Watson opposed Hill’s chairmanship, stating in part, “The future of this country needs wise leadership and not someone like Adam Hill who has been in the pockets of developers and is now involved in a lawsuit. Watson concluded, “He is in the minority with current legal problems.”

Lawsuit? Current legal problems? Apparently this was a theme among a Hill’s critics.

In addition to speculating on whether or not Hill has alcohol or drug problems, Templeton resident and frequent Hill critic Bill Pelfrey stated that Hill “fails to show up for depositions and lawsuits.”

Morro Bay resident Sandra Tannler claimed Hill is costing taxpayers with lawsuits.

San Luis Obispo resident Elsa Dawson said that making Hill chair was risky because a lawsuit was in progress.

Turns out, Hill’s opponents meshed two lawsuits together. Hill was subpoened to be deposed in a defamation lawsuit filed against CalCoastNews, which is ongoing. Hill challenged the subpoena, stating that he’s not involved in the case and doesn’t understand why he would be deposed. After all, the article CalCoastNews is being sued over doesn’t mention Hill as a source or a relevant party to allegations they made about Arroyo Grande businessman Charles Tenborg, the lawsuit’s plaintiff.

The second legal challenge is a lawsuit filed by CalCoastNews’ Karen Velie. With no fanfare, SLO County Counsel Rita Neal revealed on Nov. 8 last year that a claim was filed against Hill by Velie. The announcement was not covered by the local media. For now, court records about the case are sealed.

While we don’t know for sure why Velie filed, we do know that the board’s conservative members have close ties to the website.

When he was chair of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party, John Peschong authorized ads that ran on CalCoastNews, urging readers to join. After he announced his candidacy for District 1 Supervisor, Peschong’s campaign paid the website $500 for advertising. District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold also contributed to the website during her campaign, having chipped in $2,000 toward advertising. If you think they were playing politics by stonewalling Hill at the Jan. 10 meeting, what makes you think Peschong and Arnold would be remain impartial when the item is discussed during closed session?

On Jan. 11, Velie wrote about the meeting but didn’t mention her lawsuit or the deposition subpoena. Transparency, am I right?

Regardless of what anyone thinks of Adam Hill and his politics, this is unusual. It’s unusual because it’s an obsession that leads nowhere and bears no consequence. He’s not chair and clearly he won’t be chair — despite District 3 voters soundly rejecting the false, unproven accusations as well as tactics used against him at the meeting — but he’s still on the board. He still has one vote. He won’t be able to facilitate the conversation on the board, but everything remains the same. Should partisanship continue to rear its ugly head, it will be a 3-2 vote on important resolutions for the foreseeable future. Even if he was chair, that wouldn’t change either.

In SLO County politics, there is a flawed notion that disagreement is a personal attack, and that disagreement somehow disqualifies leaders to lead — as if criticism poses an existential threat to the people being criticized. The notion wouldn’t be a problem if it didn’t influence public policy. The notion wouldn’t be a problem if Mike Brown, a lobbyist, didn’t curate it for personal and political gain.

At least we got to see Brown getting thrown out of the meeting. See? Democracy still works.