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

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

COLAB, or Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business, is a Central Coast-based conservative lobbying organization that’s been in operation since 2009. Having no physical address beyond a P.O. Box, COLAB is widely known for being opaque about their membership and their objectives. The organization was founded by right-wing radio show host Andy Caldwell.

On their website, the organization states their mission is to “promote the common business interests of its members by providing information and education on issues which have or may have an impact on its membership.” However, when they’re not sharing CalCoastNews articles and parroting their assertions, COLAB “promotes” conspiratorial, long-winded screeds in a weekly update/newsletter mostly authored by one person: COLAB Government Affairs Director Mike Brown.

Who is Mike Brown?

Brown is the former Executive Officer for Santa Barbara County and worked directly with their board of supervisors for 14 years. The Santa Barbara Independent reached out to 60 people within the County government who all said Brown had become “the most powerful person in the county, even surpassing the supervisors in day-to-day control of county affairs.”

He retired in 2010 after opting for a “golden handshake” pension plan, which awarded two years additional service credit. Oddly enough, Brown has made no mention of his retirement plans when he’s chided county leadership for offering incentives on county employee pensions.

Though he was recognized outside of the county for being knowledgeable in government budgets and finance, land use and public policy issues, his co-workers consistently stated in performance evaluations that he was mediocre at best, malevolent at worst. Employees described Brown as having a volatile temperament, which led to several official complaints. His misconduct was first spotlighted when he served as city manager for Tuscon, Arizon from 1993-96. The Arizona Daily Star said he was “hot-tempered and verbally abusive” toward staffers.

Though he’s criticized other local leaders for being embroiled in scandals, Brown was in a few of his own.

In 2001, former county Human Resources Director Ann Goodrich filed a lawsuit against Brown, citing harassment. The lawsuit eventually settled for around $900,000.

According to the Santa Barbara Independent, around the time he retired, Brown was sued by former public defender Jim Egar, who alleged Brown “screamed in his face, spit at him, and threatened to ‘slaughter’ him in front of the supervisors.” The lawsuit was later dropped. But as one lawsuit against him was dropped, another was filed.

Andy Caldwell

Andy Caldwell, Founder of COLAB

In 2009, Heidi Garcia, a former assistant director of Santa Barbara’s Alcohol, Drug & Mental Health Services (ADMHS), sued the county, citing a hostile work environment that included being “increasingly retaliated against” by Brown and others. The lawsuit also alleged that Brown had to be terminated because she of his behavior, which was “consistent with his history, pattern, and practice of punishing complaining executives and managers who oppose biased, intolerant, harassing, discriminatory, and retaliatory workplaces in the county.” Garcia eventually prevailed in her lawsuit, being awarded a total of $431,000 in damages.

On October 27, 2009, former county employee Shawn Terris filed a lawsuit against Brown, claiming she was discriminated against by Brown and was wrongfully terminated. According to Terris, Brown reportedly harassed her and created a hostile workplace environment. But by June 2, 2010, the lawsuit was ruled in Brown’s favor and the case was dismissed.

Brown was accused by public commenter and self-described “whistleblower activist” Kate Smith of hitting her during a board meeting in April 2010, though there was no evidence in the security footage that Brown maliciously struck her. Smith’s case was later dismissed. She was later banned for three years from all county buildings after reportedly harassing county employees.

Brown’s role in COLAB

In his newsletters, Brown provides a weekly analysis of legislative action affecting San Luis Obispo County residents, using his expertise to analyze each item of interest. However, Brown routinely injects partisanship and his now-infamous vitriol into his commentary.

He often decries the “failure” of the “leftist” leadership on the County Board of Supervisors, but rarely specifies what those failures are beyond making broad-brushed characterizations of their actions. Similar to CalCoastNews, Brown focuses extensively on District 3 Supervisor Adam Hill, who he’s ironically accused of being a bully. When he’s not targeting Democratic leadership, Brown criticizes their supporters as being part of the “enviro-socialist left.”

According to BOS meeting minutes, District 2 Supervisor Bruce Gibson and Hill criticized their conservative colleagues for meeting with Brown without disclosing their ex-parte communications. Both Gibson and Hill cited Brown as a “lobbyist,” but Brown dismissed the label, insisting he’s a “government watchdog.” However, a cursory review of his COLAB commentary shows he’s constantly lobbying for certain board actions. Board minutes show he’s attempted to curry favor from conservative leaders. Sure enough, local leaders have appeared at COLAB fundraisers, including former Grover Beach mayor and District 3 supervisor candidate Debbie Peterson, District 4 Supervisor Lynn Compton, District 5 Supervisor Debbie Arnold, San Luis Obispo city councilman and District 3 supervisor candidate Dan Carpenter.

How do we challenge COLAB?

It’s important to have a public conversation about COLAB, who they are, their intentions and reasons for advocating on certain issues. They may demand transparency and accountability from elected officials, but as a 501(c)(6) business organization, they consider themselves the exception to the rule. Ask for their tax records and their board directors. Look for the money trail. The more they refuse to be transparent about their motives, the less relevant they are in the public eye. And most importantly, don’t allow them to influence the vote.