Of the five bodies comprising the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors, Adam Hill has been one of the more polarizing in recent years.
The Jersey boy with a liberal core is rounding out his first term, with hopes of continuing another four years in office, if he can beat his opponent from Pismo Beach, City Councilman Ed Waage.
Hill has been critical of the media, particularly New Times’ coverage of him. So photographer Steve E. Miller and I sat with Hill to talk about the last few years, what it means to be a supervisor, and what happens when a politician shoots off his mouth or otherwise acts like a human.
The following is a partial transcript of that conversation, but a more complete version can be found here.
NEW TIMES I think when you passed the chair on to Jim Patterson, you seemed to have a gripe with the local media. So I was wondering what we as the media should improve, what the criticisms are, and what—if anything—are we doing right?
HILL Oh, I don’t know if I want to go on the record with that, because it’s going to sound like a bunch of whining. I mean, I talked to your editor about it, but it’s not really the local media so much as it’s you guys—you—and your good friend, Cal Coast News.
MILLER Good friend?
HILL Well, you guys seemed to focus on some trivial things at the expense of some rather substantive things at times. We counted that I spoke to, or when I was chair, there were more than 1,300 people that spoke in public comment, both for items on the agenda and not on the agenda. One person had their mic shut off during that entire time. There is a woman that comes every week from Los Osos, as you know. … She says some rather, at times, nasty things. And that particular occasion she was reading from divorce records of [Public Works Director] Paavo Ogren from, I think, Cal Coast News’ website, and I thought that was inappropriate. And I thought that that was one of those things that it’s worth asking somebody to sit down for because it just seemed to be, just, you know, attacking us is one thing. I think it does cross a line when you get into people’s personal lives. ... So to be shredded five times for that by you guys and to have you call me psychotic? ... I made it clear early on that having the sheriff’s deputy was never my idea, it was something that the sheriff and our [county administrative officer] had decided on. Partly just because as the Los Osos project was moving forward, those people were getting a little more animated and yelling. We’ve even seen under [Supervisor] Jim Patterson that they’ve continued to yell.
NEW TIMES But that did start when you took over as chair, right?
HILL But it wasn’t at my request to have a deputy there, one way or another. … My sense is that you guys made a big deal out of something that really wasn’t a big deal. You give attention to those folks; they thrive on attention, that’s why they come every week. [Supervisor] Bruce Gibson, when he was chair my first year, only gave them 20 minutes completely—they had to split minutes. Somehow, he wasn’t Mussolini, or psychotic. … And I’ve always been a little bit confused as to how that or anything else led to this kind of grudge against me that you and some of, well actually, you’re the only one that covers the county and whoever it is that happens to be the Shredder that week. I mean, I understand why Cal Coast News does what they do … [The site’s Karen Velie] was a student of mine. And for a couple of years, I would talk to her, and I would hear her say things that I knew were fabrications or, you know, the axes being grinded for somebody who had some problem with whoever it was she was trying to write a story. … .
NEW TIMES What have you done in this term that you’re most proud of, that you would like to focus on?
HILL Well, a couple of things. I mean, the fiscal thing is really big, because my first year we had a $30 million budget gap, which was the biggest in the history of the county. And that had been ongoing and they’d been addressing it. But we made some changes. We saw what was coming … and we knew that we needed to make some changes on pension pay, because we have a prevailing wage ordinance, too, which was passed by the voters. And the way it’s traditionally been interpreted, it’s kind of just spiraled up to give people a raise every year, even in exceedingly bad years. … I mean, I’d been at Cal Poly where I was in a labor union so I understand it completely and have respect for labor. But we needed to be able to be sustainable in the future. … There was a real reason to make reforms and there was a lot of public desire to see those reforms. So we’re already saving a fair amount of money by putting that system into place that’s reformed pensions. So we’re proud of that. And you know it’s complicated, it’s not that sexy in the long run. … But we’re also thankful to our employees. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish it if they fought it.
NEW TIMES Any regrets from the term so far?
HILL Well, there’s always regrets. There’s small things, like do I wish that I had been more diplomatic at times with certain people? I mean, I’m edgy; I’m from New Jersey and I like to get things done. … I went into this job coming from a very easy, comfortable job at Cal Poly where I just got to spend time in a classroom talking about books every couple of hours every day, and that was it. And I did this for a reason: to get things done. What I did discover is that you can get things done. I didn’t come here to vote on things on Tuesdays; it’s really the least interesting part of the job sometimes. You’re just sitting there and it’s not fun for you guys to cover sometimes; it’s certainly not necessarily always fun for us to be there. … I have realized you can do a lot of good things, leadership wise. But I guess it’s the old cliché that sometimes you have to crack a few eggs, and there’s some people who don’t get that. And if anything, I think that sometimes maybe it’s different—East Coast, West Coast style. I mean, I would admit in a second that [Supervisor] Jim Patterson’s a heck of a lot nicer guy than me. He is. Jim would probably literally give you the shirt off his back. He’s going to be the politest and most thoughtful person he possibly can be because he just naturally is.
NEW TIMES And I know when you got into office, I talked with people who were really disappointed, they felt like you had kind of turned your back on them, or turned your back on their concerns, specifically in the farther left environmental community.
HILL Well, in the farther left environmental community we’re probably talking about a very small number of people. I think when you run in a campaign, especially in a time when a board is doing things that are controversial, to say the least, everybody invests probably all sorts of hopes in a candidate that maybe aren’t realistic. Or maybe aren’t matching that person’s ideals and desires. … I’m pretty far to the left on social issues, but we don’t deal with social issues. If we dealt with social issues then I would say I don’t know why people are crazy about gay marriage and I don’t know why Republicans are talking about contraception. On the social issues like homelessness and some poverty-related issues, I think it’s our duty, I think it’s our responsibility to help people. On other environmental issues, there has to be a balance between things, and when you start opposing solar projects. ... I think that there was a desire from some people, and I really do think it’s a small number of people, and it might be the same people who might have been disappointed with Jim at times. ... And there’s a lot of people who don’t like anything government does unless it’s giving them subsidies. And so I think that was inevitable. … I wish we had a stronger environmental presence, because in other places there are probably much more practical environmentalists that are trying to work with [policy makers]. You can’t just sort of say, “It’s our way, or we’re going to be against you.” And I think that we’ve seen that too often. I also think that they serve a really important role, though. That’s the difference: The role of the activist is outside the system. And also on the far right. I wouldn’t have a problem even with COLAB [Coalition of Labor, Agriculture & Business] if it wasn’t for the stuff that they do on the president and things like that. They have their view—their anti-regulatory tax view—and, OK. They serve a purpose, and the far left serves a purpose, and somewhere you try to find a way to get things done, very often, in the middle. So I don’t think anybody likes to lose some supporters, but I don’t think you can get anything done without it. If you haven’t lost friends when you’re in office, you probably haven’t done anything … .
NEW TIMES Where do you think the line should be between your personal life and your professional life?
HILL I don’t think personal life stuff is really that relevant unless we’re talking about crimes of some kind. … I honestly don’t care about people’s private romantic lives. We know that through history the fact that, say, presidents or kings or anybody have had mistresses. … That we report on it doesn’t make things different or better or make us better. So I don’t really think that it’s particularly relevant. And I have been offended by, I don’t think you guys necessarily go there, but certainly the [Dave] Congalton, Cal Coast access has been despicable, quite frankly. I don’t think they have any ethical lines about that. I think that it’s up to you guys to have to draw probably on a case-by-case basis whether something in somebody’s personal life is worthy of reporting because it’s relevant to them as elected officials.
NEW TIMES I know that we didn’t report on this, but I want to ask, what happened with the crank call with Ed Waage?
HILL It was what I said it was, and I’m glad you didn’t report on it because it’s another example of the trivial versus what’s really the issue. Sheila Blake’s a friend of mine. She’s come to every single fundraiser of mine. … So she was joking because she lives in Pismo and she’s been one of the leading opponents of some of the developments that they’ve pushed on Price Canyon area. She wrote a letter to the editor of the Tribune. First, she ran it by me. … And in her letter, she wrote, “If you want to join us in opposing this contact me, really, Sheila Blake, here’s my phone number.” And I said, “You know, the phone number thing’s the only thing I would think about, because you’re going to get probably a lot of cranks.” And she said, “That’s just fine, I’m used to it.” … So I made a joke calling her, and I said, “This is Ed Waage.” And she didn’t know it was my voice because she had thought she was going to get a whole bunch of calls; she thought it might have been Ed. So she calls up Ed, he comes over with a tape recorder, and records it and gives it to Cal Coast News. And that’s the story. I didn’t know about that until Velie e-mails me. She doesn’t tell me she’s got a tape or play me a tape and say, “Is this you?” I never denied that it was me; I didn’t know what she was talking about. So the way she worked it was let’s see if we can make it seem like he’s denying it. So I realized what had happened once she ran the story and said, “Oh yeah, it’s me. Talk to Sheila.” And Sheila called both Congalton and her and said, “This is a misunderstanding, this is not what you’re making it out to be … .” I mean, I didn’t even try to disguise my voice. … And next thing you know it’s at least 10 Congalton shows. I guess, it’s great news. … I mean, I’m OK if you want to beat up on me on issues or votes, or things we haven’t supported or that are legitimate. We got criticized for not supporting the pot clinics, the most recent proposal. I think that was legitimate. … So I’m OK when people criticize me on that stuff, but that seemed like you’ve really got to be on the side of trying to humiliate me just for the sake of humiliating me to think of that as a story. … But really think about it, what are we talking about? Am I going out there and saying, like, really nasty things about people that feeds into a denigrating context? If I’m out there making jokes about gay people, then I should be bashed. If I’m out there making off-handed remarks about women, bash me. If I’m out there making racist comments, bash me. … One of the reasons I thought that the Waage thing was ridiculous is because find somebody that hasn’t left those kinds of messages on their friend’s answering machine. … And that’s what’s puzzled me, which is this is trivial shit, really. I mean, this is not like how the county’s going to deal with its budget, or how we’re dealing with land use, or whether homeless people get fed, or any of that stuff.
NEW TIMES So have you learned anything?
HILL Well, certainly what we were just talking about, which is don’t expect that even if you think something is minor and trivial it can’t be blown up into some type of media frenzy.
NEW TIMES Would you act any differently knowing that?
HILL It’s hard for me personally, because it requires a kind of caution and my personality … I would admit to being edgy, but also would admit this: If anybody’s offended by anything, I’m not a jerk. … If I was a carouser, I almost feel like nobody would pay attention. .... I don’t carouse, that’s not really who I am. I’m not at the bars, I’m not hitting on girls or things like that. So I mean, if I was someone like that in the position, then maybe it would be an interesting thing.
NEW TIMES I was running through these questions with everyone, and [New Times Staff Writer Matt Fountain] said that I should ask you about Diablo Canyon and how you want to stay on top of that.
HILL Well, that’s something I’m really proud of, and I’m glad that Matt and actually others have really covered that with the kind of attention it deserves, because it’s kind of tricky. We’re always short sighted about our own faults, and yeah, I can do stupid things. But let me give an example of where perhaps the more thoughtful and deliberate Adam is useful to all of us, and that’s on Diablo. We don’t have really much authority when it comes to the nuclear power plant. So we kept pushing on this, and I kept pushing below. The view I always had with PG&E—which is, they’re too important in the community to be out there trying to think that you can say negative things about them and get anywhere—it just doesn’t work. I mean, it might be grandstanding and fun in that way, but what are you accomplishing? So my view is let me work with them, let me keep pushing them. ... And I said all along, “You guys need to be with us on not just the seismic studies that are going to happen, but that we get a voice in the peer review panel. You don’t want to fight us on that. You want to be supportive of that because that’s the message you want to send to all of our citizens, which is we’re on the same page: safety first. If you say, it you need to really mean it.” And they agreed; they were there. [Supervisor] Bruce [Gibson] is on the panel for us, and Bruce is doing a really good job. …
NEW TIMES Is there any way to get that message out to the public locally? Because when I go and I sit in the audience, generally PG&E comes in—it’s a PG&E PowerPoint with their own talking points.
HILL I think that you should trust Bruce because he’s a geophysicist and he knows not to take those answers. I know PG&E probably would prefer us not to have Bruce on there, if you were to ask somebody. Because having a scientist is one thing, but as [Sen.] Sam [Blakeslee] has shown, too, having a scientist that knows the difference between bullshit and not-bullshit is good. And willing to say, “This is bullshit because.” So I feel like we accomplished something really important here, which is we have a voice that’s independent of PG&E or anyone else—NRC, or anyone that anyone doesn’t trust—that’s going to ask the right questions and eventually going to be able to report to the public on his own findings. And the reason why I point to that as a really good accomplishment is because I have a really good relationship with PG&E. Now if I was just this wild man who shot his mouth off every time, they wouldn’t listen to me at all. They wouldn’t even like me.
NEW TIMES Do you think your public persona matches your private persona?
HILL I think that public meetings are very formal. You have your Robert’s Rules of Order and you have this chamber and all this wood and chrome and shit out there, and we’re there in our suits. It doesn’t lend to the more relaxed reflective person that I like to think of myself as being. It is a formality. Every Tuesday it’s this thing that we do. There’s an agenda, and we follow these rules and so forth. And then as we’re deliberating, we write some notes of things we want to say. The format is not lending to a great amount of spontaneity, and some of the best debates that we’ve seen have been far and few between. I can think of one of the most fun things, debates I had, was with Bruce Gibson over smart growth on a project in Templeton that he voted against and I voted for. … And we had a good exchange of things. And I called Bruce pedantic, and then I apologized for calling him pedantic. But we’re good. … Public meetings are not conducive to this finding out what these people are like. And even sometimes when we’re at events, you know, you’re kind of pretending to be who you are. I go to these events that you have to go to, like nonprofit events or things like that, and you’re the supervisor and you say a few words and you thank people and stuff like that. I don’t think of myself particularly seriously on things like that. What would I rather be doing? I’d rather be home reading or listening to jazz than shaking hands with 100 people I don’t know. … So yeah, I could see that persona is definitely mixed. The first time I encountered Jerry Brown, a long time ago when he was out of office for a long time at that point, he was in Washington when I was working there. I think it was when he was kind of just figuring out if he wanted to get back into the game. And he had this long, full beard. He was sitting in a hotel, and it was during this mid-year convention thing, and people were just walking by him. And I was with some friends, they were young hill staffers, too, and I was like, “You know who that is? That’s Jerry Brown.” So we went over and talked to him and we had this long conversation about books. … And I came away from that experience and the couple of times that I’ve met him thinking, say what you will about Jerry Brown, whether he’s been successful or not successful as a public figure, as a politician … what I found really fascinating about him was here’s a guy with an inner life. Which is not always the case when you meet politicians at that level. I don’t think anyone ever accused anyone as successful in politics as Ronald Reagan of having an inner life that was really much more interesting than whatever movies he and Nancy were going to watch that night on TV. … We’re like five monkeys on this bench, and whatever people say or throw at us—it’s not the most naturally conducive situation. … Sometimes people just want you to be at this event to be this furniture that has a little brand name that says county supervisor. … And I’m always interested in how ideas become expressed in policy. But I don’t know that you can do that—I can do that one-on-one with people, and I can do that when I talk to friends or former teachers. I don’t know. I just think that part of being a politician is to some degree, you’re playing a role. … Let’s put it this way: No wealthy person ever invited me inside their mansion when I was teaching books at Cal Poly.
MILLER Let’s just pretend that you lose this next election. So what would you tell Ed Waage that is the most difficult thing about being a supervisor? What would you want anybody to know about this job and what’s difficult about it—most difficult?
HILL People seem to want the job for the title. I mean, my predecessor seemed to like being a supervisor more than doing the job, because the job’s a grind, and it’s pretty thankless in a lot of ways. I mean, you get e-mails from people who are complaining, not usually people saying, “Thank you so much.” People have these ambitions that I don’t get. I had a specific purpose. I had no dream of being a county supervisor, really. … I like teaching. I was treated well at Cal Poly; it was fun. I got to do that. I was writing book reviews for the L.A. Times and the Chronicle. I was generally sort of satisfied. It wasn’t like some morning I woke up and said, “That’s what I want to do.” So I think that people who want to do it for reasons of ambition, and I think that’s the case with my opponent, which is an ideological motivation. That’s a bad reason; you’re not going to succeed in the job, I think.
NEW TIMES Do you think either you or Jim Patterson is going to have to adjust if Debbie Arnold or Ed Waage wins, and then all of a sudden we have a 3-2 Republican-leaning majority?
HILL If the majority in terms of land use and the associated regulations matters, which it really does at our level, then yeah.
NEW TIMES What do you do? Do you try to compromise more, or do you try to dig in more and just take a stand?
HILL I would try to find common ground. I mean, I think we’ve tried to do that for the most part anyway, even where there’s three votes that are more aligned on some of the land-use issues. … You know, we told them early on, doing the exact opposite of what the last board was doing is not a recipe for survival. ... If the board makeup changes, I think you’d just naturally want to adjust, to figure out how to still get the right things done. … I’m not saying that I’m perfectly right, I may be wrong, but I think I’ve tried to do the right thing. ∆
News Editor Colin Rigley can be reached at [email protected].