A parliamentary spat that has been approaching its climax since the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors’ first meeting of the year finally concluded as 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold took over the chairmanship from 1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham.
- PHOTO BY KAORI FUNAHASHI
What was set to be a contentious discussion over who should rightfully be chair, turned anticlimactic when Mecham shocked the audience by announcing he would relinquish his seat—which he was unanimously elected to serve in by his fellow Supervisors just 29 days prior—and moved for a vote to make Arnold chair and freshly-elected 4th District Supervisor Lynn Compton vice chair. The maneuver was part peacemaking, part political jujitsu in the wake of increasing noise over the process, where vocal critics accused Mecham of participating in a supposed good ol’ boy trio with 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill and 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson, the two longest serving members of the bunch.
“There’s been comments out there that this is the good ol’ boys, that this is discrimination,” Mecham said. “Well I think not.”
Still, he was willing to make the concession, an announcement that quickly changed the crowd’s mood. Julie Tacker, a commonly heard voice of criticism, thanked Mecham.
“I’m a little stunned, and I think it’s the most manly thing that I have seen you do,” Tacker said, after which Mecham jokingly asked if she had ever seen him lift weights.
The stink started when Arnold raised objections to the chair and vice chair being elected during the first meeting of the year, a short, ceremonious meeting where Supervisors and other elected county officials were sworn in to their terms. Usually a formality, the process, which took place on Jan. 5, was done as it has been done for years. This year, however, Arnold objected, calling the rotational order unclear, while her supporters cried foul over the absence of public comment at the meeting.
While there have been two rotational jumps in the last decade, the apparent order would have put Mecham as chair and Hill as vice chair. In 2009, Mecham, a freshman supervisor at the time, declined to serve as chair after beating Harry Ovitt in that district’s 2008 election, and instead became vice chair. The cycle again skipped a year in 2013 after the sudden death of the then-chair, 4th District Supervisor Paul Teixeira. Gibson, who was next in line, moved from vice chair to chair that year and remained chair through 2014, with Mecham as vice chair. The vice chair traditionally becomes chair in the new year.
Since 2006, the 5th District Supervisor—at the time Jim Patterson, Arnold’s predecessor—served as chair twice, in 2008 and 2012. Regardless, critics of the process have accused Gibson, Hill, and Mecham of working to lock out Arnold.
Prior to that discussion, the Supervisors discussed their procedures on selecting the chair and vice chair, and whether to more clearly define the process Arnold pitched as well.
When the time came to select a chair, Mecham’s announcement quickly changed the tune.
“Well Mr. Mecham, you finally found a way to shut me up,” said Bill Pelfrey, a common critic at Tuesday meetings.
While Mecham said his decision was an attempt to solve a problem, Gibson said he didn’t think there was a problem in the first place.
“Angry and ideological voices have raised this to suggest that there is a problem,” Gibson said. “The election of the chair, and in particular the election of the vice chair, has been a non-event, it has been a trivial matter.”
But leading into the discussion that eventually resulted in a 3-2 vote to make Arnold chair and Compton vice chair, respectively, Mecham explained his thinking.
“Over the last couple of weeks the only thing that’s has been on my mind is the controversy and the anger and the polarization that we see,” Mecham said. “We’ve got to get rid of that. We’re supposed to be here to solve problems, we ask for you to help provide input for solutions to those problems. We’re not asking for you to be here just to tell us what a bunch of rotten no-goods we are and that we don’t listen to anybody. Sometimes you say we don’t listen, I think it’s we don’t agree. There’s a difference, but I’m hoping that by this change and by this rotation process that this solves the problem, then we can move on.”
After about an hour addressing the issue, would-have-been antagonists approached Mecham at the dais and thanked him for his decision, after which Mecham worked his way past the Supervisors’ private elevator, out into the hall, and took the public elevator back up to his fourth floor office.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay