I’ve been in the political arena for a long time, and as such, I thought I had seen it all. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The “hijacking” of the Arroyo Grande city government is not something many saw coming or thought possible. For years, smaller cities have generally been immune to the crippling effects of partisanship, union influences, and political polarization. Those days are over. We have a voting public that has become wary of elected officials at all levels of government. Belief systems are influenced by every piece of sensationalism that can be contrived by opposing parties and the media. With one scandal after another being sunlighted in Washington, D.C., it’s not surprising that there is a growing mistrust of public officials. The public is being programmed to accept as fact any accusation of wrongdoing. The true facts are not important. If it’s on the Internet or blaring out on the radio waves, it must be true.
Extracting emotion from the occurrences in Arroyo Grande, one can clearly identify the various agendas that gained momentum over the past three months and thus resulted in the “perfect storm.” We are now left with a debris field that must be cleared and a community that is sharply divided both politically and emotionally. The city lost the best city manager it has ever had. They lost a hard-working, knowledgeable, and dedicated City Council member, and a mayor who for 16 years devoted his public life to making this city a better place (that would be me).
The stormfront materialized in the form of the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association that chose to accept the advice and guidance of a notoriously unethical and unscrupulous labor attorney. The July 3 incident involving the city manager was the proverbial “manna from heaven”—an opportunity to settle old labor scores and ensure that the city manager’s influence on current labor negotiations was neutralized. They took full advantage of the situation. The core leadership of the police union (POA) went for the throat. They attacked anyone who got in their way. Thus, the infamous “letter of no confidence.” They claimed that their actions were not “labor related,” yet they did it while the city and AGPOA were engaged in labor negotiations. They later stated that “they only wanted to get the city manager’s attention.” As a retired law enforcement officer, this has been painful to witness. There are no valid excuses for the behavior of the AGPOA. They “crossed the line” in so many ways—most notably through the use of intimidation and bullying tactics directed at businesses and other members of the community during the write-in campaign. They traded the honor of wearing the badge for self-serving greed. And, in the process, tarnished the reputation of one of the finest police departments in the state.
I am shocked, saddened, and disappointed in the behavior of the Arroyo Grande chief of police. In the eyes of many, he took a huge step away from his duties as an administrator and a member of the city’s management team. I can understand a police chief wanting to support his officers. I would question any chief who didn’t do that. But when a police union goes “rogue” and engages in unethical behavior, it’s time to draw the line. Our police chief “looked the other way.” He ignored the bullying, misinformation, and intimidation tactics forthcoming from those in his own department, even when those tactics were used in the community. But perhaps the most serious transgression was his failure to adequately protect and secure his own City Council. Instead, he passed that responsibility on to the sheriff. Why? Because he clearly didn’t want to appear to take sides against the POA and their supporters.
Concurrently, a second storm cloud began forming when a core group of critics in the community heard that the city manager and city staff were involved in the July 3 incident. Even though two investigations have revealed there was “no factual evidence that any illicit behavior occurred,” it didn’t deter those who have been openly critical of the city for their own personal reasons from pointing accusatory fingers and demanding action be taken. Their public testimony at council meetings took on the tenor of a lynch mob. They had waited for an opportunity like this and were not going to be denied their “pound of flesh.” With no facts to back them up, they unleashed a vile stream of accusations against the city manager, the council, and specifically at me. Some of the accusations came from people I’ve known for years. They accused the council of a “cover-up” and opined about the “horrible example we were setting for our children!” Not once did they consider introspectively the “lessons” they were teaching their own children, some of whom were present and witnessed the venom unleashed by their parents and others. They demonstrated that it’s OK to use foul language and disrupt civil meetings, it’s OK to adopt a vigilante mentality and act as judge, jury, and executioner. And even though it can’t be factually established, it’s perfectly acceptable to find someone guilty and systematically rend their character, ruin their careers, and bring pain and grief onto their families.
Omnipresent was the continuum of “thunder and lightning” from the fringe media. There are no words to describe the despicable behavior of the writers at Cal Coast News along with their colleague on “hometown radio.” Together, they form what some call the SLO County “Sleaze Team.” It’s not accurate to say they have “lost their moral compass.” These individuals never had one. Without conscience or any semblance of fact, they have intentionally ruined reputations, careers, and attacked the character of so many public figures. They have brought pain and suffering into the lives of those they have attacked and destroyed the fabric of families and friendships. What sets them apart from other purveyors of misinformation is their motivation. For them, it’s a “business.” They make money from the sensationalism they create. A few years ago, I asked our “hometown radio” host why he intentionally generated bias and promoted controversy on his programs. His response was, “It makes for good radio.” It doesn’t get any lower on the food chain than this. Website hits and radio call-ins are sponsor-generating statistics to be used for profit. Unfortunately, all too often, people believe what they see and hear on the Internet or listen to on radio and form judgments based solely on misinformation.
I have been asked by many in the media about the “future” of Arroyo Grande now that the election is over. Can the city restore the wonderful sense of community spirit and pride we once enjoyed? There are too many variables to predict when or if this will occur. The POA now has a mayor they have “bought and paid for.” A new city manager will be selected, and no one knows how relationships will develop among the newly formed City Council. My hope is that the police chief will find another home and that the police department will garner enough rank-and-file support to challenge and restructure the core leadership of the POA. There is one consistent element that has the most promise of bringing back the Arroyo Grande that we all have cherished for so many years. I believe that the vast majority of our community still love our city and will rise to the occasion. It will require vigilance of the new city government, engagement, and the courage to stand up for what is right—but to use civil discourse instead of abhorrent and contemptible behavior. I’m certain that most people in Arroyo Grande can still tell the difference.
Tony Ferrara is the former mayor of Arroyo Grande. Send comments to the executive editor at firstname.lastname@example.org.