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How now, Brown COLAB?

Why fear of retribution has watchdog board members nervous

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On May 10, San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill stared over his desk at Mike Brown, the government affairs director for the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business of San Luis Obispo County, also known as COLAB.

“I mean, you come here every week and you say ‘on behalf of COLAB,’” Hill said. “Might you explain to us your board of directors—who on behalf you’re speaking?”

- MONEY MATTERS:  According to its tax filings, COLAB SLO reported $72,924 for the 2009 calendar year and $50,736 in expenses. -
  • MONEY MATTERS: According to its tax filings, COLAB SLO reported $72,924 for the 2009 calendar year and $50,736 in expenses.

Brown, who had approached the podium to comment on a county development policy, not his organization—something he often does—replied: “Supervisor, you’ve asked me that before, and I’ve discussed it with our board, and there are members and board members of COLAB of SLO who are very afraid to disclose their identity. They feel that it could lead to a problem later if they had something before some regulatory body.”

Brown, the former chief executive officer of Santa Barbara County, and Hill, who this year plopped into the chair seat of the Board of Supervisors, have not seen eye to eye on most issues hashed out in public forums. In fact, Hill has on more than one occasion flat out countered Brown’s assertions made during public comment. And other supervisors have also taken to the odd practice of occasionally refuting Brown’s comments.

Yet Hill, who ran his 2008 campaign for office on a platform of change and ousting a Republican majority on the board, has taken a more active role when COLAB, whoever they are, comes up to speak.

“Your members prefer to remain secret is the answer?” Hill said at that meeting.

Established in 2009, COLAB SLO began as an offshoot of its Santa Barbara County counterpart. The brainchild of radio host Andy Caldwell, the group began to creep into SLO County, quietly at first, but then more pronounced as Caldwell started to step to the podium with more frequency, though he was still a rare sight at Board of Supervisors meetings, for example. The group is listed as a 501(c)(6), which the IRS defines as a “business league … an association of persons having some common business interest.”

The group later established itself more firmly by suing the county over its “smart growth” policies and was at the forefront of a public lashing that ultimately resulted in Sarah Christie being bumped from the county planning commission in late 2009.

But who are they?

COLAB set out with a mission of protecting property rights and providing a counterpoint to “special interest groups whose focus is solely upon preservation to the exclusion of economic vitality,” according to the organization’s website.

Brown has only recently stepped into the SLO COLAB driver’s seat, making his first appearances before county supervisors the beginning of this year, just as Hill rotated into the chair position.

According to Brown, the group has hit a few thousand members, ranging from business owners to agriculturalists to builders. They held a packed fundraiser dinner at the Madonna Inn in March.

Brown said he’s attended meetings with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board to report COLAB concerns over issues like agriculture water discharge permits. Other members are more concerned with what might happen in the South County as county and state officials squabble over dust blowing off the Oceano Dunes and how to alleviate it.

“We’ve been pretty low key,” Brown said. “We don’t endorse candidates for public office; we don’t give campaign contributions.”

However, COLAB poured its efforts last year in a failed attempt to have local attorney Marshall Ochylski replace left-winger Supervisor Bruce Gibson in his 2010 bid for re-election.

COLAB e-mails obtained by New Times before the election included, “This is a huge and unexpected opportunity to change the political balance in the Board of Supervisors.” After those e-mails, Ochylski, who had no money at the onset of his campaign, began pulling in tens of thousands of dollars in donations from groups like the San Luis Obispo Cattleman’s Association and County Wine Community.

Though the group’s current bankroll was unavailable, Brown said money raised goes into its newsletters, policy analyses, radio show sponsorship, and costs to maintain an office in downtown SLO.

But really, who is COLAB? Hill said he’s met with Brown privately a few times, but was left confused as to the group’s membership or goals.

“It was like trying to plan a road trip with Mr. Magoo,” Hill told New Times of those meetings. “It was puzzling.”

Asked about the membership, and specifically who sits on the group’s board of directors, Brown said he wasn’t allowed to reveal that information.

“People worried that if they had an application pending or something, that somebody might be able to delay it, or whatever,” he said.

He pointed instead to the group’s regular e-mail blasts and newsletters, his public appearances at municipal meetings, and Caldwell’s show, of which “COLAB is a major sponsor.”

But COLAB’s membership, at least on its board, is no secret to local politicians. And here they are, at least according to COLAB of SLO County’s 2009 tax filings, which were the most recently available:

• Alan Volbrecht: V.P. and senior aviation consultant at Aero Tech GeoSystems, Inc., in San Luis Obispo.

• Jamie Kirk: founder of Kirk Consulting.

• Todd Smith: associate planner with Cannon Associates.

• Steve Arnold: past president and current director of the SLO County Farm Bureau and owner of Pozo Valley Vineyard.

• Chris Darway: also a past president and current member with the Farm Bureau.

• Mike Fuller: former Arroyo Grande city councilman and current financial advisor and branch manager of Raymond James Financial.

• Ken Dewar: president of J.B. Dewar, Inc., “the Central Coast’s leading distributor of highest quality fuel and lubricants.”

• Jeanne Helphenstine: a Realtor with South County Realty.

• Alex Alexiev of Templeton.

Why the concern of retribution?

“As far as the directors of COLAB SLO wishing to remain anonymous, that is their prerogative,” Volbrecht, listed as the board president on COLAB SLO’s tax filings, said in an e-mail response to questions from New Times. “Rather than Chairman Hill publicly deflecting his anger from the message to the messenger, maybe his time would be better spent discussing real issues with Mr. Brown.”

Though Caldwell in the past and now Brown have hit the podium to lay out grievances over policies they feel reach too far—most recently the county’s building policy on transfer development credits—few of the statements seem sufficiently extreme to warrant vengeance by local officials.

“There’s people that are involved in the COLAB organization that have dealt with doing things in the county for a long time, and [they] understand the process,” Helphenstine said. “And you have to be careful in what you do, because you don’t know.”

Of all the listed members contacted, three returned calls before press time.

Smith said he would ask his fellow members at the next board meeting about issuing a public statement, but declined to comment specifically because he said it would be disrespectful to pontificate why some COLAB members fear being blacklisted.

]“They’re really trying to serve as a public watchdog,” Smith said. “They try to be eyes and ears and a certain public assistance.”

Brown was calm and collected in a brief phone interview with New Times. Despite his most recent public lashing from Hill—something that’s a bit of a staple when he appears at county meetings before the current chair—Brown said he doesn’t think it’s that big of a deal. Actually, as a former Santa Barbara County CEO, he said he’s seen worse. The things he advocates for, he said, sometimes “will incur criticism or anger or whatever.” 

Contact News Editor Colin Rigley at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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