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Open season: With three SLO County supervisor seats up for grabs, the election could change the board's political makeup

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As far as local politics go, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors reigns supreme. Among its many powers, it holds land-use authority over the large unincorporated swaths of the rural county.

The current board is working its way down a list of very difficult decisions, with flames fanned by often polarizing politics. Big decisions loom ahead, and the 2017 board will sway the outcomes.

Three of five seats are up for grabs this election year. A pair of those are guarded by incumbents: 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill and 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold. With wildly different politics, the two often spar with each other during meetings. They’ve heavily out-raised their challengers, so far garnering more than $100,000 each in campaign contributions.

Supervisor Frank Mecham is retiring, leaving his 1st District seat vacant. Mecham has been the reluctant swing vote as of late, even though he represents a district where the voter base heavily favors conservative candidates.

The election’s outcome may shift the board to a solidified 3-2 majority.

Any candidate that gains more than 50 percent of the vote in the June 7 primary takes their district. With only two candidates, the 5th District race will be decided in June. If there’s no clear victor in the 1st and 3rd District races, the top two vote getters will continue to the November election.

District 1

The 1st District includes Paso Robles, San Miguel, the west side of Templeton, the Adelaida area, Shandon, and some of the east side of the county. It shares the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin—which has become a cause célèbre for the district—with District 5. 

Even with much at stake and an open seat, the race has managed to stay rather polite as all four candidates try to avoid a standoff and advance past the primary.

Candidates are Dale Gustin, a retiring attorney; Paso Robles City Councilmember John Hamon, owner of an overhead door company; Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin, owner of a marketing company; and John Peschong, political consultant and partner at Meridian Pacific Inc.

MAP COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY; GRAPHIC BY LENI LITONJUA
  • MAP COURTESY OF SLO COUNTY; GRAPHIC BY LENI LITONJUA

Peschong appreciates that all candidates recognize that “nobody has the market on good ideas.” He thinks he’s the most qualified to represent those living in his district, saying he’d push to preserve the area’s high quality of life and work to keep taxes low.

Gustin, who’s closing his legal practice and battling with the California State Bar Association because he was declared ineligible to practice law, said he’s running for supervisor in hopes to bring civility back to the board.

“I think I have the leadership qualities to bring that out,” he said.

Hamon points to his background, writing in an email that he offers “educated experience, a proven and trusted record, and conservative common sense thinking.”

Martin applauds his competitors for staying above the fray thus far, saying “that’s the kind of politics we need.”

“We need somebody with a level head, somebody that believes in civil discourse, and someone that doesn’t let the facts get in the way,” he said. 

Peschong has racked up an impressive list of endorsements from the conservative establishment. Hamon has attracted support from the Paso Robles business community. Martin, a moderate who’s the only Democrat of the bunch, has attracted strong endorsements from both sides of the aisle.

Money-wise, campaign finance disclosures show Peschong in the lead, and he’s sprinting forward with several recently received large contributions. Martin is in second well ahead of Hamon. There are no reported contributions to Gustin.

—Jono Kinkade

District 3

The 3rd District represents a diverse swath of SLO County, encompassing several local municipalities, including Pismo Beach, Grover Beach, Avila Beach, and a large portion of San Luis Obispo. It’s also the most densely populated of the five county districts.

It’s ground zero for several important issues. It’s the home of the Oceano Dunes’ off-road state park currently at the center of a battle over dust emissions regulations and home to the divisive Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant. The railroad tracks that cut their way through the district could see additional trains carrying takers of crude oil should a proposed rail spur project pass.

The district is currently represented by Supervisor Adam Hill, who’s been elected to the seat twice before. His opponents are San Luis Obispo City Councilmember Dan Carpenter and former Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson.

Much has been made of the disagreements between the candidates, yet they all seemed to agree on what the biggest concerns for district voters were. In separate interviews with New Times, all three candidates mentioned development, water, and traffic as important issues in the district.

While the district is grappling with serious policy issues, the race for its seat has become known as being one of the most contentious and acrimonious, particularly between Carpenter and Hill. Much has been made of the mudslinging between the two over character issues. Carpenter said it was something he’s taken up in response to voters.

“That is the top issue,” Carpenter said. “They want someone who is respectful.”

Hill, who’s taken fire from Carpenter, as well as from online campaigns that have called for voters to “fire” him, said his campaign is focused on getting out its message on important policy issues.

“Conflict is more interesting than policy, but I don’t think it lends well to an election based on issues,” Hill said.

Peterson agreed that the back-and-forth might make it hard for the candidates to discuss policy but said that voters still wanted to know where they stand on the issues.

“It’s irrelevant. It’s the issues that matter,” she said. “They want to hear what the candidates can do for them, not what they think about each other.”

—Chris McGuinness

 District 5

The 5th District includes Atascadero, Santa Margarita, east Templeton, Creston, the California Valley, and part of SLO. Incumbent Supervisor Debbie Arnold takes on challenger Eric Michielssen in the only supervisorial election virtually guaranteed to be decided on June 7.

Arnold is running on a platform of government accountability, promoting the local economy, protecting open space and a rural way of life, and boosting support for fire protection and law enforcement patrols. She told New Times that her stark opposition to the recently shot down Paso Robles water district is representative of her approach of being both a government watchdog and a supervisor. She also noted her success as chair of the county Homeless Oversight Council in reducing homelessness, which she credits to an efficient and detail-oriented approach that she feels is lacking in county and state government.

Michielssen is running for his first elected office, having previously served on the Atascadero Planning Commission and as president of the Atascadero Chamber of Commerce. He worked for 17 years with Peoples’ Self-Help Housing before recently retiring and currently operates Pozo Organic Farm and is vice president of the SLO County Agricultural Advisory Board. 

Creating jobs, increasing affordable and workforce housing, and protecting the environment and the county’s water resources are Michielssen’s county priorities.

Arnold tends to vote reflexively against measures that would increase fees or taxes, while Michielssen believes the board needs to be planning for the future, which in some instances requires more spending.

“I’m thinking long-term, and she’s thinking, ‘no more taxes,’” Michielssen told New Times.

Arnold countered that she is more in touch with the “average Joe” in the district than Michielssen.

“I believe that I am a stronger voice for the constituency when I’m making decisions,” she said.

The outcome of this race will set the tone for a consequential general election in the other districts. Arnold is vastly out-fundraising Michielssen, but she lost some local support last year when she voted for the Las Pilitas Quarry project. Michielssen, who strongly opposed the quarry, said Arnold’s support of it was an impetus for his run for supervisor.

“If one or more of her friends [is elected to the board], it’s going to come back, and the people of Santa Margarita are very afraid of that,” Michielssen said.

—Peter Johnson


Staff Writers Jono Kinkade, Chris McGuinness, and Peter Johnson are busy keeping up with SLO County’s many political races. Contact them at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com, cmcguinness@newtimesslo.com, and pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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