A newly cemented conservative-leaning majority on the SLO County Board of Supervisors flexed its muscles during a Jan. 10 meeting when it elected freshman 1st District Supervisor John Peschong as board chairman.
The 3-2 vote came after a contentious hearing, which highlighted a growing ideological tension between both the members of the board and the county residents who support them. It echoes the deep partisan divide the nation continues to grapple with after 2016 presidential election.
“I’m just really saddened,” SLO County resident Angie King told New Times. “I didn’t think the national chaos would descend to this level. It’s disturbing.”
- PHOTO BY JAYSON MELLOM
- MUSICAL CHAIRS: After a combative back-and-forth, a politically divided SLO County Board of Supervisors elected John Peschong as its chairman on a 3-2 vote.
King was one of several individuals who packed the board’s chambers to call for the members to appoint 3rd District Supervisor Adam Hill as chairman. Hill served as vice-chair in 2016 and, his supporters argued, would normally be up for the position based on a tradition of rotating the chairmanship between the board’s five members. During a lengthy public comment period, many of the speakers indicated their belief that denying Hill the chairmanship was motivated by partisan and personal animosity and denied the voters in his district a chance to be represented in the position.
“In particular, it’s a slap in the face to the voters of the 3rd District,” King told the board.
It wasn’t the first time that contention over who should serve as chairperson ended with the board breaking from the position’s traditional rotation. In 2015, then-1st District Supervisor Frank Mecham suddenly abdicated his position as chairman over concerns that the three male members of the board were attempting to shut out 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold and 4th District Supervisor Compton. Arnold was voted in as chairperson and Compton as vice-chairperson. The vote caused Hill, who was supposed to become vice-chairman at the time, to lose his spot in the rotation.
Those in favor of naming Peschong chairman at the Jan. 10 meeting noted that the board wasn’t required to follow the rotation. They also questioned Hill’s temperament, as well as his treatment of members of the public and other supervisors who criticized or disagreed with him. A handful of speakers opposing Hill pointed to heated exchanges he’s had at past meetings. Others mentioned unsubstantiated allegations that Hill threatened his opponent, former City Councilman Dan Carpenter, during his re-election campaign, or an ongoing lawsuit filed against Hill by his longtime critics at the CalCoastNews blog, as signs he was unfit for the position.
“I do not feel he should be awarded the bully pulpit for being a bully,” Creston resident Bev Phifer said.
Supervisor Arnold, who voted along with Compton and Peschong, echoed similar sentiments.
“I really believe we need a chairperson who’s respectful to all the other board members,” Arnold said.
She and Hill verbally sparred prior to the vote, with each supervisor accusing the other of divisive partisan behavior. Arnold claimed that Hill refused to participate in a group photo of the board after she was elected. Hill said Arnold refused to meet with him or return his calls and claimed she had her office “swept for bugs,” fearing that Hill and fellow liberal-leaning 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson were attempting to eavesdrop on her conversations.
Hill called the vote a “petty political ploy” that would be detrimental to the board’s working relationship.
“I think it starts off the new board in a bad way,” he said.
Hill and many of the his supporters in the audience raised questions about the influence the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture, and Business (COLAB) and its government affairs director, Mike Brown, have on Compton, Arnold, and Peschong. Some speakers questioned whether the three board members were more beholden to the conservative-leaning group and its goals than the interests of county residents.
“[Brown] talks about you like you’re lapdogs of his new world order,” county resident Eric Vieum stated.
Brown himself spoke in favor of naming Peschong as chairman, and the organization’s newsletter urged reader to defend the new board’s majority.
Speaking to New Times, Brown denied the accusation that COLAB had any undue influence on the supervisors.
“That’s absolutely false,” Brown said, characterizing the organization not as a lobbying group, but a government watchdog. “We actually receive a lot of suggestions from the board on policy.”
Brown had his own heated moment during the meeting. After critical comments from Hill aimed at his organization, Brown called out from the crowd and accused Hill of “castigating” COLAB. He then left the chambers followed by one of the SLO County Sheriff’s deputies in attendance at the meeting. Brown returned to the chambers after the board’s vote.
Despite the contentious proceedings, Peschong, who was elected in November to replace Mecham, expressed confidence in his ability to serve as chairman and promised to be open to hearing the views of those outside the board’s majority.
“I will not discount minority voices on this board,” Peschong said. “That is my pledge to you and my pledge to this board.”
Kay Gore, a resident who lives in an incorporated area of SLO County in Hill’s district, said she was skeptical of that promise. Gore noted that many members of SLO’s progressive liberal movement, the same one that mobilized hundreds to show up at the recent state Democratic Party’s Assembly District 35 delegate elections, attended the board meeting to oppose Peschong’s election as chairman.
“If I were those people on the board, I wouldn’t be sitting there so smugly,” Gore said. “If I were COLAB, I wouldn’t be sitting there so smugly.”