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Smoke and fire

Discerning between truth and propoganda isn't easy, even on the local level


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“Why,” my wife asked, “would she say something like that if it weren’t true?”

Gayle was referring to failed candidate for county supervisor Debbie Peterson’s November claim that, several years ago, the candidate who trounced her in this year’s election, Adam Hill, menaced her.

The Tribune debunked the tall tale, and Gayle was reading about the demythologizing.

She believed that people generally don’t make such serious accusations falsely. Smoke and fire and all that.

But there is such a thing as a false allegation. Peterson had her reasons, which I’ll get into. But first, some other questions.

Why would a man who does not live in Grover Beach spend time in 2016 to fill out a 155-page complaint to the government alleging that a successful candidate for Grover Beach mayor in 2014, John Shoals, didn’t file all his campaign paperwork in time?

Think about that: one hundred and fifty-five pages. How long does that take? What kind of mind considers that a productive use of time?

Another question: Why would two women who do not live in Arroyo Grande go on the Dave Congalton show the afternoon before the Nov. 8 election to trash Arroyo Grande City Council candidate Kristin Barneich?

Why would Congalton abuse public airwaves this way?

These questions are connected. The people involved in each incident are loosely aligned with those involved in the others. They and their posse have been slithering around to local governments, exercising their constitutional rights to malign individuals, sowing ill will the way John Chapman scattered apple seeds. I call them the Bile Bunch.

They’re not going away. Indeed, the man who trolled Shoals, Kevin P. Rice, has already gone after former San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx and her campaign contributions. And this crowd was also out on Jan. 10 to deny Hill the chairmanship of the Board of Supervisors, for which he was in line.

Because they are affecting public policy, someone should call them out. Instead, some are bestowing undeserved credibility on them in the same way the national media are “legitimizing” Steve Bannon and President-elect Donald Trump’s other white supremacist henchmen.

First, Peterson and Hill.

In the Trib article, Peterson made it clear why she was making her allegations: She didn’t want Hill re-elected. It’s not about policy differences: Her disdain for Hill has been personal, for years. In this she is not alone. There is a small but vocal and venomous collection of Hill haters hereabouts.

To appreciate the depths of their contempt, you have to see, as I have, the things people in this crowd say and write about Hill, his family, even his stepchildren. You need to read the legal threats, as I have.

This bottomless loathing persists. After Hill was re-elected, one detractor chortled that it was great he still holds office because that would make his inevitable fall all the more humiliating and enjoyable. Hill’s archenemy, Karen Velie of CalCoastNews, just filed some sort of lawsuit against him.

One of those on the anti-Hill muck-wagon is Rice, who robo-called anti-Hill stuff in two elections. Rice also filed the complaints against Shoals, who defeated Peterson in the Grover Beach mayor’s race, and Marx.

Rice is a Canyon Country firefighter who presents himself as a salt-of-the-earth regular guy, a fireman who rescues kittens from trees.

But I’ve watched Rice’s behavior for nearly a decade now since I first covered him as a fierce, no-holds-barred defender of off-roading on the Oceano Dunes. What I’ve observed presents an altogether different image.

Rice has called employers of people who disagree with him to complain. He has delved into the backgrounds of and compiled dossiers on opponents. He left a faux lawsuit at the home of an elderly opponent in Oceano.

Rice goes to people’s homes, including one memorable confrontation with an environmentalist opponent whom he cornered somewhere near Truckee. Rice said he happened to be in the neighborhood. The Truckee neighborhood. He just happened to know the guy’s address.

You are free to admire this as strong commitment to a cause. As for me, if I were a kitten stuck in a tree and saw Rice coming to rescue me I’d climb higher or take my chances jumping 30 or 40 feet to the ground.

That brings us to Julie Tacker, who, with Velie, went on Congalton’s show Nov. 7 to trash Barneich. Like Velie, Tacker does not live in Arroyo Grande and at the time was running unsuccessfully for election to the Los Osos Community Services District board.

Tacker has been flitting around the county telling various governing bodies, including those in Arroyo Grande and Oceano, how to behave. That’s fine; she gets to do that stuff, the way she is free to howl at the moon if she finds herself in the mood.

The question is, why are these people being taken seriously?

That brings us to Congalton, SLO’s “hometown” radio host.

He does a nice job promoting local artists and the like. But he assigns plausibility to the likes of the Bile Bunch.

I’ve listened to him extract Velie from a particularly incoherent explanation of one of her “breaking news” stories. And, inexplicably, he touts Tacker, who made her bones excoriating county government workers during the never-ending Los Osos sewer fiasco. Now she’s credible? In Arroyo Grande? As Los Osos was rejecting her?

Perhaps Congalton had his guests attack Barneich because she wouldn’t come for an interview. I’m sure the indignant Congalton found this lack of proper tribute unacceptable. I don’t know why Barneich took a pass, but I do know some local people won’t go on Congalton’s show because they don’t think he’ll treat them fairly.

Why would Congalton and the rest behave so badly? The answer seems to be, because they feel like it, because they can, and because nobody will stop them. But they’re in the public eye now; the public needs to know just how venomous and untrustworthy they are.

When Congalton, the only radio voice in town, gets back from sick leave, he needs to start acting responsibly instead of becoming a local fake news source, a SLO County Breitbart. We’re going to have enough of that on the national level under President Trumpski. 

Bob Cuddy lives in Arroyo Grande. Send comments through the editor at clanham@newtimesslo.com or send a letter to the editor at letters@newtimesslo.com.


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