By the time the 4th of November finally gets here, don’t be surprised if the beautiful white walls of Atascadero’s recently renovated Historic City Hall rotunda are caked in mud.
An ongoing power struggle has seeped into the current electoral season. Conversation scuffles spring up at City Council meetings, during public events, and in North County media outlets. A grand debate is underway between a current candidate, a former council member, and a key member of the local Republican Party, and it’s started to envelop the entire electoral arena as it crescendos.
Two council seats and the mayor’s chair are up for grabs, and incumbents Heather Moreno, Mayor Pro Tem Brian Sturtevant, and Mayor Tom O’Malley are enjoying the support and campaign contributions of the Republican Party and other influential conservative organizations. Some players aren’t happy about that, however, including former City Councilmember Jerry Clay, as well as the three men running against the trio: council hopefuls Chuck Ward and Len Colamarino and mayoral candidate Charlie Scovell. Clay and Colamarino are claiming that a tight network of socially connected people decides who does and who doesn’t get to participate in the town’s democratic process.
Sound like an ordinary walk in the park for small-town, local politics? Sure, maybe. It all depends on whom you ask. Clay and Colamarino aren’t fond of the influence held by two organizations—A Better Atascadero and a Republican fundraising group known as the San Luis Obispo County Lincoln Club—and a central figure in Atascadero’s Republican network, Al Fonzi. In the last three elections, the ultimate winners all had run with the network’s blessing; similarly, anyone who challenged them was vilified. In turn, few people have chosen to step into the ring.
“I think that it’s important that people run—it’s the American way,” Clay said. “And they want to suppress people from running.”
Clay has taken aim at A Better Atascadero (ABA), which formed circa 2008 amid a very contentious period in the city, when a liberal-leaning council was considering the extension of creek setback zones. Once the rules were passed, community members who saw them as an infringement on private property rights launched an intensive grassroots campaign that collected 2,000 signatures on a referendum to overturn the decision. That brought ABA to prominence while another hotly divisive issue popped up: the proposed (and since approved) development of a Walmart Supercenter. ABA quickly became a central player. The council majority returned to the conservative side, with ABA’s help, and it’s stayed that way; in the last four years, Republicans have held all five seats. That isn’t the issue for Clay, a life-long Republican and a founding member of ABA.
“I just thought that it wasn’t a good thing to have ABA dominate three elections in a row,” Clay said. “It’s like big-city politics.”
Ron Walters, president of ABA, will openly admit to the organization’s influence.
“What our organization does is exactly what it is supposed to do,” he said. “We support candidates that meet the mission statement of our organization, which is essentially property rights, lower taxes, and less regulations for the city.
“We believe that the City Council is now going in a direction that resonates with the community,” Walters explained.
ABA hasn’t been incredibly active lately, and if its members are running the city, they’re doing a great job of not getting noticed. The group has endorsed the three incumbents, but it hasn’t spent much money yet in this current election.
While Clay looks to ABA, Colamarino considers Fonzi to be the mastermind.
That candidate says he and the two other challengers have been subject to vicious character attacks and intimidation. Like Clay, Fonzi was a founding member of ABA but is no longer a member, telling New Times that he has no involvement with the group. As chair of the SLO County Republican Central Committee’s 5th district and president of the SLO County Lincoln Club, Fonzi brings his own influence. It’s just politics, he said. In this case, the objective is maintaining the order that ABA and other conservative interests consider restored.
Fonzi is focused on the potential for the three conservative candidates to split the vote. Such division would give a fighting chance to Colamarino—a current planning commissioner and semi-retired attorney from New York. He’s registered as “decline to state” and considered moderate by some and liberal by others. That concern prompted Fonzi to encourage Chuck Ward and others to reconsider their efforts to land a seat.
“Why would I want to break up [the current incumbency], which is an up-and-coming crop of young leaders?” Fonzi said, referring to Moreno and Sturtevant, both in their 40s.
For Colamarino, however, concern rests with the bigger picture.
“I think the biggest problem is that Al is the kingpin in a group which feels entitled to run the city, and no other voice is considered or allowed,” Colamarino said. “They own the city. And they’re going to keep it by whatever means necessary. If you’re going to run for the City Council, and you’re not part of that group, you better be prepared to get slandered, slimed, and subjected to all sorts of other fabrications. That’s how power is held on to. It’s about power; it’s not about what’s good for Atascadero.”
But Fonzi, a retired military intelligence officer, claims that as far as his involvement, what you see is what you get—and ultimately, the voters and the candidates they elect make the decisions.
“I work hard, I play to win,” Fonzi said. “Not at any cost. I will not break a law; I will not do anything immoral.”
When it comes to who does or doesn’t run, Fonzi said he gives his opinions, nothing more. Two people did approach him and expressed interest in running for the council, he said, but eventually chose not to.
“They came to me because they knew that I was politically active,” Fonzi explained. “I have not gone out and told somebody else that they can’t run.”
Meanwhile, Clay is troubled by what he described as the Republican Party turning its back on Ward and Scovell in order to protect the incumbents, saying the party’s Atascadero headquarters refused to display campaign materials for Ward and Scovell, and only displayed literature for the three incumbents. Until recently, the office was paid for by the Lincoln Club, Fonzi said, and as a private organization it can support or not support whomever it wants. The SLO County Republican Central Committee, which has endorsed the three incumbents, has since taken over the office. Committee Chairman John Peschong told New Times that all Republican candidates are still welcome to leave materials in the office; they just won’t be displayed with endorsements.
So far, neither Moreno nor Sturtevant has been dragged into the muck.
O’Malley has been somewhat involved, in part because the schism is partially attributable to a City Council appointment after O’Malley was elected mayor and left his council seat vacant.
While sharp words were exchanged between O’Malley and Colamarino at the council’s Sept. 9 meeting, O’Malley said he’s trying to stay above the feuds and keep moving forward.
“With the City Council race, I can honestly say that I think all four folks running for the two seats have experience and are qualified. I think it’s going to be a question of choosing between the four,” O’Malley said, opting not to comment on the mayoral race or his opponent. “There’s definitely some differences and their records are clear, and it’s just a matter of choice.”
Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at email@example.com.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay