SLO County leadership change brings transparency and openness
February 7, 2015
OPINION By ELSA DAWSON
What happened at the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisor’s meeting the afternoon of Feb. 3? Approximately one hundred citizens, including several teenagers, filled the chambers awaiting a revote on the election of chair and vice chair. Based on comments made, many were attending for the first time.
Those who were holding their breath soon realized they had better release it – three presentations preceded any board “business,” and then a review of the supervisor’s rules of procedure was discussed. Supervisor Debbie Arnold had asked to have the topic agendized and was well-prepared, presenting her written requests for changes.
A lengthy discussion disclosed some interesting but not surprising attitudes from certain board members. In previous years, the board chair and the county administrative officer have had ultimate authority in setting the agenda. Therefore, the chair could disregard and omit issues he did not deem worthy of the board’s time and attention.
In the last one and a half years, a deliberate evasion of many issues (e.g., Los Osos problems) has occurred. In addition, speakers attempting to bring information concerning these issues to the board and the public’s awareness have been belittled and bullied, labeled as trouble-makers, and even escorted out of the chambers by the sheriff. This seemed like an apparent attempt to avert scrutiny and prevent a clear presentation of public concerns.
Supervisor Arnold stated clearly multiple times that putting issues on the consent agenda provided opportunity for both the board and the public to be informed. Her intention was not to force less important issues to impact the agenda but to give items a chance for a fair hearing.
Seemingly forgetting that he was no longer the chair, Supervisor Bruce Gibson went to great lengths attempting to coerce Supervisor Arnold into changing her wording to the way he wanted it stated.
At long last, the revote of chair and vice chair election was announced. By this time, the atmosphere in the chambers felt like a balloon filled way beyond its capacity. But before public comment or any other input was given, Chair Frank Mecham announced his solution for the revote – he would step down and nominate Supervisor Arnold for chair and Supervisor Lynn Compton for vice chair.
This would restore the rotation order,counting backward – 5, 4, etc., and was the best way he could figure out to solve the present situation. Surprise…amazement…relief…the multitude of responses was heard in murmurs throughout the chambers.
As public comment progressed, approximately 50 speakers, most of them rapidly revising their intended talks, expressed appreciation and respect for Chair Mecham’s unprecedented display of magnanimity. Such noble sensibility has not been a historic characteristic of the Chairman-ship.
The only negative responses were presented by the two male supervisors. Gibson accused Mecham of taking the easy way out. An audible groan from the public exhibited their disapproval of this accusation. Supervisor Adam Hill made an inarticulate attempt at blaming political “partisan-ship”, producing another round of obvious objection. Never mind the countless times both of them squelched public participation which contradicted their efforts to push through their partisan projects on their terms.
Thankfully, their juvenile criticisms only reinforced previous opinions about their motives and did not sway the vote – Chair Mecham’s motion passed 3-2 followed by a joyous and undaunted response from the audience.
As an active citizen, I consider this revote tremendously consequential for those of us who want a voice in the governing of our county. Supervisor Arnold has gained our trust because she cares about and invites our input, respectfully listening and giving thoughtful consideration to our concerns. Even when she doesn’t agree, she never embarrasses or humiliates us, nor does her behavior bring embarrassment to our city and county.
Arnold has repeatedly demonstrated her predilection for openness and transparency concerning SLO County business. Her questions for staff help to analyze and define the information presented, providing the public with a better opportunity to comprehend very complicated and confusing policies.
Additionally, she is careful about spending more of our money by voting against fee increases, over-reaching regulations, higher taxes, and pay raises for herself and other government employees. We all live in the same economic reality so wage increases for government workers should match those of the private sector workers, the ones who are paying government salaries!
The public’s trust in the board’s transparency has taken a huge hit in the past year and a half. With Arnold as chair, our confidence quotient is sure to rise as it would have with Mecham also. We are hopeful that county government will now include in its list of important issues our escalating infrastructure needs road and building repair and maintenance, protection of private property and water rights, the huge unfunded pension liability, and of course, providing water solutions for people whose wells are dry.
We also have confidence that Arnold’s purpose is to best serve us, the citizens in San Luis Obispo County, not to please Sacramento politicians, or to jump for every “carrot” that is dangled in front of local boards like ours.
I also want to give special thanks to Julie Tacker for her initiative in bringing the three Brown Act violations to light, to Kevin Rice and his SLO Integrity announcements, and to all the people who did their civic duty by spending their afternoon in the chambers. Many of them reported being encouraged and excited by the possibility that they are able to make a difference as evidenced by the recent successes in the county. They voiced their enthusiasm about returning for future issues.
This is wonderful as we all know that we cannot rest on past victories and must remain ever vigilant. I am reminded of a thought I read from C.S.Lewis, Oxford professor and prestigious author, which warns us that there is never a time when it is safe to leave the reins lying on the horse’s neck.
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