SLOCOG chooses Frank Mecham as chairman over Adam Hill

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comJanuary 10, 2013 

In what may be as much a political as a procedural statement, members of a San Luis Obispo County board have passed over Supervisor Adam Hill to be their chairman and instead selected North County Supervisor Frank Mecham.

The San Luis Obispo Council of Governments — SLOCOG — a regional transit and land planning agency — made the choice during a routine changing-of-the-guard meeting Wednesday.

Ordinarily, the vice chairman becomes chairman, and the countywide board likes to alternate the chairmanship between North and South County members.

Last year the same board chose Fred Strong of Paso Robles to be chairman for 2012 and Hill, of Grover Beach, vice chairman and presumptive chairman in 2013.

This week, however, there were unexpectedly two nominations: Hill and Mecham, who is a former mayor of Paso Robles.

The vote for Mecham came first and he took nine of the 11 votes. San Luis Obispo Mayor Jan Marx and county Supervisor Bruce Gibson had argued for Hill, and Gibson called the entire discussion political. After Mecham won, Gibson withdrew his nomination of Hill.

Those who supported Mecham said Hill was able to handle the job, but was too combative.

“Public perception matters,” said Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham.

“We need someone less contentious,” added Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson, who described Hill as “a friend.”

The vote was not significant from the board’s operational standpoint. “It’s not that big a deal,” Strong told The Tribune later. “You run the meetings.”

But from a symbolic and political standpoint, it sent a message.

Hill, who was sick with the flu and not at the meeting, told The Tribune later that he would try harder to prove that he is sincere in his vow to change.

“I have pledged to be mellower and less combative, and it’s incumbent on me to do that,” he said. “I accept (the vote) and move on.”

Hill has been involved in a series of dustups, usually involving volatile emails he has sent regarding local and national political issues.

He has apologized, and vowed to behave more civilly. The vote Wednesday indicates that his peers need more proof of his sincerity before they accept his apology.

Most recently, Hill drew criticism for emails accusing Bill Thoma of Thoma Electric of trying to sabotage a proposed homeless shelter in San Luis Obispo. The ensuing anger toward Hill arose as much from his aggressive tone as from the accusation, which some others share.

As with this skirmish, which was in defense of the homeless, the liberal Hill’s tilts at political windmills have usually found him thrusting against conservative causes here and elsewhere in a manner that antagonizes people.

He has taken particular aim at Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. Hill has gone after Brown’s sometimes controversial tenure as chief executive of Santa Barbara County as well as COLAB’s other high-profile representative, Andy Caldwell.

Brown and COLAB in turn have strongly criticized Hill, as has Thoma.

Brown was one of four people in the audience Wednesday to argue against Hill becoming chairman, faulting Hill’s lack of “understanding of the American economic system.”

Brown complained that Hill had criticized the Koch brothers, widely considered to be founders and funders of the Tea Party, as well as Exxon Mobil, which Brown called “a very successful enterprise” and “a great citizen.”

Documents posted on COLAB’s website also opposed Hill’s chairmanship, asking “will people who disagree (with Hill) be threatened with midnight phone calls, libelous emails, political retribution, and economic retaliation?”

The remarks of Brown and others who opposed Hill’s chairmanship added a larger political context to the decision, to which Gibson alluded.

Gibson said Hill’s opponents “seem to be grinding the ax of a political disagreement with Mr. Hill.”

Hill’s other critics in the audience seemed to back up that contention.

One was Laura Mourdant, who supported Hill’s opponent, Ed Waage, in the recent county supervisor election.

Another was former congresswoman Andrea Seastrand, who served one term in Congress as part of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” Congress in the 1990s.

Seastrand, alluding to Hill’s apology, likened him to a wife abuser who says he’s sorry. The wife forgives him and then he does it again, she said. She made the same domestic violence analogy at the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday.

A fourth Hill opponent also warned against “Agenda 21,” a supposed United Nations blueprint for taking away local control of governments around the world. He urged the board to read up on it, and Supervisor Debbie Arnold concurred. Brown has also taken this position.

Gibson called out Mecham, asking him if he found some flaw in Hill’s character that would preclude him from becoming chairman of SLOCOG.

Mecham did not reply. Pressed later by The Tribune, Mecham said, “I’m not going there,” but did allude to the “precarious things that have taken place,” which he said had been outlined by Brown and the other speakers.

Arnold also voted against Hill, casting her second vote in three days against her new colleagues. On Monday she opposed Gibson being named vice chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

The contentiousness may not be over. Hill is in line to become chairman of the county’s Air Pollution Control District. That vote takes place Jan. 23.

In addition, Thoma has asked that Hill be “immediately removed from all activities related to the Homeless Services Center and anything else related to the project’s location, programs, design or deliberations.”

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