Brushing aside complaints that they were politicizing a panel that was created to protect public health, the county’s air pollution control board on Wednesday declined to move Supervisor Adam Hill from the vice chairmanship to the chairmanship — a normally routine advancement that some characterized as almost ceremonial.
The move to make Hill chairman of the Air Pollution Control District board failed on a 6-6 vote. In a subsequent vote, South County Supervisor Paul Teixeira was unanimously elected to the post.
Those who opposed Hill said they did so because of his temperament. But many speakers in the audience who backed Hill called the snub political, said it was part of a trend and warned of “a virus that is beginning to infect the body politic,” as speaker Tom Murray put it.
This is the third time this month that their North County colleagues have sought to deny a chairmanship or vice-chairmanship to Hill or Supervisor Bruce Gibson. Those two, with Jim Patterson, formed a Board of Supervisors majority for years.
But Debbie Arnold defeated Patterson in last year’s election, and two weeks into the job she has already voted to deny Gibson a vice chairmanship on the Board of Supervisors, and chairmanship of the air board and the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments to Hill.
Hill’s other North County Board of Supervisors colleague, Frank Mecham, also voted twice against Hill, although he was absent the day Arnold sought to stop Gibson from being named supervisor vice chairman.
Hill, Gibson and others said continuing to take divisive votes on procedural matters is going to damage collegiality among elected officials.
Nonetheless, Mecham and Arnold maintained their opposition. Their arguments, as in the past, centered on politically charged and, his detractors say, intemperate emails Hill has sent. Hill has characterized most of his incendiary public statements as “standing up for what is right,” which he says is the duty of an elected official.
He reiterated Wednesday that he could have been more diplomatic. In January, he apologized for the tone of his emails and said he would work to be more civil.
One email in particular seemed to have caught air board members off guard. He sent it in November to air board Executive Director Larry Allen and copied it to various state officials. Hill said the email was part of an ongoing exchange between Allen and the State Parks’ Off-Highway Division.
In it, he criticized the off-highway division for “treat(ing) SLO County with contempt,” and denying climate science.
At Wednesday’s meeting, APCD chairman John Hamon and others said they felt blindsided by Hill sending the letter without first clearing it with the air board. In the email, Hill did not say he was speaking for the air board as a whole, but he did sign it as an individual county supervisor.
“There are times we feel we are not included,” said Atascadero City Councilwoman Roberta Fonzi, who voted against Hill.
But Hill had strong support from the audience, who said boards such as this one are becoming politicized and defended Hill’s “passion” in speaking out. Hill is guilty, Tom Murray said, only of “ruffling the feathers of … very powerful people.”
Many in the audience who have worked with Hill said he has represented them well — and respectfully — and they chastised the board for spending time on his demeanor instead of discussing ways to keep the county’s air clean. That sentiment was especially strong from, but not limited to residents of the Nipomo Mesa, who are affected by pollution from the Oceano Dunes.
“Air pollution in South County is the major issue,” Paul Stolpman said. Hill has provided “strong leadership,” he said.
“You have so much other work before you,” said frequent speaker Eric Greening. “You’re overblowing (the importance of) the chairmanship.” He said each of the 12 members of the board had been elected by their constituents, and any of them could do the job.
City Councilwoman Karen Bright of Grover Beach said the board’s mission is to guard the health of the community and said Hill has been devoted to that mission. Bright is a former member of the air board and said that had she still been on it, the vote would have gone Hill’s way. She was replaced by Hill opponent Debbie Peterson.
Many of those who spoke in opposition criticized Hill for “denigrating oil companies” in his emails, as Mike Brown of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) put it. The membership of this and other boards may seem esoteric to the average citizen, but their actions have real-life consequences.
The air board, for example, is charged with keeping the air clean county-wide. Another board composed of various elected officials, the Integrated Waste Management Board, passed last year’s plastic bag ban. SLOCOG channels money for road improvements, and the Local Agency Formation Commission has a significant say over where and whether housing growth will occur.
Some see the political actions being carried out this month through board chairmanship votes as part of a larger plan that would bring to power countywide — and at all levels — political forces that favor growth and oppose regulations.