Something unprecedented is happening in Arroyo Grande: a write-in candidate is on the verge of ousting longtime mayor Tony Ferrara.
The reasons behind write-in challenger Jim Hill’s apparent success after a brief five-week campaign boil down to timing, a small but dedicated group of volunteers, and a public clamoring for change.
The mayor’s race was the most obvious sign of a broader voter dissatisfaction with city hall. The unofficial results of the Nov. 4 election show voters also jettisoned a longtime councilman and rejected a city charter measure backed by the council.
“I’ve been involved in campaigns for 40-some years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said resident Mike Byrd, who initially approached Hill about running and served as treasurer for the committee formed to support Hill.
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As of Friday, votes for write-in candidates led Ferrara, 51 percent to 49 percent. On Monday, county elections officials will start hand tallying those write-in ballots, which will determine how many write-in votes actually went to Hill. The presumption is that most went to him because he was the only qualified write-in candidate.
Hill supporters said the campaign might not have happened had it not been for an incident involving the Arroyo Grande city manager and a subordinate, who were found by five police officers alone late at night at City Hall on July 3.
That incident – and many residents’ anger over the way the City Council handled it, with some alleging an attempted cover up – served as a catalyst for the campaign.
Ferrara’s ejection from office would mark the end of a 16-year run on the council, with 12 years as mayor. He also would lose his position as board president for the League of California Cities.
Ferrara joined the council in 1998, riding a wave of public discontent over the then-council’s approval of Wal-Mart.
Now, he could be washed out of office on another swell of dissatisfaction with the council’s actions – or lack of action. Ferrara supporters maintain that city officials properly responded to the July 3 incident as a personnel issue, which would normally remain confidential.
They believe the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association, which endorsed Hill, and its attorney used the incident to discredit and intimidate the mayor and council members as a strategy to benefit future union negotiations with the city.
“In my opinion it’s about the next negotiation,” said Chuck Fellows, a former council member who was sometimes at odds with Ferrara. He called the entire situation a farce, adding, “It’s not just coincidence that it happened here.”
Ferrara also believes labor issues played a part.
“They had an issue with (City Manager) Steve Adams, I think historically because of his labor negotiations with him,” Ferrara said. “They did not like him and this was an opportunity for them to get back.”
Police union President Shawn Cosgrove could not be reached for comment for this story. But union members have denied that contract negotiations played any part in the incident or its aftermath.
Demand for change
Ferrara isn’t the only incumbent to likely lose his seat. Longtime Councilman Joe Costello was voted out, replaced by newcomer Barbara Harmon. Councilman Tim Brown won another term.
Voters also resoundingly rejected the council-backed Measure C, which would have changed Arroyo Grande from a general law to a charter city, giving the council more control over election procedures, bids and contracts for public projects, and rules for use of city property.
Some labor unions opposed the measure because it would have allowed the city an avenue to pay less than prevailing wage on public projects.
Costello said that during the campaign some people portrayed him as Ferrara’s “yes man,” an idea he disputes. Still, he said he’s more disappointed in the lack of civility and personal attacks at council meetings over the July 3 incident than he is in losing his seat.
“It created this atmosphere that I think is unhealthy,” he said. “It will be up to the council and the police department to mend this fence.”
Hill said he’s optimistic about a win and isn’t surprised by the election: “We didn’t have the kind of support that we had — especially from the business community, the building trades, the (Arroyo Grande) police officers association and just so many people — without some fundamental dissatisfaction with the status quo.”
A former Oceano Community Services District director, Hill has not attended a council meeting since he moved to Arroyo Grande about three years ago, though he has watched some meetings on television, he said. During the campaign, a power outage kept him working six days a week at Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, where he is an engineer.
“My immediate goals are to reach out to all areas of the community,” Hill said Thursday. “I’m still not super well-known in town. There are a lot of people who voted in good faith for Mayor Ferrara and I certainly respect that … I need to introduce myself and make myself available. I’m here to represent everyone in Arroyo Grande, not just those who voted for me.”
Ferrara said he is prepared for a possible loss.
“I am not ashamed of anything that I have done for the city of Arroyo Grande,” he said Thursday. “If I lose this election I will hold my head high.”
‘It just snowballed’
This year’s race was unusual for Arroyo Grande, which has a history of sleepy election seasons.
In 2008 and 2012, the city canceled its election because the mayor (Ferrara) and city council candidates were unopposed. Ferrara ran unopposed in 2006; he beat challengers in 2004 and 2002. He was last challenged in 2010 by Tim Moore, who lost with 22.5 percent of the vote.
Moore said he didn’t challenge Ferrara again in 2012 because “if nothing is going wrong, really, no one really wants to run against the incumbent.”
“But this year there’s been so much stuff happening in such a short period of time that everybody is going, ‘What the hell, what is our city government doing for us?’” Moore said. “And in addition to that, they have the charter vote going to give the city more power than it already has.”
The July 3 incident opened the floodgates to a slew of concerns from residents who may not have felt comfortable speaking up before, Byrd said.
“It started with something that could have been handled so easily if it had been handled properly and it just snowballed,” Byrd said.
Ferrara said “without question” that he’s made some enemies over the years. “You’re not going to make everybody happy,” he said.
In addition, his personality likely turned off some voters.
“Tony is not easy,” said supporter Jan Scott, who met Ferrara through their mutual opposition to the Wal-Mart project. “He is a very forceful, strong personality, and you’re going to end up with people saying you’re stubborn or aloof.”
July 3 incident
Hill’s supporters have said they don’t care about what happened the night of July 3 (though they do not believe City Manager Steve Adams’ story that he and Community Development Director Teresa McClish were drinking tea to sober up after having some wine at local restaurants).
They believe there was an effort by Ferrara and some council members to cover up the incident by using intimidation to keep it secret – an allegation that Ferrara, council members and their allies all deny.
Hill supporters wonder whether council members, particularly Ferrara, tried to conceal the matter by directing the city attorney’s firm to investigate weeks before the public learned of the incident in mid-August.
City Attorney Tim Carmel said Friday that he made the decision to investigate.
“One of my regular duties as city attorney and an ordinary service provided to the city is to look into employment issues,” Carmel said in an email.
Carmel said that on July 6 he asked another attorney in his office, Michael McMahon, to follow up with the police officers who had responded to the incident (and written memos describing the event) without direction from anyone.
"I may have briefly discussed the situation with the mayor later on July 7, but I initiated the process the morning before without input from anyone," he said. "I felt that it was vital to follow up with the officers, review the written reports with them and allow them to provide any additional information to Mr. McMahon."
Carmel gave the City Council an update at a July 8 closed session meeting. No reportable action was taken at that meeting.
“We had an issue come forward; it was investigated,” Costello said. “We reprimanded the city manager and went on. We should have put out some sort of memo or something about the incident – but it was a personnel matter.”
But for many residents, the council bungled its response to the incident and raised questions about its commitment to transparency, fairness and equal treatment of employees.
“I think when you have a guy running for mayor all these times without opposition and is able to be so confident … that’s because nobody has been paying attention,” Byrd said. “You don’t have a result like this if there hadn’t been problems.”
The July 3 issue became more heated in mid-September when the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association, worried that the initial investigation was biased and feeling the integrity of the officers’ reports were being questioned, took votes of no confidence in Ferrara and Adams.
After that and in response to repeated demands by the public, the council hired an independent investigator to review the incident. Results of that review will be presented at a special council meeting Wednesday.
Police union support
Some Hill supporters said they believe Ferrara hid the incident until after the Aug. 8 deadline for candidates to run in the Nov. 4 election. Ferrara’s supporters disagree and have their own suspicions about timing.
The police union let more than two months go by from July 3 before it announced votes of no confidence in the mayor and city manager, Jan Scott said, and then threw its support behind Hill, who qualified as a write-in candidate in late September.
“I think it was incredibly smart planning” on the union’s part, she said.
Ferrara supporters believe the police union was guided by its attorney, Michael McGill, who served as chief negotiator for the union in recent negotiations. McGill was with now-defunct law firm Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, which had once posted a playbook on its website that advised unions to “storm city council” to chastise council members, send attack mailers, and point out any blunders by the city manager, mayor or council.
“Focus on a city manager, councilperson, mayor or police chief and keep the pressure up until that person assures you his loyalty and then move on to the next victim,” the playbook read.
Hill won the support of the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association two weeks after announcing his candidacy. But some Hill supporters said the campaign was about getting Ferrara out, not necessarily who would replace him.
The ‘perfect storm’
Ferrara may have underestimated the support that would bubble up for Hill. Ferrara didn’t plan much campaigning; his campaign signs didn’t appear until very late.
Then Hill was endorsed by the unions opposed to Measure C.
A committee that formed to support Hill quickly raised $3,500 by Oct. 18. A small group of volunteers made 200 to 300 bright-yellow signs that popped up all over town, mailers were sent out and five separate rounds of robo-calls were made to voters.
The police union endorsement was key for Hill – Ferrara supporters said no one wanted to appear “anti-police,” even if they disagreed with the union’s stance.
“I think a number of people have been upset over enough time that they finally just had enough,” Moore said. “A lot of people here trust our police department more than they do our City Council and city government.”
Added Scott, “We all feel that the police are the good guys. We don’t think about them being a union.”
Residents on both sides said the signs, mailers and robo-calls also were pivotal in the outcome.
San Luis Obispo resident Kevin P. Rice was instrumental in the anti-city hall campaign, producing a mailer urging voters to oust both Ferrara and Costello and to defeat the charter measure. He was heavily involved in producing the robo-calls, which included a call from a police officer supporting Hill and a call from the candidate himself.
Rice said last week that he got involved mostly to get Ferrara and Costello off regional boards, including the San Luis Obispo County Air Pollution Control Board and the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District board.
Rice said he wanted Costello out because of his vote on the air board approving a controversial rule to reduce dust blowing off the Oceano Dunes off-highway vehicle park.
He initially thought a write-in candidate couldn’t beat Ferrara, but the campaign led voters to believe in Hill as a grassroots candidate, Rice said.
“When you look around you see all these tattered handmade signs and say, ‘Wow something is really going on here,’” Rice said. “It was the right setting, the perfect storm.”