SLO County Board of Supervisors headed toward chairmanship showdown

County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong administers the oath of office Jan. 3 to county supervisors John Peschong, left, Debbie Arnold and Adam Hill.
County Clerk-Recorder Tommy Gong administers the oath of office Jan. 3 to county supervisors John Peschong, left, Debbie Arnold and Adam Hill. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

For the second time in two years, a political activist group is pushing for the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors to shake up its normal chairmanship rotation in favor of a conservative, and it’s unclear if divided local Democrats will put up a fight.

As its first matter of business Tuesday, the officially nonpartisan board is scheduled to appoint politically left-leaning supervisors Adam Hill and Bruce Gibson as board chair and vice chair, respectively, based on a long-standing yearly rotation cycle.

But with the election of District 1 Supervisor John Peschong — a Templeton resident and longtime Republican political strategist — giving the board a conservative majority, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) is calling for the new majority to vote to appoint the freshman supervisor as chair.

“The question arises that since Hill is not likely to support many policy changes that could be proposed by the new majority, can he practically and ethically serve as chairman and policy leader?” COLAB’s Jan. 8 newsletter reads.

Mike Brown, government affairs director for COLAB, noted that Peschong would be able to lead the conservative majority in opposing “smart growth” and other regulative policies championed by the board’s previous liberal majority.

Under the current rotation, Peschong would be appointed chair of the board in 2019.

Neither Peschong nor the other conservative supervisors, Lynn Compton and Debbie Arnold, would respond to a Tribune question on whether they would support the effort to name Peschong chair. Compton said through her legislative assistant Friday that she would not comment on the issue until she hears “all sides, including public testimony.”

Though board chairs preside over and set the tone for meetings, they have no more voting power than their colleagues.

The positions have historically rotated by district number so that each district gets representation every five years. Before 2014, the pattern had been broken occasionally — a newly elected supervisor may sometimes ask to skip their turn, for example — but it’s generally been a routine appointment. A simple majority vote can overrule the normal succession.

In February 2015, former Supervisor Frank Mecham, Peschong’s predecessor, stepped aside a month after being appointed chair (with Hill as vice chair) following allegations of sexism from members of the public who said District 5 Supervisor Arnold should have been next in line.

At the time, public speakers accused the male majority board of being a “good ol’ boys” club. Mecham — who said he disagreed with the allegations — moved to appoint Arnold as chair and District 4 Supervisor Compton as vice chair, bypassing Hill. Compton served as chair last year.

On Friday, Brown said his effort to appoint Peschong is primarily to shed light to what he called the institutional weakness of the Board of Supervisors form of county government and its lack of policy leadership rather than a comment on Hill.

“It doesn’t have so much to do with Supervisor Hill or the superficial politics that accompany the (chair rotation). It’s an institutional question,” Brown said. “How do you effectively lead the direction of policy if the chief official does not represent the board majority?”

Hill on Monday called Brown’s effort a “petty political ploy” and said the chair rotation had not been an issue until Brown and COLAB made it one in 2014.

“To behave in this manner is really a profound disrespect to the voters,” he said. “District 3 voters would be penalized because they voted for someone that Mike Brown and maybe three people on the board don’t like. I think that that’s really problematic.”

He added: “At a time where we see division everywhere, we should all be striving to reduce the number of ways we’re divided.”

Although Republicans plan to attend the county Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday, it’s unclear if many Democrats will.

Don Stewart, chairman of the Democratic Party of San Luis Obispo County, said the party has not organized any effort to speak at the meeting.

“To be quite frank with you, I’m not sure Adam deserves the chairmanship — the fact that he’s willing to turn this vote into a circus,” Stewart said.

Hill on Monday called Stewart’s comments “sad” and said they were the result of “internal party politics,” but declined to comment further.

But Nick Andre, co-chairman of SLO Progressives Democratic Club, said the group will have members in attendance.

“The board of supervisors has a chance to rise above the negative and hyper partisan political climate we live in, and move forward in a civil and democratically fair way,” Andre wrote in an email. “Denying Adam the chairmanship would be a step backward for civility and would be disrespecting the residents of District 3 who decisively re-elected him,” Andre wrote in an email.

Newly elected San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon, a political ally of Hill, said Friday she also plans to speak at the meeting in personal support of him and Gibson, as did Pat Harris, the local Democratic Party’s former chairwoman and District 3 voter.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t see this partisan stuff right off the bat,” Harris said. “There isn’t a rational reason to put in (as chairman) someone who was sworn in a week ago over someone who’s starting their third term.”