Frank Mecham became chairman of the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday as the board conducted its annual transfer of power.
Mecham replaces Bruce Gibson for the one-year term.
Board members chose Adam Hill as vice chairman.
Mecham, who ran meetings as mayor of Paso Robles, told The Tribune in an e-mail that “my role is to be sure that all points are heard, not only from my colleagues but staff and the public as well.”
“I do not intend to limit public comment,” he continued. “I will be respectful of a person’s right to speak, but I ask for the same respect when our calendar is full and we have a lot of business to discuss.”
Mecham wrote that “for the most part, the board meetings are a county business meeting, not a town hall meeting. If an issue comes up that would require extensive discussions, we can arrange for a more flexible discussion.”
Gibson, and before him Jim Patterson and Shirley Bianchi, fielded considerable criticism from critics of the Los Osos sewer proposal, who complained that supervisors limited their right to speak.
Last April, for example, some Los Osos residents said Gibson was being anti-democratic and unethical by limiting them to 10 minutes of speaking time during morning supervisors meetings, and 10 minutes in the afternoon.
The sometimes vitriolic attack earned them a rebuke from Patterson, who told them that “Our constituency is the entire county, not just Los Osos.”
Patterson noted that there were “people who are here for agenda-ized items who have been waiting for an hour and a half,” adding that people from Los Osos spoke “Tuesday after Tuesday.”
Gibson said at the time that Los Osans had been given “unprecedented access” to speak their minds at public meetings.
There is little new about this, and it will be a challenge for Mecham as it has been for his predecessors.
Plans for a Los Osos sewer have occupied county government for decades, and those with an opinion on it have been sharing those opinions regularly and at length during public meetings.
This has historically placed supervisors in a bind.
They agree that citizens have the right to express their views to local leaders. But allowing them to speak without limit — Los Osos residents have sometimes gone on for an hour or longer — can cause others who are taking time off from work, for example, to leave without saying their piece.
In addition, the lengthy comments can make other parts of a meeting run late, and KCBX, the radio station that carries the discussions, stops broadcasting them at 5 p.m.
The tone sometimes gets strong as well. For example, Linde Owen, a regular Los Osos speaker, on Tuesday accused Patterson of going over “to the corporate side,” and suggested that supervisors put a “sold out” sign on their Web site.
Owen was upset that Patterson had asked Planning Commissioner Sarah Christie to resign.
In addition to balancing free speech with efficiency, Mecham sees the chairman as having other duties.
“Actually, it’s not much different than the role of a mayor,” he wrote. “You facilitate meetings, you speak on behalf of the board, you are the spokesperson for the county for the most part, sit in on department head meetings, make assignments for committees for the other board members, and sign a lot of documents.”