SLO County supervisor candidates talk racism, housing and jail deaths at forum

Bruce Gibson, left, Patrick E.B. Sparks and Jeff Eckles take part in a candidate forum in Moro Bay for the District 2 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.
Bruce Gibson, left, Patrick E.B. Sparks and Jeff Eckles take part in a candidate forum in Moro Bay for the District 2 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

There wasn't an empty seat in the house as all three candidates for the District 2 seat on the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors met and traded barbs at a packed candidate forum Friday evening at the Morro Bay Veterans Memorial Building.

Though the office is officially non-partisan, challengers Jeff Eckles (no party preference) and Patrick E.B. Sparks (Republican) didn't hesitate to cast themselves as the fiscally conservative alternative to incumbent Bruce Gibson (Democrat), who is seeking a fourth four-year term in office in the June 5 election.

The candidates answered questions on a wide variety of topics — from affordable housing to racism at Cal Poly to the multiple recent inmate deaths at San Luis Obispo County Jail — at the event hosted by the League of Women Voters, Latino Outreach Council and Morro Bay, Los Osos/Baywood Park and Cambria chambers of commerce.

Gibson took the occasion to tout what he described as his accomplishments in office, such as the new wastewater treatment plant in Los Osos and the county takeover of emergency services in Cayucos when the Cayucos Fire Protection District soon dissolves.

Eckles, who owns the Morro Bay House of Jerky and is the former director of the Home Builders Association, burnished his bona fides in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors. Sparks, a real estate broker and attorney, said he was running against over-expenditures in government.

Here are where the candidates came down on key issues affecting the county during the 90-minute forum.

Affordable housing

Gibson said more needs to be done with addressing affordable housing in the county, and he accused Eckles of "attempting to thwart" it when he was with the Home Builders Association.

The Housing Authority of San Luis Obispo (HASLO) plans to build 36 affordable-housing units off Prado Road near the South Hills Open Space.

"(Eckles) has advocated positions that have helped our policies fail," Gibson said.

The incumbent argued for the county to take a look at the long-term rental market and called for a direct investment of county funds as well as inclusionary housing.

Eckles said that "affordable does have a place," but that the county needs to "incentivize builders to build the right types of homes in the right places;" specifically, high-density, energy-efficient and small-footprint homes close traffic corridors and job centers.

Sparks said the local housing crunch is a problem of supply and demand. He said he was exploring technology used in the Netherlands, "where you can actually build a home with a four-man crew in two days with a crane."

Mental health and the County Jail

Candidates received a pair of questions tackling the subject of mental health services in the county and inmate deaths at the jail, including that of former Atascadero resident Andrew Holland after he was placed in a restraint chair for 46 straight hours.

Andrew Holland died while at the San Luis Obispo County, California jail in 2017. This exclusive jail cell video shows his final days strapped to a restraint chair and left naked in a solitary confinement cell.

Sparks said Sheriff Ian Parkinson, who oversees the jail, has taken positive steps by replacing the county medical examiner; the candidate said the state was shifting the burden of mental health treatment onto the county.

Eckles said the issue of mental illness needs to be looked at "with the urgency that it deserves."

He said SLO County needs to examine how counties throughout the state are handling the issue, and also to explore more public-private partnerships.

"It seems almost insurmountable at just the county level," he said.

Eckles called Holland's death shameful.

"There's no way around it. We're shamed as a community. The sheriff is shamed. And the jail is shamed," he said. "We need to look at why it happened."

Gibson said he watched two-and-a-half hours of the jail video showing Holland's death, "and it was the hardest thing I've ever had to look at."

"I am so sorry for the ordeal that he had to go through and for the loss that his family continues to struggle with," Gibson said.

The incumbent said Parkinson is accountable for Holland's death, and that jail staff could have done more to prevent it.

"My very deep disappointment is that no one in the course of those two days stepped back from that, stepped outside the policy and the system, to see what was profoundly wrong with what was going on," he said.

Racism at Cal Poly

As Cal Poly enters its third week of uproar over multiple incidents of racism and racial insensitivity — such as a fraternity member who was photographed in blackface, other fraternity members photographed posing as Latino gang member stereotypes and the dissemination of white supremacist fliers around campus — candidates were asked to weigh in on the topic.

Cal Poly students marched across campus in one of multiple planned Open House protests over the administration's perceived lack of action on Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, after photos surfaced of a member in blackface and others as racial stereotypes.

"My grandfather was born in Aguascalientes, Mexico. My mother was a first-generation citizen of the United States," Eckles said. "Particularly, as a grandson of an immigrant, I would pledge to always uphold the values of inclusivity."

Gibson said there are students at Cal Poly "who have absolutely the most despicable, disgusting views on the nature of humankind, with their racist remarks, racist graffiti, racist vandalism."

He said "Cal Poly has a long way to go, and they haven't made much progress recently."

Sparks responded that "we all bleed the same," and said "there isn't a race issue on my part, nor should there be one at Cal Poly."

He said everybody is made in God's image.

"One of the ways to get more sensitive to do that might be to actually involve yourself with the communities where those types of gang activities are coming up," Sparks said.

Sparks said he has heard from several community members who are afraid "that gangs would come to San Luis Obispo County."

"That is a big concern for those that see that activity on a regular basis," he said. "For people like the students at Cal Poly, perhaps they need to go to a place, in a safe way, to go see what that looks like."

Carrizo Plain drilling

With news Friday that President Donald Trump had approved oil drilling and the construction of a pipeline in the Carrizo Plain National Monument, all three candidates gave their reaction.

Johna Hurl, Carrizo Plain National Monument manager, talks about the monument's unique features during a tour to commemorate its 15th anniversary Wednesday, June 1, 2016.

Gibson called it "a direct insult to this county," and said that for Trump to reactivate a well that has been idle since the '50s "is an absolute outrage."

Sparks, who said in a previous response that "some of the issues with regard to climate change are red herrings," said he hasn't thought much about drilling on the Carrizo Plain. But he said if oil is available there and can be extracted "in a wise stewardship way," he supported it.

"I think that it's still, in terms of the cost-benefit analysis, a reasonable thing to consider," he said.

Eckles said he is "adamantly opposed" to offshore drilling and also doesn't like the idea of the county going in on onshore drilling.

"I think that as a community, we need to move away from petroleum-based fuel products," he said. "I don't want to see the county proliferate with a bunch of wells."