To begin the year on a positive note, we offer a changing-of-the-guard bouquet to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors for promptly, efficiently and unanimously selecting a new chair (Lynn Compton) and vice chair (Adam Hill) to serve in 2016.
That was a refreshing change from last year, when there were accusations from the public that the good ol’ boys were denying Debbie Arnold her rightful turn as vice chair. To refute that, certain members of the board subjected us to painful recitations of the order of succession to The Chair. (It was District 1’s turn to chair in 1948 and should have been District 4’s turn in 1957, but he was a new supervisor and didn’t want to do it so the order got somewhat out of whack but was fixed by 1962, but then. ...)
Frank Mecham — who had originally been elected chair for 2015 — mercifully ended the debate by voluntarily surrendering the gavel and nominating Arnold to take over as chair. He also nominated Compton to be vice chair, which knocked Adam Hill out of the vice chair’s seat, which didn’t sit well Hill and Bruce Gibson, who voted against the appointments.
Complicated? You bet, which is why we were relieved by the smooth passing-of-the-gavel this time around.
We’re impressed, too, by the even-handed way Compton conducted Tuesday’s meeting, especially when it came to the touchy issue of whether the district attorney should be compensated for seeking outside legal advice. (More on that later.) We’re even more impressed that she broke ranks with Arnold to vote against paying the DA’s legal bill. (More on that later, too.)
Yes, the year is young — very young — but at least the oft-embattled board started it on the right foot … instead of with its foot in its mouth.
Bouquet for Mecham; brickbats for Dow
It’s awfully early to hand Frank Mecham a bouquet for quote of the year, but if movie critics can recognize Oscar contenders nine months before the Academy Awards, then we think we’re justified in declaring Mecham the front-runner for this pithy statement: “No knowledge of an illegal practice doesn’t make it OK.”
Ironically, Mecham delivered that statement — indirectly, at least — to District Attorney Dan Dow, who of all people should already know that.
Yet Dow claimed Tuesday he did not realize he was supposed to seek permission from the Board of Supervisors before he hired outside counsel to get a second opinion on a compensation issue involving deputy district attorneys.
In a nutshell, here’s the issue: Deputy DAs had been receiving nine paid days off as compensation for being on-call two weeks out of the year. The perk was a longstanding one, but because it had never been negotiated nor included in a union contract, the County Counsel’s Office determined it was illegal.
Dow agreed to stop the practice, but he decided to get a second opinion on the issue from an outside law firm. He sought a second opinion, he said, because he was worried that the county would try to retroactively take pay away from the deputies. According to county officials, though, Dow wasn’t authorized to hire outside counsel on his own.
Dow — whose adversarial demeanor at times was better suited to a courtroom than to a Board of Supervisors chambers — was unrepentant Tuesday, though he did say he’d clear it with the board before hiring outside counsel in the future.
Still, supervisors declined to pay the $2,874 legal bill the DA ran up; there were some comments to the effect that taxpayers should not be stuck with the bill.
Interestingly, Supervisor Debbie Arnold — who is generally every taxpayer’s BFF — was the only one who voted to pay the bill.
Full disclosure: Dow has endorsed Arnold in her bid for re-election.
Even fuller disclosure: The Tribune did not endorse Dow or Arnold in their past campaigns for office. But newspapers are not part of county government. Dow is, and it would behoove him to try to get along with those holding the purse strings. As a start, he might consider staying out of the political fray by declining to endorse candidates, at least in local, nonpartisan races.
But back to the $2,874 bill: Following the hearing, Dow told Tribune reporter Matt Fountain his office is researching whether the county’s decision can be appealed to the Superior Court.
Our advice — and we won’t charge a cent for it — let it go.
This episode already has earned Dow enough political ill will in the halls of the County Government Center. Not only did he raise the hackles of some county supervisors, he also managed to alienate County Counsel Rita Neal by implying the entire matter had been handled in haste.
He even offered his own pithy quote: “A decision made in haste often leads to waste.”
The only waste we see here is of time spent debating this issue and, even worse, the waste of taxpayer money spent giving deputy DAs overly generous perks that were never negotiated. While this was an issue Dow inherited from his predecessors, he exacerbated the problem by attempting to defend and excuse the practice, rather than by making things right. For that, we bequeath the DA a briefcase of brickbats.