Tom Fulks

Tax forms offer a peek inside the ‘dark world’ of COLAB

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

The hard-right majority of the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors doesn’t govern so much as dispense patronage.

Serving as paymasters for their favored landed gentry, this shark-eyed trio looted the public treasury once again Tuesday for the benefit of their water-plundering pals. Having bungled a stealthy effort to do the same last month, Lynn Compton, Debbie Arnold and John Peschong were shamed into re-enacting their dirty work in full view of the public.

That they did — without a blush — dutifully taking care of their rural, ideological soulmates with another 3-2 vote to extract money from urban taxpayers and water users who pay their own freight.

By bailing out North County water users who’ve refused to pay their way, the board trio pulled the stopper from the money drain, appropriating as much as $8.6 million over three to five years in giveaways from the General Fund.

For a so-called fiscally conservative board majority, this makes no sense.

They can’t now refuse the rush for free water management funding from other rural water users without risking lawsuits claiming discrimination or gross inequity.

So why’d they do it?

Not because the public demanded it. Of the more than 50 people who addressed the board Tuesday, only four supported the trio’s underhandedness.

Unsurprisingly, the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business’ front man, Mike Brown, pushed the board trio to finish the heist they’d started a month ago. For a covert operation no one but Brown publicly embraces, how did COLAB prevail in the face of such overwhelming public opposition?

A cloistered bunch, COLAB has never willingly published a roster of officers or board members. Yet its board — like cloaked monks — holds conspicuous sway over county policy through their three devoted acolytes.

Who are these COLAB illuminati, these clandestine sponsors of offshore oil, unbridled development and ill-gotten water welfare for the landed nobility?

The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica nonprofit news organization offers a dimly lit portal into COLAB’s dark world, providing IRS tax forms from 2009 through 2015. Each lists that year’s income, expenses, officers and board members.

Established in the early 1990s in Santa Maria with money from agriculture, Big Oil and development interests to battle Santa Barbara County government, COLAB slinked into San Luis Obispo County in 2009. Upon Brown’s hiring in 2011, COLAB’s annual expenses increased by more than $100,000.

Among the founding directors of SLO County COLAB in 2009 were Steve Arnold, husband of current county Supervisor Debbie Arnold, and Jamie Kirk, land-use agent for large developers. Missing from the COLAB roster every year is any representative of “labor.”

According to its 2015 Form 990, board members included:

▪  Jean Helphenstine, president; real estate agent

▪  John Evans, vice president; director of civil engineering, Cannon

▪  Mike Frederick, secretary/treasurer; property manager

▪  Alan Volbrecht, past president; land surveyor

▪  Ken Dewar, director; fuel distributor

▪  Charlie Whitney, director; ranch owner

▪  Dan Wixom, director; cattle businessman

▪  Ben Higgins, director; director of ag operations, Hearst Corp.

▪  Wade Taylor, director; real estate broker

▪  Mike Fuller, director; financial adviser, former Arroyo Grande city councilman

▪  Steve Taylor, director

This roster seems a good place to begin understanding who Compton, Arnold and Peschong actually represent.

While COLAB illuminati tend to steer clear of lit places, they’re adept at turning out ideological supporters — witting or not — when they want something. They demonstrated a show of force Tuesday when supervisors deliberated investigating alleged violations of the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law. The board trio, of course, voted against investigating themselves.

COLAB’s troops made numerous conclusionary declamations as to the integrity and innocence of their three friends on the board, yet disappeared altogether when it came time for the board to take up the water welfare item. Makes one wonder if they knew in advance what the outcome would be.

The consequences of the board trio’s benevolence for the plutocracy are real, with potentially tragic effects on us plebeians.

Eventually, after the gold rush on the General Fund has run its course, little money will remain for essential government services beyond the bare minimum: No extra money for sheriff’s patrols or fire protection, nothing added to combat our explosive opioid epidemic, zero for treating nagging homelessness, chronic mental health problems, veterans’ needs and myriad other financial demands to improve San Luis Obispo County’s human condition.

Some 500 people, including Compton and Arnold, showed up last week for a COLAB fundraiser. These weren’t all backroom illuminati, just the privileged money celebrating their publicly subsidized good fortune.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.