Tom Fulks

Be ready for political high drama and skullduggery in SLO County in 2018

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

San Luis Obispo County’s new season of political high theater opens Jan. 9 with the first Board of Supervisors meeting of election-year 2018.

On the playbill is a whimsical farce featuring the hard-right board majority’s annual performance of “Picking a New Board Chair.”

Their challenge: acting as if they’re actually deliberating their decision.

Given this play’s predictable ending, let’s dispense with the sham of “hearing from the public” and have them phone in the appointment of one of themselves.

In a normal year — which doesn’t exist anymore — the sitting vice-chair would be tapped to replace outgoing chair John Peschong .

It’ll likely be déjà vu all over again for three-term Supervisor Adam Hill, the current vice chair who suffered the same sordid scene last year: The Republican/Tea Party majority of Peschong, Debbie Arnold and Lynn Compton trashed decades of bipartisan tradition and installed freshman supervisor Peschong as chairman over the objections of Hill and 2nd District Supervisor Bruce Gibson.

Relegating Hill to a second year of understudy, the majority then cherry picked choice committee assignments, shredding longstanding customs of rotating the chair by district and basing committee appointments on areas of expertise.

Sure, the majority can do whatever it wants with three votes — but acting with such openly partisan hackery signaled the far right’s “No-Compromise, Partisanship-at-Every-Level Virus” had infected SLO County.

What’s new from last year’s show is the backstage drama vis-à-vis the two supervisors up for re-election in 2018.

Compton faces one announced candidate, Jimmy Paulding, a lawyer/land-use planner from Arroyo Grande. Gibson faces no challenger — yet. The filing deadline for the June 5 ballot is March 9. (Disclosure: I’ve been a campaign advisor to Gibson since 2006.)

One of the odder plot twists from 2017’s board-chair theatrics may reappear in 2018’s script.

Don Stewart, then-chairman of the SLO County Democratic Central Committee, last January told the Tribune: “To be quite frank with you, I’m not sure Adam deserves the chairmanship. …”

It was a stunning line to deliver against a fellow Democrat. I called Stewart then and asked if he’d been misquoted.

Nope. He mumbled something about “big-picture” strategy and rang off.

Stewart’s inexplicable insult outraged many Central Committee members and precipitated, in part, his eventual resignation as chairman.

Now it appears Stewart and his domestic partner, Erik Howell, actually may have some sort of “big-picture” strategy, with a script rich in skullduggery.

How else to explain word on the political grapevine that Howell — a Pismo Beach City Council member and Dem Central Committee member — is recruiting an opponent to unseat Gibson?

Chatter has it that Howell called Amanda Rice of Cambria over Thanksgiving, asking her to challenge Gibson. Rice received two follow-up calls: one from Compton, offering money, another from Arnold, expressing support.

Rice, a Cambria Community Services District board member and registered independent, provided Gibson with a recap of the entreaties and an assurance she wasn’t planning to run against him.

There’s nothing unusual about county supervisors encouraging opponents to run against their political foes. That’s politics and fair game.

It’s unheard of, though, for an elected local Democrat to conspire with Republicans to unseat a fellow local Democrat, certainly without grave cause.

Howell didn’t respond to my email asking what’s up.

His 2014 appointment to the California Coastal Commission by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown was supported by local elected Democrats, including Gibson and Hill.

Craven ingratitude notwithstanding, Howell and Stewart aren’t new to intrigue, having drawn attention from Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez during Howell’s 2016 re-election campaign for Pismo City Council.

Lopez’s piece, “The mystery of the missing campaign signs, and how they tie back to the Coastal Commission,” described Stewart surreptitiously removing anti-Howell campaign yard signs — “Integrity Matters” above a red cross through Howell’s name — placed around town by Citizens for a Better Pismo Beach.

Lopez depicted CBPB as “… a small group of folks who don’t like the way Howell has conducted himself on the Coastal Commission … hoping to upend his City Council reelection bid. … (forcing Howell) to give up his seat on the Coastal Commission.” Howell won reelection.

Howell took a $1,000 campaign contribution, Lopez wrote, from the domestic partner of a developer’s lobbyist seeking a coastal permit in 2015 to build a controversial development in Shell Beach opposed by neighbors. Howell voted for the project two months later.

Some Democrats might call Howell’s most recent tomfoolery a betrayal of his party and allies.

However it’s billed, he should explain his cloak-and-dagger act prior to this drama’s curtain call.

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.

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune