Posted on Sun, Jul. 02, 2006

Big MAC attack draws lots of flak

You just don't read too often about folks dispensing with elected seats in California, a state where the democracy cup overfloweth.

Contra Costa County alone elects 375 people to fill 80 boards, including the Board of Supervisors, city and town councils, school boards and special districts.

As of last week, nearly two dozen of those local elected officials no longer face re-election after county supervisors stripped them of their elected status.

The supervisors converted from elected to appointed the membership of four municipal advisory councils, or MACs, in Bay Point, Diablo, North Richmond and El Sobrante. The supervisors will appoint members in a process identical to the one used to fill the county's seven other advisory councils.

Supervisors argue that as advisory bodies, the councils have no authority and being elected to one implies a false sense of power. The county is also writing a handbook to guide members on how to properly conduct themselves as an arm of the Board of Supervisors, behavior they say hasn't always occurred.

But as newbie Supervisor Mary Piepho of Discovery Bay is learning, the quickest path to controversy is to challenge local institutions.

The Diablo Municipal Advisory Council chairwoman is furious, calling the move a stealth power grab of the community's right to choose its own representatives.

Despite repeated inquiries as to the status of the restructuring study that led to last week's vote to ax the elected positions, "we were given only vague references and 'We'll let you know,'" council chairwoman Maryann Cella said. "We were never given the opportunity to comment on the proposal. I only found out about it the day before it happened and not from the supervisor's office."

Diablo residents know best who should represent them, Cella says. It's the way democracy works.

"If that's not the case, then why not let Gov. Schwarzenegger appoint the Board of Supervisors?" Cella asked. "Ironically, the only MAC left in the county with elected members is in Discovery Bay, where her husband is a board member."

That's true, but the supervisors had nothing to do with it.

David Piepho was elected to the Discovery Bay Community Services District, which also acts as a municipal advisory council. State law governs how special districts elect their members, so the supervisors have no jurisdiction over how it functions.

The board's vote also deepened Piepho's troubles in Alamo, an affluent and rural enclave renowned for its passionate citizens.

Piepho says Alamo needs an advisory council, but she has run head-on into community leaders who fear she will stack it with people who represent her interests rather than their own. They worry the county will leverage the group to force upon them unwanted development.

"I haven't talked to anybody who thinks we need a council," said 20-year Alamo resident Grace Schmidt. "But if we were to have one, we want to elect its members."

Schmidt and a dozen of Alamo's influential leaders were visibly disappointed when Piepho failed to show at a community meeting Thursday night called by her office.

With no supervisor at hand, the leaders pointedly reminded Piepho's staff representative that they had submitted ideas months ago for how an Alamo council might be structured, much of it now negated after a vote of the board, a vote which they had not even been told was on the agenda.

"The way the county has treated the elected MACs has been appalling," Alamo Improvement Association board member Mike Gibson told Piepho's staffer Gina Ferretti. The association is an Alamo homeowners' group; about one in 10 Alamo households are members.

For her part, Piepho says she wants to form publicly accessible and accountable county government for all Alamo residents, not just its vocal leaders.

"There are some people who are very comfortable in their roles in Alamo, and they perceive change as a threat," she says. "Yes, some people are angry with me, and I hear that. But I have to keep doing my job."

Piepho and other supervisors deny they will stack their advisory councils with rubber-stamps.

"There's no evidence to support that statement," Piepho says.

She appointed, for example, David Bowlby to the San Ramon Valley Planning Commission, a man who supported her opponent in the 2004 supervisor race. And she has the power -- but hasn't used it -- to boot from the commission two of her detractors, Gibson and Karen McPherson.

Supervisor John Gioia says he's appointed people who disagreed with him, too.

"In Kensington, I reappointed people who opposed my temporary events ordinance," he says.

Gioia even made peace with North Richmond councilman Lee Jones. The Richmond man had endorsed a casino -- which Gioia opposed -- at the same time his employer, the nonprofit Neighborhood House, had accepted money and promises of more from the casino proponents.

But Gioia probably can't stomach another term for El Sobrante Councilwoman Marilynne Mellander, who left the GOP because it wasn't conservative enough, and has led the opposition to county redevelopment plans in her community.

Gioia considers her disruptive. She says he's a socialist. But she will apply, anyway.

Her friends in the county taxpayers' group have already sent sympathy e-mails to her, predicting an end to her reign.

"Gioia may decide to be (politically correct) and let me back on there," she says.

We'll have to wait until the end of the year and the conclusion of Mellander's term to see if Gioia's democracy cup overfloweth that much.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen writes about politics on Sundays. Reach her at 925-945-4773 or lvorderbrueggen@cctimes.com. You may read her Weblog at www.cctextra.com/blogs/politicsblog/