The East Contra Costa towns of Byron and Knightsen are both more than 100 years old, small, and like it that way. Residents of both feel threatened by nearby development and are alarmed that the area they represent has been recently cut in half and their representative councils replaced. They’re suspicious of county government, of their neighbors in Discovery Bay and of District III Supervisor Mary Nejedly Piepho, who falls into both categories. And they each recently packed a local meeting room, bringing together for the first time some disconcerted residents, their recently displaced representatives, their newly appointed representatives, and Piepho.
Back in 2005, Piepho, along with District V Supervisor Federal Glover, had been directed by the full county Board of Supervisors (BOS) to form an ad hoc committee to “improve consistency” among the county’s 11 municipal advisory councils (MACs). Most were set up in the late 1980s and early 1990s to provide the county supervisor in their district with recommendations on matters of concern in their unincorporated communities.
The MACs were a hodgepodge of roughly similar organizations ranging in size from five to nine members. Some had elected representatives; others were appointed. Some got administrative assistance from the county; others didn’t. And there were no consistent criteria for drawing boundaries.
Over the next two and a half years, new policies, procedures and boundary guidelines were created, discussed in public meetings and adopted by the full BOS on Dec. 16, 2008. Most MAC boundaries were untouched, Knightsen and Byron were halved, the Discovery Bay CSD’s referral area grew slightly, and all sitting MAC members would see their terms end in two weeks.
Those are the basic facts. The details surrounding them are less clear.
Kathy Leighton sits in a red leather sofa cradling a mug of hot coffee. The spacious family room in her Byron home fairly drips country ambience, from the stone floor and the wood-burning fireplace to the wall-mounted black-powder rifle and the massive wooden bar. The former Byron MAC member, a descendant of far East County pioneers, has been involved in virtually every facet of Byron her whole life, and is the area’s most noted historian as well.
Leighton is also known for being critical of Mary Piepho. A former supporter, Leighton believes Piepho is on a course that will ultimately lead to Discovery Bay’s expansion at Byron’s expense. There are many indications of that, she said, and given a few minutes, and she can tick off a list of 16.
John Gonzales can tick off a list of 18. A stalwart Knightsen proponent for 20 years, Gonzales is a former member of the Knightsen Town Advisory Council (KTAC, as Knightsen’s MAC is called). His stocky build, shaved head and jet-black moustache are ubiquitous in town, and many of his concerns mirror Leighton’s.
Before the MAC reorganization took place, the two lists already contained perceived Piepho failings on ZIP Code boundaries, sanitation district business, meeting notifications, the local historical society, school locations, dates on maps, invitations (or lack thereof) to events, code enforcement, broken sidewalks and boat storage. And for every fact offered in support of suspicions of an ulterior motive, Piepho can deliver a fact of her own supporting her actions or pointing out similar shortcomings. As time passed, points of contention shot back and forth until the many facets of the many issues began to blur together into a morass of suspicion and mistrust.
When it comes to the MAC boundary issue, the public record does little to help sort things out. A records request made to the county for all materials related to the reorganization yielded more than 500 documents yet left several holes. There are agendas, but no record of when they were distributed. There are no e-mail messages on the subject, either, making it impossible to know if residents’ claims of inadequate notice for meetings are true. There are no records of who attended various meetings, or which agencies were represented. For three months leading up to one week before an August, 2008 ad hoc committee meeting to finalize the reorganization plan, there is no record of any activity taking place. And there are no minutes for several meetings, including a key, April 21, 2008 session to which county officials and all the MACs were to be invited, and at which the final shape of the MAC reorganization was discussed.
Lara DeLaney of the County Administrator’s office, which provides staff for the supervisors, said that although keeping minutes at meetings was the “common practice,” it is not required by law. “In this case,” she said, “no formal minutes were taken.”
Piepho said that the points discussed at the meeting are reflected in the subsequent changes made in the draft reorganization policy. The entire process was lengthy and public, allowing plenty of time for participation and questions, she added, and both MACs could have involved their communities more.
“Whether the I’s were dotted and the T’s crossed is one thing,” she said. “But it’s important to be introspective as well. They (the advisory councils) certainly shoulder the responsibility for the community being informed because that is the role of the ACs (advisory councils).”
Ironically, both sides agree that the re-organization was needed. Other than the boundary issue (and KTAC’s boundaries are being reviewed) they also agree that the final product is basically a good thing. It’s the same way with several of the other disputes: the results are often less disagreeable than the process through which they were achieved.
“She treats you like you’re not big enough to mean anything,” said Gonzales. “It doesn’t matter how much you scream.”
“I get the feeling that they think we’re all hayseeds,” said Leighton.
“They (adversaries) made it crystal clear they had no intention to work with my office,” said Piepho, adding that the screaming was meant “to discredit me personally” and “be punitive.”
“I shouldn’t do any part of my job, in their view,” she said in December. “I can’t be proactive, I can’t respond to the community, I can’t make a board order, I can’t hold a meeting that meets with their approval.”
The resulting breakdown of communication, coupled with the holes in documentation, has not helped allay any suspicions.
“Even if her intent is positive, because of the secrecy, I have to think that where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Leighton. “You almost sound petty making a big deal out of all this stuff (individually), but there’s always another little thing. It stacks up.”
One point illustrative of the push-me-pull-you nature of the disputes is the turnover of the two MACs’ memberships. The day following the passage of the new MAC policy, Leighton and all the other MAC members were sent letters from Piepho’s office saying their service would end in two weeks, at the end of the year, and inviting them to re-apply if they wished. The move came as a surprise to some, who lit up the blogoshpere with accusations that it was a punitive move on Piepho’s part.
But the fact that MAC terms would coincide with that of their supervisor had been written in the emerging policy since its inception. Piepho had just won re-election in June, so the fact that her first term was ending was clear as well. There should have been no surprise, she said; the information had been before them since 2007.
Still, opponents say, the point wasn’t discussed, and after more than a decade of service, a phone call would have been nice. To send a form letter, followed by a press release announcing the vacancies in their former positions, showed a lack of respect.
And then came February, and people from all sides were converging on their respective town halls for the first meetings of their new MACs. In the Byron Library Club, beneath the Byron Museum sign, Linnea Juarez, the lone re-appointee from the previous MAC, grasped the gavel and called the meeting to order.
In Knightsen less than a week later, more than 100 people, 10 percent of the population, jammed the Knightsen Garden Club to overflowing. Taking the lead was Linda Weeks, KTAC’s only re-appointee. She rapped the meeting to order with a rubber mallet that served as her gavel, and laid it close in front of her. She would soon be using it again.