Blatant corruption and flagrant stupidity ruled San Benito County politics and government in 2006. The primary enablers, ironically, were the local newspapers. Things only got worse when the lone voice of truthful reporting in SBC -- the Hollister Free Press Online -- went offline late in the year.
[at left, Brian Conroy, former Hollister mayor, just rolled out the Inside San Benito web site]
Maybe 2007 will be a better year for the the truth in SBC. Brian Conroy, a mainstay of HFPO, has rolled out a web site that picks up where the HFPO left off. Inside San Benito reports the unpleasant details conveniently left out of the Mainstreet Media newspapers.
The unveiling of Inside San Benito is a good time to revisit the San Jose Mercury News' investigation of SBC politics, Fury on the Range, which caused such a backlash in the local lame-o press. Fury on the Range should be required reading for all San Benitans. It should be handed out in high school civics classes. It should make all residents of the San Benito nation wonder: Why do we have to rely on outsiders to help us confront the truth about our elected officials and other prominent citizens?
[at left, Mercury News reporter Julia Prodis Sulek, whose reporting offended the San Benito media status quo]
The two-part investigation by Julia Prodis Sulek in the Merc's November 19 and 20 issues (read Part 1 and Part 2 here) addresses the situation directly: "in fast-growing San Benito county, a battle over land, power and the pace of development breaks out with accusations of blackmail, bribery and revenge."
Even though significant events and details are left out, Fury on the Range does a commendable job of revealing the sloth, incompetence, and venality driving SBC politics. The two-parter identifies some of the prominent San Benitans associated with, or directly involved in, the Los Valientes fear-and-smear mob. (Note: Los Valientes translates to "Brave Ones," which is laughable. The gang operated anonymously, until they were found out, then they denied their own existence. A more appropriate gang moniker would have been Los Cobardes -- "the Cowards.")
[Hollister, CA: San Benito County seat, Los Valientes base of operations, and home to two feeble newspapers]
Prodis Sulek does a good job of documenting former District Attorney John Sarsfield's lonely effort to hold Los Valientes accountable for wasting tax-payer money in nuisance lawsuits and other political maneuvers designed to discredit (and remove) anyone perceived as a threat to unrestrained growth in San Benito county. The story reveals the price Sarsfield paid for opposing the Los Valientes mob members on the board of supes.
Locally, Fury on the Range's main effect was to send the local newspapers into hyper-defensive mode. They tried to spin the story away, and it was a pathetic thing to behold.
[at left, Mark Paxton, spineless and confused managing editor of the Pinnacle News]
The reaction of Pinnacle News editor Mark Paxton was an exasperated harumph: "SJ looks down its nose at SBC - unfairly," he wrote in his Notebook column. Paxton's editorial policy is essentially dickless, along the lines of "All the news that's fit to print -- as long as it doesn't offend anyone important." Here are some outtakes from Paxton's response to Fury on the Range (with R of G comments in italics):
"The two-part series amounted to some 7,000 words, detailing what most of us grew sick of months ago." [R of G comment: According to Paxton, readers shouldn't have to read sickening news stories about corrupt county supervisors and their influential friends. That's why Paxton removed reporter Kate Woods from the story just as it got really really sickening.]
"To use a broad brush to paint the community in terms of good vs. evil, black vs. white ignores that we're considerably more complicated than that." [R of G comment: So, the little local newspaper that could have explained the complicated story decides not to. Then, when the big regional newspaper does their job for them, the little newspaper gets snitty.]
In fact, a convincing case might be made that none of the players in the Los Valientes debacle or the larger community is all good or all bad and that we're considerable more skilled at getting along with one another than most urban residents." [R of G comment: City people living on top of each other seem to get along much better than some rural San Benitans who work out their disagreements by poisoning dogs, smearing political opponents anonymously, and losing their composure in public meetings.]
Meanwhile, the Hollister Free Pants, which pretends to be a Hollister paper even though it's just a Hollister edition of the Gilroy Dipsack, didn't know how to react to Prodis Sulek's investigation. They'd never seen a story longer than ten column inches that wasn't about a barbecue, a football game, or a motorcyle rally. Like the town imbecile blinking stupidly on a park bench, the so-called newspaper is mentally incapable of grasping the SBC corruption-in-government scandal they've been sitting on for years.
In a bigger media market, the Free Pants' and Pinnacle's decision to not investigate corruption, gross incompetence, and influence-peddling in SBC government would be its own scandal. The Free Pants, in particular, has endorsed and enabled several San Benito county supervisors whose agenda is mainly greasing the wheels of unrestrained growth. Both newspapers have helped to create the decrepit county infrastructure that they regularly complain about.
[former Pinnacle publisher Tracie Cone, proponent of slow, reasonable growth, and target of Los Valientes]
Even now, long after the housing boom that left Hollister unable to flush its own toilets without overflowing the sewage ponds, the Free Pants remains permanently skeptical of San Benitans aligned with slow-growth -- for instance, people like defeated supervisorial candidate Tracie Cone, a longtime critic of ad hoc housing development:
"I hate to be so right about these things,'' Cone said. "Slow down, and have a plan, and grow. People don't think two generations from now, they think now. Why do we have to become Gilroy when we could become Sonoma?''. [from Fury on the Range]
Prodis Sulek's two-part story got a lot of things right, but she missed the underlying story -- the local news media's complicity. In SBC, corruption, stupidity, and the newspaper business are all wadded together in the same disgusting gob. If Prodis Sulek had made this connection, she might have discovered these additional aspects of the SBC corruption story:
- How county supervisor Reb Monaco managed to escape unscathed from the juvenile hall porn scandal, especially considering that he opposed an anti-porn in the SB workplace measure. If a juvy hall porn scandal had occurred in Santa Clara county, Monaco's shooting down of the no-porn-at-work-rule and his involvement with the Society for the Scientific Study of Sexuality (Reb's an exhibitor) would be newsworthy, and rightfully so. In SB, these details are deemed "not relevant" -- only because Monaco is aligned with the "right" people who've profited from dubious development projects. If he was a slow-growther, Monaco would've been skewered by the Free Pants.
Los Valientes lawyer Michael Pekins' severe credibility issues. According to former D.A. Sarsfield, every comment made by Pekin in Fury on the Range should be "weighed against Pekin's
employment record, and his documented history of substance
abuse." There are good reasons why Pekin practices law in remote SB county, and associates primarily with
anonymous clients who prefer to operate in clandestine fashion: Pekin
specializes in nuisance lawsuits and noxious courtroom tactics that make judges really angry. What other lawyer would agree to represent Los Valientes? With a
couple phone calls a good reporter could learn more.... Nah. Not newsworthy in SBC. Pekin's friends on the board of supers are cozy with Meanstreet Media publisher Steve Staloch.
The similarities between the nearly-anonymous
political sleaze that Ignacio Velazquez used against Anna Caballero in the district
28 state assembly race, and the covert, anonymous, bullying tactics
used by Los Valientes during the Measure G campaign in 2004.
Velazquez' method has always been to smear opponents by proxy, while carefully painting his public persona in wholesome conservative family
hues. But where does Velazquez' money really come from? Velazquez spent
approximately $.75 M to defeat assemblyman Sam Farr in 2004. He spent
$.5 M to defeat Caballero in 2006. Who/what really bankrolls
Velazquez' political bids? Also not considered newsworthy. Why? Despite his kookiness, scrutinizing Velazquez' past affiliations and his current backers is off limits at Meanstreet Media.
Ironically, just as Fury on the Range was getting front-page attention throughout the Bay area, yet another SBC corruption/incompetence story was unfolding and Meanstreet Media was busy downplaying it: a vote-tallying snafu in the county supervisorial election called into question Reb Monaco's 60-vote victory over challenger Tracie Cone. One voter reported not being able to choose Cone's name on the machine. Despite the technical glitch, the machine was left in service. But this barely merited notice in the press.
Of course you can bet that no Mainstreet Media reporter will be asked to investigate the standing rumor that the SBC board of elections sometimes mails absentee ballots in duplicate, or sends them to non-residents or deceased residents. When was the last time SBC voter rolls were checked to make sure that the deceased and the vacated aren't "voting?" Oops! Can't go there. That might call into question the validity of ultra-slim margins of victory in close county supervisor elections. That might be another unpleasant truth that squeamish Pinnacle editor Mark Paxton automatically classifies as "too complex to cover."
The fubar political climate in SBC won't likely change much in 2007. But... as the local newspaper chain continues to marginalize itself by not reporting the incompetence-and- influence-peddling-in-SBC-government story, it will be up to Inside San Benito (and other new media enterprises) to nail the truth to the wall.
The truth will out, eventually; it just takes longer in the San Benito nation.
Good luck to Inside San Benito.