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Pushed Out: Supervisor Ellen Pirie says her colleagues on the Board of Supervisors are trying to diminish her influence by taking her off important commissions.

Balancing Act

Are slow-growthers making a power grab on the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors or rectifying structural inequalities? Depends who you ask.

By Jessica Lussenhop

Most of the crowd that assembled at last week's Board of Supervisors meeting left after the sobering mid-fiscal year report. If they had stayed, they would have seen the board, moments before unified in grim determination to work through hard economic times, abruptly fragment during a squabble between District 3 Supervisor and chairman Neal Coonerty and District 2 Supervisor Ellen Pirie--another indication that this group will have its fair share of infighting even after it gets over the growing pains of reconfiguring around new District 1 Supervisor John Leopold.

"It's part of the public process," Coonerty said afterward of the argument. Pirie, by contrast, angrily called the incident "back-stabbing, back-room politics at its worst and ugliest."

At the meeting, Pirie had her first chance, in accordance with Brown Act rules, to confront Coonerty over his final recommendations on which board members will sit on what commissions and committees. Coonerty had taken two seats from Pirie--on the Joint Library Board and the Local Agency Formation Commission--and given them to the newly elected Leopold.

To Pirie, who chaired the board last year, the changes represented less a reshuffling than an intentional erosion of her influence in the county. "I think the public has a right to know you are targeting me," she told Coonerty at the meeting. "All the seats being taken over someone's objection are mine."

"I'm not interested in ascribing motives," Coonerty shot back.

The two had already clashed in December over a seat on the Metro Transit District Board of Directors, which makes decisions about the public bus system and appoints members to the powerful Regional Transportation Commission. Though Pirie won the seat last year with the support of former District 1 Supervisor Jan Beautz, the combined votes of Leopold, Coonerty and District 5's Mark Stone defeated her objections to the latest round of seat changes. Pirie said she and Coonerty had already spoken about giving away her position on the Library Board, but she said she thought that was the only seat she'd be losing.

"I told Coonerty that I would like that seat, but understood he wanted to give something to Leopold. That was OK," she said. "He didn't tell me at that point he was going to turn around two days later and take LAFCO."

Not Laughing
LAFCO is a powerful committee with only two supervisors serving on its board and one alternate. The commission makes important decisions whenever an unincorporated land mass becomes a city, or part of another city's sphere of influence. It has implications for taxation and for who will provide law enforcement, fire and education services to an area's population. Pirie said LAFCO will address many issues in her South County district, especially regarding the proposed 2,200-unit Buena Vista development.

Before the recommendations made by Coonerty, Pirie had enjoyed a seat on the commission based on her seniority. She says her removal smacks of political motivation.

"I can't think of a single example where a sitting board member has been removed from a commission, and a brand-new, freshmen supervisor is put in. It's really unheard of," she said. "I'm really in shock that they would think it's OK to behave this way."

Coonerty, on the other hand, asserts that LAFCO decisions on Bonny Doon's Fire Department and on the UCSC land annexation are more pressing than Buena Vista, and that he's merely trying to balance North County and South County interests.

"LAFCO used to traditionally have a rep from South County and a rep from North County," he says. "When I came along, seniority was invoked, and Supervisor Pirie got the seat. I understand her concerns. I also believe that this is just a different approach. I felt strongly about it, and the other board members seem to agree."

Pirie said she was "mystified" by the changes. "I don't know if they have a personal problem that I don't know about, or they have a problem with my constituents," she said.

The move takes place against the backdrop of a decades-long struggle on the board over low-income housing and growth in general--issues that intimately involve LAFCO. Pirie's stance has been characterized as anti-low income housing and pro-growth, Coonerty's as the opposite. Leopold's election ended the Beautz-Pirie voting bloc in a way that could have major countywide implications for both these issues.

Coonerty denies trying to take away any of Pirie's power. "I've got no problems with the way that Supervisor Pirie has conducted herself on LAFCO," he said. "I felt that there's a new supervisor coming in, and he shouldn't be stripped of all meaningful commissions."

Of the other heavyweight commissions, the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments has a supervisor from South and North County, with Pirie as alternate, and the Regional Transportation Commission has all five supervisors on board. With the changes to LAFCO, both Coonerty and Leopold say the important commissions are now in balance.

"There's a number of committees and commissions that Ellen is on. I thought Neal has the shortest and least powerful list," said Leopold. "It seemed to me this is a very fair balance. Quite frankly, I was elected to work with Ellen, not against her, and I think that's what people expect."

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