Just the fax

Documents corroborate charges that political consultant David Reade was secretly involved in creating Kim Yamaguchi’s controversial redistricting Plan 5

The April 20, 2001, fax cover sheet showing Yamaguchi and political consultant David Reade having early communication about redistricting.

The April 20, 2001, fax cover sheet showing Yamaguchi and political consultant David Reade having early communication about redistricting.

photo by Tom Angel

Since last summer, when Paradise-area Supervisor Kim Yamaguchi first presented his redistricting Plan 5, he’s shrugged off allegations that it was the product of secret, possibly illegal, backroom dealings and part of a long-standing plan to force veteran Chico Supervisor Jane Dolan off the board.

Just look at the plan, he said over and over: “It doesn’t matter how the plan came to be, what matters is that it’s here.”

Yamaguchi maintains to this day that he wrote Plan 5 with the best possible intentions, among them to correct the “gerrymandered” redistricting done in 1991 to favor Dolan, and that he did so openly, taking into account several weeks’ worth of public participation in the process.

A News & Review investigation shows, however, that the process was anything but open and that Yamaguchi’s charge of gerrymandering is baseless.

Records and other sources reveal that, while Yamaguchi was telling the public and the board that the whole process was open and aboveboard, he was—as some have charged—secretly working with both his fellow supervisor, Curt Josiassen, of Richvale, and local political strategist David Reade to fashion the redistricting scenario that would become Plan 5.

In fact, just days after Yamaguchi asked to be and was appointed chairman of the Board of Supervisors’ redistricting subcommittee, on April 16, he was already in contact with Reade, plotting a course that would eventually land the county in court.

On April 20, Yamaguchi’s secretary, Donna Vairo, responded to an earlier query from Reade in which Reade had asked for background information about the redistricting effort.

The cover page for Yamaguchi’s seven-page return fax reads: “David, Here’s the information, which was just received for the 4/24/01 BOS agenda. If you need any additional information, please contact me.”

That document is just one of many obtained by the News & Review under the California Public Records Act. We filed the PRA request in mid-November with Yamaguchi and Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert. Alpert referred it to Charles Bell, the attorney hired by the supervisors to represent them on the redistricting matter. The request took almost six weeks to fill, more than four weeks longer than it’s legally supposed to take. But the voluminous package that resulted is a gold mine of background information into how Plan 5 came to be.

Since then, of course, the plan and the controversy it’s fostered have completely fractured the Board of Supervisors, alienated members of Yamaguchi’s own Republican Party, been the impetus for a hugely successful referendum drive, led the supervisors (or, more accurately, their three-member majority) to sue, unsuccessfully, their own county clerk, cost the county tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, sparked an embryonic recall movement against Yamaguchi in his home district, and made its way onto every local newspaper editor’s “Biggest Stories of 2001” list.

Now, a careful examination of the documents received via our Public Records Act request, combined with reviews of taped supervisors’ meetings and interviews of county staffers who helped (or tried to help) with the redistricting effort, shows conclusively that Plan 5 was in fact conceived and created as part of a secret, behind-the-scenes effort to redirect the course of county politics.

First, a little history. On July 24, 2001, when Yamaguchi presented his “Return to Fairness” plan (that’s what he called Plan 5 back then) to the Board of Supervisors, the redistricting subcommittee that he had chaired—it was comprised of two supervisors, Yamaguchi and Curt Josiassen, of Richvale, as well as selected county planners and County Clerk Candace Grubbs—already had hashed out four possible scenarios during several months of work. In fact, the official public-comment period on the process had ended two weeks earlier. So when Yamaguchi posted his plan on the supervisors’ boardroom wall—without, by the way, giving official notice that he intended to do so—it caused a considerable outcry among the subcommittee members.

The soft-spoken Grubbs practically shouted into her microphone that she was “pissed” about the whole thing. The plan was a complete surprise to her, she said angrily. Two county planners who had worked on redistricting made it a point to distance themselves from it. Even Alpert, the county’s lawyer, told Yamaguchi right off that he faced legal difficulties with the plan.

None of that seemed to matter to Yamaguchi. Or to Josiassen, who said that, although he hadn’t seen Yamaguchi’s plan until the day before, he “liked what he saw” and was ready to vote on it.

MAN WITH A PLAN Kim Yamaguchi presented his redistricting plan to the Board of Supervisors on July 24, two weeks after the public-comment period ended on the four other plans the supervisors were considering at the time.

photo by Tom Angel

But, say county staffers who were supposed to be helping Yamaguchi and Josiassen draw up possible redistricting plans, the two appeared to be working behind the scenes together more than they let on. In truth, they insist, the entire redistricting process was a sham from the beginning.

Usually, said one high-level member of the redistricting subcommittee, the board’s representatives use subcommittee meetings to direct county staff on what they want to see in new maps, in terms of population data, and so on. This year, though, it was completely different.

"[Josiassen and Yamaguchi] came in and right off the bat just asked question after question about the process of redistricting,” the source said. “We kept asking, ‘But what do you want the maps to look like?’ and never got an answer. … I think once they figured out the way it works, they just worked up their own plan and that was Plan 5. If it was any other way, [the subcommittee] would have at least known about [Plan 5].”

The lack of information got so bad, the source related, that county staff members produced the four redistricting scenarios presented to the Board of Supervisors on their own, without the two supervisors’ participation.

“We didn’t know what they wanted, so we had to go out on our own,” the source said. “It was totally out of character for what this process usually is.”

Those complaints add meaning to some of the documents that passed between Yamaguchi and Josiassen this summer.

On July 20, four days before Yamaguchi presented Plan 5 to the board and three days before Josiassen supposedly saw the plan for the first time, Josiassen’s secretary faxed Yamaguchi’s secretary, Donna Vairo, a five-page document detailing the intricacies of state open-meetings laws—and the rules under which they can be subverted.

The Brown Act, which requires that elected officials conduct the public’s business at public meetings, forbids the kind of private meetings that Yamaguchi appears to have had with Josiassen and, later, Oroville-area Supervisor Bob Beeler. While it was not illegal for Yamaguchi to talk with Josiassen or Beeler alone about redistricting, it is illegal for any supervisor to conduct the kind of serial meetings that appear to have occurred behind the scenes among the three supervisors during this redistricting process.

A review of some of the videotaped board meetings held this summer and fall hint that there was at least some shady dealing going on among the three members of the board majority. For example, Beeler acknowledged at a meeting in October that he was leaning against voting for Plan 5 ("I’m not sure what you’re doing here is legal,” he sharply told Yamaguchi), but he made a 180-degree turn a month later, when he voted for it.

So what changed his mind? At a November meeting, he acknowledged that he’d “seen some information that he couldn’t ignore” provided by Yamaguchi. He denied that he’d directly conferred with Yamaguchi or Josiassen about the matter, but he later admitted, “We might have talked some.”

Such a serial meeting would violate the Brown Act, but nailing down these breaches of the public trust are notoriously difficult.

Beeler, Josiassen and Yamaguchi all failed to return numerous phone calls to comment on these matters.

County subcommittee staffers, who asked to remain anonymous, have come up with their own idea as to the origins of Plan 5. Documents, background interviews and the testimony of some of those involved corroborate this view:

Plan 5, they say, had its genesis four years ago, when a group of local Republicans led by Reade and stewing over Dolan’s longtime hold on District 2, started figuring out a way to get her out of office. Reade at the time was chief of staff to the late Assemblyman Bernie Richter, as well as his son-in-law. It was Richter, then a supervisor, whom Dolan defeated way back in 1978.

The first idea the group came up with, said one Republican insider, was to push for term limits. But the conservatives then lacked the board majority they would have needed to get limits passed.

HEARING FROM THE CRITICS Supervisors listen as critics of Plan 5 complain that it was the product of shady backroom meetings. Left to right: Bob Beeler, Jane Dolan, Curt Josiassen and Kim Yamaguchi.

photo by Tom Angel

The second idea was to do with redistricting what they could never do at the polls: redraw Dolan’s support out from under her.

The first opportunity came in 2000, after the census, and Reade was the man with the experience to put the plan together.

For his part, Yamaguchi has consistently acknowledged that one of his goals with Plan 5 was to significantly redraw Dolan’s district boundaries, which he charged had been gerrymandered so she could hold office indefinitely. In an interview this summer, he said he hoped to “have something to do with changing them.”

But Yamaguchi had no idea how to do that. He’d never held office before, and in fact had become politically involved for the first time only months before he was himself elected, when he volunteered with Sheriff Scott Mackenzie’s campaign.

That’s where Reade, who was Yamaguchi’s campaign manager, came in. Reade has always been a behind-the-scenes type of political finagler. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened next. It was Reade, several sources speculate—and faxes corroborate—who essentially wrote Plan 5 through Yamaguchi.

Of course, Reade and Yamaguchi couldn’t complete the plan by themselves. They needed someone in the county Planning Department to help them, someone to decipher the complex GIS mapping system the county uses to plot the boundary lines. They found that someone in Senior Planner Craig Sanders, who acknowledged in September that he indeed took a computer disk containing population figures from someone (he still won’t say who) and drafted the large, color map Yamaguchi presented on July 24.

Dolan, whose district would be dramatically ruralized by Plan 5, has long held that it was Reade and Yamaguchi who gave Sanders the disk.

In retrospect, that seems to make sense, given the context of the previous months in the Department of Development Services. Sanders acknowledged that, after Yamaguchi, Josiassen and Beeler abruptly fired his boss, DDS Director Tom Parilo, in March, he’d applied for Parilo’s powerful job.

Sanders is also friends with Josiassen and Beeler, several county government sources related. So by agreeing to help them piece together Plan 5, Sanders was, in effect, indebting the supervisors to him. If that was the intent, however, it hasn’t yet worked. The supervisors hired Tom Buford as an interim DDS head last spring, while they look to hire a permanent replacement for Parilo.

This Sanders-assisted circumventing of the subcommittee was blatant. According to e-mails that passed between subcommittee members and Grubbs, Planner Jim Aranguren, a GIS mapping specialist, was assigned to the subcommittee specifically to draw up the maps that Yamaguchi and Josiassen were supposed to be putting together. But instead Yamaguchi gave the job to Sanders, which raises the question: Why go outside the committee if Yamaguchi thought there was nothing to hide?

When questioned about secretly going outside of the committee to write up his “Return to Fairness” map, Yamaguchi denied doing so. Later, when this paper asked Sanders if he was the planner who helped in the process, he reluctantly acknowledged that he was.

Attorney Charles Bell, who was eventually hired by the three-member board majority to represent them in their case against Grubbs, first came into the picture (officially, at least) on Aug. 6, when he wrote a three-page letter to Yamaguchi (at Yamaguchi’s request) attesting to the legality of Plan 5. His subsequent hiring was as well documented as it was controversial, given the nebulous ties Bell previously had with Yamaguchi through Reade, Yamaguchi’s campaign manager and political consultant.

Yamaguchi has vehemently denied that he knew Bell prior to August, but ties between the two are there, just below the surface.

Just last fall, Bell was entrusted with $55,000 left over from Richter’s 1999 Senate race campaign account. At the time Bell received the money, Reade was working for Yamaguchi, as his campaign manager. The two men had worked together before, and Reade was acquainted with Bell, as well.

What happened to that money? Almost half of it—about $26,000—was given to the Pacific Law Foundation, a conservative public-interest law firm in Sacramento, and another $26,000 went to the Salvation Army to help in the Sept. 11 relief efforts. Only $1,000 was spent locally, to take three Rosedale Elementary School classrooms to see a dinosaur exhibit in Sacramento.

WOn’t BACK DOWN Much of Supervisor Mary Anne Houx’s District 3 would have shifted under Plan 5. Houx and fellow Supervisor Jane Dolan organized a hugely successful referendum drive against the plan, which will go to vote on March 5.

photo by Tom Angel

Yamaguchi denied in an August interview (he didn’t return a slew of phone calls last week asking for comment about this story) that he paid Bell for his Aug. 6 opinion. Since the newest quarterly campaign disclosures detailing his payouts, loans and contributions aren’t due until next week, that claim can’t be verified.

But consider this: Bell is the powerful general counsel for the state Republican Party. He charges $275 an hour for his services and is a partner in one of the state capital’s largest law firms. Would he work for free?

Supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx, who opposed Plan 5 and voted against hiring Bell, have pointed out that it was a blatant conflict of interest for Bell, who’d apparently worked at least casually with Yamaguchi before, to represent the entire board in its suit against Grubbs. The implication was, they said, that Bell was really working for Yamaguchi in a personal vendetta against them, paid for by county taxpayers.

They may be right. In closed session in November, the board agreed that to avoid the appearance of impropriety Bell would use interim Chief Administrative Officer Larry Odle—not any individual supervisor—as his contact with the board. But before the suit was even filed, Yamaguchi and Bell were already breaking that agreement. At a meeting on the morning of Nov. 20, Yamaguchi produced a three-page fax sent to his office by Bell at about midnight the previous night.

The fax is essentially notice of the board’s intention to file suit against Grubbs. The thing is, the board hadn’t even met yet to authorize the filing of that suit. That fax is proof positive that Yamaguchi met with Bell privately, and against the board’s agreement, to make plans he didn’t have the authority to make.

To make matters worse, the fax’s time/date stamp includes acknowledgement of a five-page fax that Bell sent Yamaguchi. When Yamaguchi provided copies of the fax to the board, he made copies of only three of the five pages and refused to provide the other two. While trying to justify that, Yamaguchi let it slip that Bell actually faxed him a total of 10 pages that night. When pressed about the appearance of impropriety, Yamaguchi waved off the allegations, saying he wouldn’t “answer to this witch hunt.”

The News & Review tried to get copies of those missing pages from Bell but was told that they fall under “attorney-client privilege” and are exempt from public-records laws.

Setting aside for the moment the legality of the process behind Plan 5, what about Yamaguchi’s original goal: to correct the “gerrymandered” district boundary lines giving Jane Dolan a seat for life?

Yamaguchi has never relented on this charge and has repeated it on numerous occasions and included it on publicity materials distributed throughout the county. Since Dolan chaired the Board of Supervisors in 1991 (when the last redistricting was completed), he’s insisted, she was able to gerrymander District 2 to keep herself in office indefinitely.

Problem is, that’s not true.

Former Supervisors Len Fulton, a registered Independent from Paradise, and Ed McLaughlin, a Durham-area Republican, co-chaired the county’s redistricting effort that year. Dolan had “nothing to do with it, whatsoever,” Fulton said. It’s a statement both men made publicly last summer—and Yamaguchi chose to ignore entirely.

District 2’s land mass was made smaller and more urban, Fulton said, because the members of the redistricting committee wanted Chico’s voting bloc to be represented as a whole on the board. That way, the rural, agriculture-based District 4, which absorbed much of the former District 2 in 1991, would always remain “the farm seat.”

Ironically, Yamaguchi has bragged that Plan 5 would be good for agriculture, since it ruralizes District 2 and “gives the county three ag seats on the board.”

Fulton doesn’t see it that way. “We didn’t want urban voters to dilute [the ag vote],” he said. “All this talk about [Plan 5] being good for ag, it has nothing to do with ag. Back then, we did it right. There was none of this nonsense around it like now. … And Jane had nothing to do with it.”

Much of Butte County’s farming community, it seems, agrees with Fulton. The Butte County Farm Bureau, which endorsed Fulton when he was running against Yamaguchi in 2000, opposed Plan 5. So did the Butte Community College District, the Chico Chamber of Commerce, the League of Women Voters, hundreds of private citizens who wrote to the board this fall about the plan, and the almost 12,000 county voters who signed referendum petitions on Plan 5.

For all the work Yamaguchi has put into Plan 5—and he’s no doubt spent hundreds of hours on the issue—he can’t seem to see the redistricting forest for the trees. He denies that the process that produced the plan has anything to do with its validity, forgetting that in politics process is almost everything. Voters don’t like to see taxpayer money wasted, and they perceived that loss when they watched hours-long board meetings, listened as Yamaguchi awkwardly (and defensively) tried to justify Plan 5, saw Bell being hired at $275 an hour, and watched the board majority, led by Yamaguchi, lose their case in court last month.

All that money—the total is still being added up—for nothing.

Voters will have the chance to cast their ballots for or against Plan 5 on March 5. We’ll see then if they remember just how it came to be.