Politics as usual

Our look at this election’s crop of supervisorial candidates

District 1: The contractor vs. the pipe welder
The closest race in this year’s supervisorial contest will likely be decided in Oroville, where contractor and political novice Bill Connelly appears to be giving incumbent Bob Beeler a run for his money. Although Connelly has never held elective office before, he said recently that his campaign’s unofficial polls of absentee voters have made him increasingly confident of his chances of becoming a member of the Board of Supervisors.

“I’ve got right on my side and I’m going to win,” he said. “We’re not professionals, but we poll everyday. I have a great core of volunteers and we’re polling [absentee voters]. It’s 80 percent in my favor right now.”

Connelly’s platform centers around reducing blight in Oroville; hammering out an agreement on the federal Oroville Dam re-license that will reap rewards for the 1st District, and lowering some of the development fees that were recently raised on Beeler’s watch.

The first two of those three issues are ones that Beeler has worked on extensively—although Connelly claims he could do better—and the last is one that looks to play well with Connelly’s core supporters, Oroville homeowners and those in the building trade. His campaign is mostly self-financed, although he has taken money from a few contractors and former clients.

A lifelong Republican and Oroville native, Connelly said he became active in community issues about 15 years ago, participating in youth sports, the Rotary and other clubs, advocating for a veterans’ memorial park and co-chairing a group that monitors water flow in the Feather River below Oroville Dam. Giving time to his community has been enormously positive, he said, but running for supervisor has been both a “bitter and sweet” experience.

"[I’m] bitter that political machines and money can control a local election that I learned as a youngster… is a non-partisan position. The bitter taste that I have is because it is obviously not run that way. The sweet taste I have in my mouth, and what really makes me smile continuously, is the broad range of support I’ve got, from Green Party members to right-wing conservative Republicans and Democrats in the middle. They all know my heart’s in the right place.”

But even Connelly admits that, while his heart may be in the right place, his mouth hasn’t always been. Early in the campaign, he was criticized for ridiculing Beeler’s “mumbling and fumbling” speeches at board meetings. That kind of politicking has no doubt caused some voters to perceive Connelly as inexperienced and arrogant, a perception he has been actively working to shed.

“First off, I made a major mistake early on, and I’ve apologized several times for it. I went negative and said some things I shouldn’t have about my opponent, and believe me, I’ve paid within my soul for that.

“Mr. Beeler has done quite well for himself in certain aspects of government, but overall it’s a failure to communicate with the Southside, with the City Council of Oroville. … There’s just something lacking there.”

While Connelly insists that more could be done to clean up blight in Oroville and safeguard the area’s water, he admits that it would be difficult for him to spell out solutions before being elected. As for the huge budget deficit the county is facing, Connelly said the $10 million shortfall recently cited by county staff was really a “worst-case scenario” and he believes there is still “some duplication in government at the county level” that could be cut.

“We’re going to have to make hard decisions, and I’ll weigh each one as it comes my way, but I want to protect the basic right that every citizen expects, and that’s police and fire [service].”

Bob Beeler, who’s a retired PG&E welder, admits he’s not the most eloquent public speaker in politics. He also admits to a habit of delegating tasks to subordinates. But in his view, these aren’t necessarily handicaps. In his two terms as District 1 supervisor, he said, he’s gotten a lot done for Oroville and for the county. If the Board of Supervisors can just hang on through the next two years—the length of time he expects the budget will be tight—Beeler thinks Oroville and Butte County may end up in the best shape they’ve ever been.

“I see a lot of new businesses coming in,” he said. “There’s a bunch of new money floating around. If we [District 1] can get to where we’re the hub of business and recreation, then we’ll be right where we need to be. People forget that this is the county seat.”

Beeler’s proudest accomplishment is a rural outreach program that brings mental-health programs to kids in rural schools. He likes to say that when he took office only 11 kids in the county were accessing mental-health services, compared to 2,800 today—1,500 in Beeler’s district.

CLOSING FAST<br>Bill Connelly, left, says he has the grass-roots support to unseat incumbent Bob Beeler. Beeler , right, is hoping his record and experience will carry the day for him.

“You know, we can build this $12 million juvenile hall, but we really need to be working with kids a lot younger than that—kids in their schools.”

Beeler’s opponent has accused him of not doing enough to deal with the blight that plagues downtown and southern Oroville, but Beeler professes a passion for the issue. His proposed solutions have been a long time in the making, but the nuisance abatement board he helped create will soon hold its first meeting, and the revenue from towed abandoned cars has just begun to trickle in. He also hopes that the creation of enterprise zones in Oroville and an underused small-business incubation program will help start new businesses that will in turn clean up the town’s image.

Beeler’s office, run out of a former High Street residence, is crammed with binders, maps, books and hydrology models. Something of a savant, Beeler seems much more knowledgeable and intelligent in one-on-one conversations than he does in public appearances, although he does have a somewhat jarring habit of switching topics in midstream. Beeler said he is able to work on several projects at once because he has “good people, intelligent people” working for him.

Projects he has played a part in include: attempting to get more compensation from the state through the Oroville Dam relicensing process; finding money to study the idea of “recharging” the fresh-water aquifer underneath Butte County; finding sites to develop as business parks; and working with the state Assembly to fund $3 million in improvements to the Oroville riverfront and Afterbay.

Beeler has taken heat, especially from Connelly, for voting to raise fees for county permits. He defends his decision by pointing out that the county fee schedule had not been looked at in 12 years.

“We went out and did the studies,” he said. “The general fund was subsidizing [permits] by about $800,000. That money will mostly go to public protection.”

Although the biggest issue in the county right now is the budget, Beeler said it was almost impossible to talk about how to handle the crisis before knowing what will happen at the state level. He did pledge, however, to keep sheriff’s deputies and firefighters funded, saying, “Back in ‘81, we made a huge mistake when we laid off half of our protection service [employees]. We’re still paying for that now.”

District 4: The farmer vs. the mechanic
When Curt Josiassen pledged almost eight years ago to limit his tenure on the board to only two terms, he simply underestimated how long it would take to fix some very specific problems, he said. This time around, he is confident that the projects he has been working on will have borne fruit before the next District 4 election.

“You will not see me in this seat after four years,” he said, laughing and holding up his hand as if to swear an oath. “I am done. I have kids to put through college and a business to run.”

Josiassen was initially going to keep out of the race this time around, but some local businessmen and farmers talked him into running again, he said. That late decision has led to an uncomfortable situation between him and his opponent, who are friends—fellow Republicans even—and who share similar ideas on how a county should be run.

But Josiassen maintains there are at least two compelling differences between him and his opponent, John Busch. For one, he said, he is the only farmer currently serving on the board, an important fact in a county that lists its biggest industry as agriculture.

“I am the only board member who has intimate knowledge of what ag means to this county and how county decisions affect ag,” he said. “If we’re going to keep this industry here, we have to find ways to keep it competitive.” Josiassen owns and operates a 2,000-acre rice farm in Richvale, growing several varieties of rice for what has increasingly become a global market.

He also said his experience on the board has evolved to a point where he can change policies instead of just studying them. To prospective voters, he touts his record on representing local farmers and businessmen, keeping management and department heads accountable for their actions, streamlining payroll and purchasing processes, helping update the general plan and looking for ways to better manage the county’s water. He also has been working with other board members on trying to find land to build industrial and office developments as a way of increasing county revenue.

“We have got to have more jobs and clean industry,” he said. “We have the land mass to put in these projects.”

HEAVY MACHINERY<br>John Busch, left, says his opponent is too politically connected to be an independent voice for District 4 voters. Incumbent Curt Josiassen says he needs one more term to institute changes in county management that will ultimately streamline operations and save taxpayers money.

Josiassen, although politically connected to Assemblymen Rick Keene and Doug LaMalfa, said the politics of being a supervisor don’t interest him. He avoids pontificating at board meetings, preferring to deal in very specific information. This under-the-radar approach may have helped him avoid the kind of controversy fellow supervisor Kim Yamaguchi engendered with his ill-fated “Plan Five” redistricting scheme, which Josiassen defends to this day.

“From my perspective, the costs now associated with that plan were created when one supervisor didn’t like it and decided to run a referendum. The plan that was presented was a fair plan.”

Josiassen seems confident going into the stretch of the race but said he wasn’t making any predictions.

“My ego’s not in being a supervisor,” he said. “My role is to take citizens’ concerns to the county, not county concerns to the citizens. If the voters see it my way and like what I’ve done, great—if not, oh well.”

John Busch is a conservative’s conservative. He favors smaller government, local control over local issues, lower taxes and personal responsibility. He likens county workers who are afraid of losing their jobs because of the current budget crisis to kids who don’t understand when their parents can’t afford to buy them ice cream. When he proclaims, “Liberals are to blame for every problem we have in Sacramento,” he is only half-joking.

At our interview, conducted over lunch at Gridley’s Black Bear Diner, Busch, who owns a successful car repair and auto-parts business in Gridley, framed himself as an American success story—a boot-strapper who never asked for a free lunch and never got one but managed to make his way in life through hard work.

It was this set of credentials—coupled with a brusque but down-home demeanor—that originally gave local Republicans the idea to draft him into running for 4th District supervisor.

“We thought Mr. Josiassen was going to retire,” Busch said, “so Republican Party leadership came to me and said, ‘John this is going to be an open seat, would you consider running for it?’ I said ‘sure.'” With no challenger on the horizon and plenty of influential friends, Busch initially thought winning a board seat would be “a cakewalk.”

But a little while later Josiassen changed his mind about leaving the board. When he declared as a candidate, Republican Party leaders again came to Busch, this time to ask him to withdraw from the race. Busch didn’t much appreciate their suggestion.

“If he’d have said, ‘I’m going to run again,’ I never would have entered the race,” Busch said. “But by the time he decided to come back, we were right in the middle of a campaign. I just said, ‘Well, I’ve got to continue—I’ve already committed myself.'”

Despite causing something of a rift among local Republicans, Busch is still confident in his chances. He is endorsed by the mayors of Oroville, Biggs and Gridley; U.S. Rep. John Doolittle; state Sen. Rico Oller, and a smattering of other local politicians. But what he really seems to be counting on is what he perceives as latent frustration with Josiassen from the people of his district.

“I’m older, my experience is much, much broader. I am a person of conviction,” he said. “I don’t have any outside agenda, and I think he does.”

As for what to do about the fiscal mess the county is in, Busch could only pledge to keep cops, firefighters and road crews on the streets, and under no circumstances would he support raising fees or taxes.

“You can’t raise taxes,” he said. “We are at a threshold here. You get to the point where the market will no longer bear the cost of production. There are people leaving California because of this.

RACE FOR THE RIDGE<br>Charlotte Hilgeman, left, is counting on word of mouth and her many friends on the Ridge to help her unseat incumbent Kim Yamaguchi. Yamaguchi, right, is running a more traditional campaign.

“I just can’t believe the county provides services other than police, fire and roads that we can’t reduce in size or eliminate. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for some of these county workers. Somebody’s going to have to go without their ice cream.”

District Five: The agent vs. the innkeeper
Kim Yamaguchi is a hard man to track down and an even harder man to figure out. The Paradise real estate agent is the only county supervisorial candidate who would not sit down for a face-to-face interview with a CN&R reporter. It’s not that he outright refused—he just ducked, weaved and dodged, refusing to return phone calls, feigning hurriedness at board meeting breaks, and pretending that his secretary was in charge of his schedule when, as she said, he carries it with him on a Palm Pilot. In the end, we had to settle for a quick, informal phone interview.

He listed his accomplishments as follows: $1.6 million in safety improvements to Lower Skyway; applying for a grant to purchase Lookout Point; continuing work on the Magalia Dam and raising $6 million toward an upper Ridge fire escape route. His official candidate’s statement also has him taking credit for a new sewer system in Stirling City.

Actually, most of the projects Yamaguchi takes credit for were already underway before he was elected. Although he has no doubt continued that work, the prospect of widening The Skyway and fixing Magalia Dam was under discussion as early as 1994. Stirling City applied for its own grant to fix its sewer system in 1998, the same year that a funding proposal for the so-called fire escape route (also known as Highway 171) was submitted to the federal government. That project is currently designated as a top safety priority, but there is a danger it will move down the list if the Public Works Department gets its way.

The project Yamaguchi is perhaps best known for is the disastrous redistricting scheme he and Josiassen presented to the board in the final days of the redistricting process in the summer of 2001. That plan, submitted past the public-comment period and seemingly designed to siphon votes from Chico’s two supervisors, ended up in a court battle and referendum that some sources say cost the county almost a quarter-million dollars. (Josiassen recently pegged the amount at $45,000.) The failed plan also angered Ridge voters, who organized an ultimately unsuccessful recall drive against Yamaguchi.

Much of that anger has clearly dissipated. As Yamaguchi points out, several prominent individuals and major civic groups endorse him, including the Butte County Employees Association, the mayor of Paradise, the sheriff’s deputies’ association, the deputy district attorneys’ association and others. His opponent has not sought any endorsements.

Other than being the only supes’ candidate who was the subject of a recall effort, Yamaguchi is also the only candidate to have received more monetary support from outside his district than from within, by a factor of about four to one. His contributions come mainly from development companies like Boeger Land, Webb Homes, Hegan Lane Partnership, Ridgeway Enterprises, Schuster Homes and Chico Research Park LP, all of which gave Yamaguchi $1,000 or more each. Yamaguchi defended the contributions by saying, “The Butte County supervisors make decisions for the whole county, and people want a moral, ethical person on the board to make those decisions. Those [contributors] are Butte County businessmen. I work hard, I work full-time and I have 100 percent attendance at board meetings.”

The biggest issue at the county right now is the budget, which, owing to the state’s fiscal meltdown, is currently about $9 million in the red. Other than pledging to keep public-safety funds at current levels and steadfastly refusing to raise any new fees or taxes, Yamaguchi said there may not be any local solution to the problem.

“We are being held hostage by the state,” he said. “I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t say what’s going to happen.”

The Ridge supervisor did suggest that an office and industrial project he has been working to place in the county would help create jobs and bring in new revenues. When it was suggested to him that a cynical person might wonder about the link between his support for the project and the thousands of dollars that have been contributed to his campaign by developers and others who stand to gain from such a project, he strenuously protested.

“I think all the citizens will benefit. Bringing jobs to Butte County—is that cynical? Is it cynical to bring clean industry to Butte County? Do you want your kids to someday own their own home, to go to college? This will bring in the ability for all citizens to share in the common wealth.”

The contrast between Charlotte Hilgeman and Kim Yamaguchi, her opponent for 5th District supervisor, could scarcely be starker. While Yamaguchi has established himself as a party-line Republican with plenty of support from businesspeople and mainstream civic groups, Hilgeman is a “liberal with conservative tendencies” whose support comes strictly from the rank-and-file. She has refused to take any donations, hasn’t sought endorsements, isn’t making signs or brochures and publicly refuses to dish dirt on Yamaguchi—even in the areas where he is most vulnerable.

On Yamaguchi’s redistricting plan, Hilgeman, who makes her living as proprietor of the Stirling City Hotel, said the supervisor “did the best he could with the guidance he was given,” and that the issue deserves to stay in the past. When pressed for specific examples of where she and Yamaguchi would differ, she noted that Yamaguchi recently voted against a measure that mandated public hearings prior to the building of “big-box” stores in the county—"I think public participation is very important,” she said—and that he has supported residential development near the Chico airport, an issue that many Ridge residents are concerned about because Chico-based California Department of Forestry planes are regularly called out to douse fires above Paradise.

“We just have different visions,” she said.

What remains to be seen on Election Day is whether or not Hilgeman’s no-budget, low-profile campaign strategy will work against a well-connected, conservative incumbent such as Yamaguchi. She chose to structure her campaign that way, she said, because “I really believe that people shouldn’t have to pay for their vote to mean something. This is the way our forefathers did it—they went door to door.”

If Hilgeman’s campaign seems unorthodox, it is only a reflection of the woman herself. Her detractors might be able to initially dismiss her as a kooky mountain lady, but the truth comes out when she speaks—Hilgeman is a fearless and effective public speaker with a firm grasp on the issues. She may be seen as a political outsider, but she’s no stranger to politics, having served three elected terms in New Jersey as an aide to that state’s equivalent of a county supervisor.

Having come from a conservative, politically active family, Hilgeman said her commitment to serving people was crystallized by her experience as a Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) in the mid-1960s. As a volunteer in Florida, she said she was shot at and had a cross burned on her lawn because she helped teach poor people and migrants how to read and write. Since then she says, “I’m not afraid of anything. It changed my whole way of looking at everything. I see this new attitude that says, ‘I got mine, you get yours.’ But there’s that part of us that grew up saying, ‘You were lucky, so you need to give people a hand.’ Everyone needs a little help now and then.”

Hilgeman currently serves on a county tourism advisory committee, which is where a large part of her supes’ platform comes from. She sees tourism as a way for Butte County to gain economic independence from the state and create sustainable, environment-friendly jobs.

“I’ve not seen anybody else bring forth a solution to the money problem," she said. "We [need to] form a tourist bureau for the county that promotes Butte County as a tourist destination. Tourism is the No. 1 growing industry in California. I think if we tap this underdeveloped resource for Butte County, that it’s the first step toward financial independence for us."