Former Arroyo Grande Mayor Jim Hill Shouldn’t Talk About Police Right Now. Here’s Why.

Former Arroyo Grande mayor Jim Hill

Since he lost his re-election bid to Caren Ray Russom in 2018, the former mayor has tried his hardest to stay relevant in the conversation. And he has a really odd way of expressing himself. He writes like he’s still campaigning for mayor. And when he actually was mayor, he wrote a number of op-eds on CalCoastNews as if he was still campaigning: a lot of aimless stump speeches that routinely glossed over substance. I’m not too familiar with the issues in South County — most likely because he was unable to articulate them in a clear and presentable way — but his “in-your-face” opinions were so prevalent on CalCoastNews, readers were constantly bombarded with his rhetorical self-indulgence. Eventually, his opinions became too nauseating to read.

But on June 15, he wrote an op-ed that caught my attention.

He took aim at incumbent Ray Russom over comments she made that addressed the need to confront systemic racism and inequalities that continue to dominate the national landscape. Ray Russom indicated that the Arroyo Grande police could do their part in “continu[ing] to diversify police forces, but also to provide more nuanced racially sensitive training.” Hill assumed that Ray was somehow implying the Arroyo Grande Police Department was somehow inadequate as is. And so he furrowed his brow and lectured the mayor about how caring, diligent, fair and respectful the police are.

Suffice to say, he completely missed the point about Ray Russom’s remarks, which he called “uninformed” and “self-gratifying.” Having watched the more recent Arroyo Grande City Council meetings, the conversation the Council had about law enforcement wasn’t a slight against the AGPD. Rather, they discussed how the tragic and preventable death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was a teaching moment for all law enforcement to reflect on and improve from. Hill’s argument basically boils down to the mere assumption that the Council believes the AGPD is a broken system that needs fixing; that they shouldn’t fix a department that he believes isn’t broken.

It’s a strange talking point. He creates a source of contentiousness that doesn’t exist to begin with. But when you look at Hill’s initial ascent to power, it’s important to remind people of the context.

In July 2014, two Arroyo Grande former city staffers drunkenly entered City Hall to reportedly lounge around until they sobered up. Former Arroyo Grande City Manager Steve Adams and Community Development Director Teresa McClish were discovered by police inside City Hall, with each officer describing in varying details the state of McClish’s undress. Instead of leaving it up to the reader to speculate whether or not the two engaged in some boozy extramarital affair, they outright called it a “tryst” and “sex scandal.” Following an investigation by the city attorney and an independent investigator, the two were reprimanded for improperly using city resources, but there was no evidence of a government-wide sex scandal “cover up,” which CalCoastNews repeatedly claimed happened. However, coverage of the “scandal” led to the ouster of mayor Tony Ferrara. Hill overtook Ferrara in a locally historic write-in campaign. Adams and McClish would later resign.

Here’s what CalCoastNews left out of their coverage.

In 2013, Adams had reached an impasse with labor negotiations with the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association. The union alleged the city engaged in unfair bargaining practices. Adams dismissed the charge as “aggressive negotiating tactics.” According to four city officials at the time, Shane Day, member and former president of the Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association, was the chief negotiator for the AGPOA. Day was also one of the officers on scene at City Hall in July 2014. CalCoastNews never raised the question of whether or not Day’s affidavit about the incident was colored by the conflicts he had with Adams and city leadership.

With some of the preliminary information I gathered, I investigated how the “scandal” unfolded from the incident to CalCoastNews’ initial coverage about it. What I learned led me down a strange and revealing rabbit hole.

AGPOA retained the services of a lawyer from a controversial law firm that created an aggressive “playbook” police union officials had used to coerce opponents into submission. Some of those tactics included political campaigning, public ridicule, work slowdowns and “blue flu,” which is the practice of having officers call in sick en masse. AGPOA attorney Michael McGill, of Adams, Ferrone & Ferrone. McGill, previously worked for Lackie, Dammeier, McGill & Ethir, a law firm that has represented several public safety unions and disbanded in 2013 amid allegations of misconduct. In 2018, the now-defunct law firm agreed to pay $600,000 to a former Costa Mesa mayor and councilman for their utilization of aggressive tactics against them.

Their playbook tactics were used in Arroyo Grande during Hill’s write-in mayoral campaign. As instructed in the playbook, officers stormed City Council meetings, regularly showing up dressed in black. AGPOA diverted the focus on “what’s in it for them” to a debate on public safety and integrity of their officers. Some occasionally picked at City Hall and held up neon green, hand-drawn campaign signs for Hill (Hill posted on his campaign Facebook page AGPOA members prepare signs in his garage). They focused heavily on perceived blunders by the mayor and city manager and pointed them out at every public opportunity.

The origin of the July 2014 investigation stemmed from public records requests made from McGill, not CalCoastNews. Despite the website claiming their reporters were investigating the incident, it appeared more likely than not that they coordinated with McGill and had access to his work product on the case. Based on several public record requests I’ve made with the city, there was no indication CalCoastNews reached out to officials on the record prior to publishing exclusive details about the “sex scandal.” And CalCoastNews refused to disclose the identities of their “several” unnamed sources. That sort of coordination with the union was on par with one of the playbook’s recommendations, which is the usage of websites to deploy union messaging.

It’s a reasonable presumption that Hill’s campaign relied heavily on the “sex scandal” coverage and AGPOA’s strangely assertive and public methods to ridicule his opponent. Since the 2014 election, the AGPOA has never been as publicly flagrant in their political polarization.

Six years later, the issue is brought back into focus.

Police unions are currently under fire by labor and Black Lives Matter activists. In many cases, unions will go to bat for members who act in defiance of police department policy and procedures or when they’re accused of misconduct. They are, without a doubt, unapologetic defenders of their members. And because they’re the only union that is allowed to arrest and kill people, they naturally have a lot of leverage. That leverage falls under the penumbra of health and safety, which can be tricky to argue without getting into the weeds.

Jim Hill’s ascent to mayor can be largely credited to police unions and the kinds of problems activists are bringing up now in the light of George Floyd’s death — not his positions and values, which he struggled to articulate and had no other public platform to articulate them on than CalCoastNews. So when he clumsily stumbles into the debate on law enforcement with half-assed takes, know the context.

Aaron Ochs is the author of “Defamers: How Fake News Terrorized a Community & Those Who Dared to Fight It,” a nonfiction uncovering the defamatory, deceptive and criminal practices of online tabloid CalCoastNews.

Marketing entrepreneur and columnist from Morro Bay, California.

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