I’ve been totally off the Power Line grid all day today, partly because the first week of classes last week (Con Law II, and a new course on environmental policy) went so well that I really needed to step up my game in week two, but mostly because a full-scale firefight has broken out in San Luis Obispo County about my Forbes column this week, which is derived from a book I’m slowly developing on how the culture of bureaucracy infects all levels of government, with local government sometimes worse than Washington DC. But a little background is in order before proceeding to the main event.
About twenty years back I wrote a series of columns in the now defunct Sacramento Union newspaper blistering some of the regulatory policies of the Sacramento Air Quality Management District. Funny thing: when you blast the EPA, they respond, if at all, with boring bureaucratese, and that ends the story. When you criticize a local government bureaucracy–or local politicians–they go to DefCon 1. Twenty years ago the Sacramento air regulators beat on my door, sat down to complain, and after protracted conversations eventually admitted that I was . . . essentially correct. (And this is on top of older work at the Claremont Institute in the late 1980s that caused LA area smog regulators to abandon a major regulatory initiative that we demonstrated was completely wrongheaded.)
So in my Forbes column, I took aim at the local air district in my home county, and also the most appalling local government official I’ve ever seen in my entire life, Supervisor Adam Hill, who was recently elevated to vice chair of the air board. Hill has a spectacular history of astoundingly abusive behavior toward people who express disagreement with him, culminating in this letter to the editor of the local alternative weekly, which I reprint here in full:
Not only the superficially educated and narrow-minded, not only bumpkins with bad breath and worse teeth, not only the gullible and aggrieved, not only those who are nostalgic for a past that never was, not only those who are afraid of losing control—the fire-breathers, the weapons-collectors, wearers of bespoke body armor, anonymous online trollers, lovers of Ayn Rand novels for whom the gift of literacy is truly wasted, not only the teacher’s pets from cardio-prayer class, and the self-appointed scolds of free speech and the memorizers of parables about power …
Not only them, and not only the emotionally obese whose dreams are scarily self-tunneling and find themselves most alive when watching themselves rerun on the government channel late at night while wearing a human mask …
Not only the sufferers of psychosomatic persecutions who use their cats as food tasters, not only the scavengers of propaganda, not only the depressed and bed-crazy, not only those who hear voices in other people’s heads, not only the owners of 66 books on terror, not only those who crowd their homes with canned goods and medical salts, not only the connoisseurs of cartoon porn, not only those with ominous hair and gnawing vendettas against the IRS, not only proudly unregistered voters or voters registered to parties with serpents in their logo …
Not only them, and not only the over-medicated who’ve barricaded themselves behind an alternative reality as a way to hide from their own damaged lives and turn to AM radio for the comforts of hate and heart-worming pet tales …
And not only the adrift and the paranoid and the resentful, not only the rural white, not only the panicky liars, not only racists and anti-Semites, not only those who speak in spittled spurts about the Constitution, not only the no-longer-employable-work-from-homers, not only the smelling-impaired, not only those who would never donate their organs to strangers, not only defunct politicians, not only the fanatics, not only those who fear world music … .
If the voters of his district wish to send such a fine specimen to represent them in county government, that is their right, but . . . seriously? This is the kind of mind you want overseeing the most important regulatory body in the county? Surely his elected peers are privately embarrassed to share the dais.
But it gets better. Much better. Mr. Hill sent me the following missive, which made my day:
Re: your latest Forbes column, doing some actual reporting and fact-checking is greatly encouraged. Also, you should not purposefully misrepresent things as you do in this paragraph about me:
‘If you pay attention and complain about this kind of rule, you tend to get the kind of response given last week by the incoming chairman of the board of the APCD, county commissioner Adam Hill. In a letter to the editor of the New Times, the local ‘alternative’ weekly, Hill makes clear that he views all critics of unaccountable bureaucratic rule as ‘conspiracy’ mongers:
Now nowhere in my letter to the editor (which is black humor and has nothing to do with APCD rules) does it say I am referring to ‘all’or ANY ‘critics of unaccountable bureaucratic rule.
You made that up, ascribed false motives to me, and in doing so, have potentially defamed me.
While the timing of your column suggests you were coordinating with some SLO County folks, and that you may have even been paid by one of them to do this hit piece on our county gov, our APCD, and me, what I am asking for is a full retraction and an apology. If you cannot make your arguments in a factually responsible manner, you should not be writing such columns. I hope to hear from you and/or your editors within ten (10) working days.
Too bad Pavlov isn’t still around to take in this response to the bait. I’m guessing it would shatter his data set and ruin his bell curve. So here’s my reply, which I sent privately to Hill, but which somehow made its way to a local online news site (the comment thread is fun), which is fine with me:
Dear Supervisor Hill:
It certainly takes some moxie to complain about being libeled after your New Times screed describing a good portion of your fellow citizens as, among other things, people who “use cats as food tasters.” I gather you are unfamiliar with libel standards for elected officials by opinion writers, or are unacquainted with the way in which, for example, H.L. Mencken or James Wechsler routinely described elected officials decades before New York Times v. Sullivan, but in any case you may wish to check with the county counsel about the prospects for your cause of action. I’m sure he or she will laugh as much as I have over the notion.
Perhaps you can clarify then: exactly who do you have in mind with your letter to the New Times? Would you care to name specific individuals, or a more specific description of the type of person you have in mind? It appears from the ellipses that the New Times may have edited your letter (or is that your standard punctuation?). Lacking this specificity, I see no reason whatsoever to qualify my characterization of your views and motives, for in my opinion it is accurate. If you’d care to send me the original unabridged version, I can assure it gets wider distribution than the New Times can give it. I note that this is not the first time remarks like this from you have been broadly controversial, and by all means I would delight in bringing you more national attention. [Right here on Power Line, for instance.]
In 15 years of working around government officials in Washington DC, and five years doing the same in Sacramento, I have never seen such tawdry expressions of contempt for fellow citizens from an elected official as is manifested in your New Times letter, and I note this not the first such public communication from you that has this tone. There is no possible ‘context’ that can redeem language of that kind.
You observe that the ‘timing’ of my column suggests coordination, and further you allege that I may have been paid by someone there to do so. (Another irony failure on your part, but never mind.) I am paid by Forbes and Forbes alone for my articles, like my similar articles that have been solicited over the years by the New York Times, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and the Wall Street Journal (etc. etc.), along with numerous magazines going back 25 years now. But if I had collaborated with local people on the substance of the story, so what? I see there is more than one part of the First Amendment that you don’t respect — free association.
For the record, I am working on a chapter about the SLO APCD for a forthcoming academic book about local bureaucracy, so I am starting to pay closer attention to things. And very much looking forward to the additional material your prospective chairmanship is likely to provide.
Finally, the imperious tone of your closing demand that you receive a response ‘within 10 working days’ rather makes my point better than I could have made it myself, and I thank you for yet another revealing display.
It seems to me this is too much fun not to let Power Line readers in on the action.
Separately, Larry Allen, the executive office of the local air board, has written to complain too, and I may have his salary data wrong, in which case I’ll post a correction, though it is difficult to pin down his complete compensation on account of the opaque method of public reporting on compensation, which deliberately obfuscates these matters. I’m reviewing a whole stack of budgetary documents now, which are, shall we say, much less transparent than an annual report from a publicly traded corporation. But in any case, Allen’s salary is entirely ancillary to the main argument. I’ll share Allen’s letter and my response tomorrow or Friday.