Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Political Tsunami in Half Moon Bay

Half Moon Bay will be host to yet another political donnybrook this fall with eight candidates running for three available seats on the City Council.

Two incumbents, including two term incumbent Jim Grady and one-term councilmember Bonnie McClung, have opted not to seek reelection. That leaves five term veteran Naomi Patridge alone in pursuit of a successive term.

As per usual, the council election is a battle between the so-called “old guard” of Half Moon Bay representing more of the legacy families of the coast and the traditional agricultural interests that have more or less dominated the coastal city’s political history and those whose families are not century’s old residents and/or part of the agricultural community. These are often more recent arrivals to the coast, perhaps only 40 years residence, and lean toward the environmental side of the political spectrum.

Beyond the traditional divide, the City of Half Moon Bay has been in turmoil since December of 2007 when the final judgment against the City over the now apocryphal Beachwood development lawsuit brought against the City by Palo Alto developer Charles “Chop” Keenan was delivered in federal court.

The judgment, and final settlement, forced the City to pay $18 million to Keenan via an even more expensive bond – leading to a reduction of City staff by nearly a third and will saddle the City with a heavy burden for a generation. The lawsuit began in response to actions of councils past when the council was not controlled by the old guard but it was an old guard dominated council that catastrophically failed to resolve the lawsuit in a way that was even remotely favorable to the City – but that is a much longer story.

Incumbent Naomi Patridge is more or less the political matriarch of the “old guard” but she may be held to account for the huge debt her City must now carry, whether or not she was at fault.

On the Old Guard ticket is also local businessmen Rick Kowalczyk and George Muteff. Kowalczyk, a local volunteer with the local schools, enjoys the endorsements of four of the incumbent councilmembers and several members of the school board Muteff, a local financial consultant, ran in 2005 finishing well out of the money but has remained a frequent critic and observer of the council. More recently Muteff is known for having shot his neighbor’s 11-month old Boston Terrier puppy that was unlucky enough to have wandered onto Muteff’s property and was allegedly harassing his livestock, specifically sheep.

Muteff, according to the District Attorney’s office, lawfully killed the pup - named Oreo - but the peculiar nature of the killing – a small Boston Terrier puppy supposedly posing a threat to larger livestock – won Muteff few points among animal lovers.

The Other Side

On the flip side, another council veteran is attempting a return. Three-term councilmember Deborah Ruddock is running for a seat on the council after an eight-year hiatus.

While Ruddock is not supported by the majority of the current council she is mounting an impressive campaign with endorsements from the County’s Central Labor Council, The Democratic Party, Sierra Club, Assemblyman Jerry Hill and Senator Leland Yee. Despite the strong support, Ruddock will be painted locally as part of the former council majority that set the stage for the Beachwood lawsuit. But blame will be more difficult to assign as a matter of historical reference.

Following Ruddock with the same set of endorsements is Parks & Recreation Commissioner and retired teacher Sofia Freer. Freer is running for her first term but is a veteran of coastal political battles as a member of the environmentally progressive League for Coastside Protection (LCP), as is Ruddock.

Relative newcomer is local business owner and green energy consultant Dan Handler. Handler largely enjoys most of the endorsements shared by Ruddock and Freer with the exception of labor and the major legislative endorsements. But Handler’s lack of definitive connection to either camp may be an asset as work-a-day Half Moon Bay residents may be growing weary of the constant divide.

The Outliers

Beyond the six candidates who more or less fit nicely into one camp or the other, there are two additional political newcomers.

Allan Alifano, another local business owner has thrown his hat in the ring. Alifano leans more toward the old guard slate but does not enjoy its full support this round.

Finally, newcomer and recent Midwest transplant Charles Hoelzel. The twenty-something conservative lives with his mother and works at the local Bank of America. Hoelzel is an unknown, has no support and has raised next to nothing in terms of campaign funds, particularly when compared to veterans such as Patridge and Ruddock.


Ruddock and Freer get a hard fought electoral victory leaving Patridge to fight it out with Handler. If Handler wins – which would be against the odds – it would fundamentally change the character of the council and put the “old guard” on the outs. While Patridge remains formidable, the Beachwood debacle may yet be this council’s Waterloo.

Contact Bruce Balshone at bruce.examiner@gmail.com

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Authors Note:

Due to the interest in the above column, here is my source, a May 2, 2007 Oakland Tribune article regarding the George Muteff dog slaying incident that occurred in Half Moon Bay.

From the InsideBayArea.com of May 2, 2007Passions stir over dog shooting on coast
Officials say property owner had right to protect farm animals

A homegrown controversy over the shooting of a dog on a man's property in defense of his farm animals last month has escalated into an ugly bout of name-calling, hurt feelings and even death threats.

Residents are divided over whether local resident George Muteff, a financial consultant who keeps horses, ewes and lambs in his fenced-in backyard, was justified in shooting to death a neighbor's Boston terrier that he says broke into his field and attacked his animals on April 4.

Regardless of anyone's moral judgments about the event, the fact is that Muteff acted legally, say officials.

"He had every right to shoot the dog. It's tragic and awful, but everyone who owns livestock is entitled to do what he did," said Scott Delucchi, spokesman for the Peninsula Humane Society.

San Mateo County Deputy District Attorney Morris Maya agreed, citing a section of the state Food and Agriculture Code that gives people the right to protect their livestock from dogs. The exemption applies regardless of how a property owner's land is zoned or whether it is located in a busy residential area, said Maya. The District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute the case after the Half Moon Bay Police Department referred it for review.

That finding has not stopped dozens of locals from posting strongly-worded comments on two Coastside online message boards, ranging from blaming Muteff for what some call animal abuse to reproaches directed at the dog's owners for letting the animal roam free. The issue also has raised concerns about the safety of using a gun so close to other homes in a residential neighborhood.

Muteff's property lies next to Ocean Colony, an upscale subdivision west of Highway 1 that borders on a golf course near the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Muteff's back field faces a walking path also used by golf carts.

Several Ocean Colony residents were expected to make their voices heard at a Half Moon Bay City Council meeting on Tuesday night. Allen Alifano, president of the board of directors of the Ocean Colony homeowner's association, sent a letter to Mayor Naomi Patridge on April 19 expressing "concern, alarm and uneasiness" about the shooting.

"The shot could have missed its mark and seriously injured or caused a human fatality," wrote Alifano.

Muteff, who mounted an unsuccessful bid for Half Moon Bay City Council in 2006, said he and his wife have been living a "nightmare" since he shot the 11-pound dog, which squeezed under the fence that pens the sheep and ewes in Muteff's backyard and started barking and snapping at the animals' legs, with a .22 caliber handgun. A second dog that had escaped from the same home stood barking outside the enclosure.

Muteff's wife tried throwing rocks and sticks at the terrier, but it cornered two ewes and wouldn't back off. One ewe tried to jump over the fence to escape and injured herself, claims Muteff.

"The dog was on her. He was biting her. He was attacking her," he said. "Sheep were scattered all over the field. They were panicked, with their tongues hanging out."

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