In a spread that garnered national publicity in Parade Magazine on Oct. 3, San Luis Obispo was crowned “Happy Town, USA,” where, among other things, author Dan Buettner found it to be the No. 1 place in America for emotional health.
But just a few days later, California’s Fair Political Practices Commission tore the cover off the SLO happy face façade. In an investigation of alleged misdeeds in a recent election, the commission revealed the community’s dark underside.
The agency’s findings describe SLO not as a place for true American values of competition and free enterprise, but as haven for protectionist land policies and stealth politics. The commission sought fines against wealthy land owners James and Thomas Copeland and banker Dave Booker. It unmasked an insular oligarchy that appears to believe that “beggar thy neighbor” command-and-control is better than free markets or property rights.
The commission’s findings grew out of a probe of the 2006 Measure J campaign in which landowner Ernie Dalidio, after 18 frustrating years, went before county voters for approval for a plan to develop 131 acres just outside the city. His development, an attractive mix of workforce housing, a farmer’s market and retail, was passed overwhelmingly by voters, but it faced spirited opposition from unidentified backers of a vocal “No on J” campaign.
Dalidio and his attorney filed a complaint over the corporation that funded “No on J” and on Oct. 4 the state agency released the results of its probe. It named the Copeland brothers and Booker as secret funders of No on J and seeks $80,000 in penalties, subject to approval at an Oct. 14 hearing. It found that the Copelands secretly funneled some $240,000 into the No on J campaign.
We’ll commend the commission for its good work in adding transparency to what appears to be a vendetta operating for a single purpose — to stop a development that might have brought new competition to the Copelands and their extensive downtown SLO holdings.
An angry Mayor Dave Romero pointed out that had the Dalidio project gone forward sooner, it could have added millions of dollars in tax revenue to local coffers during the worst recession in decades on the Central Coast.
The Copeland brothers and Booker owe property owners across the entire tri-county region an apology for so shamelessly assaulting the rights of a fellow landowner. Ernie Dalidio had every reason on earth to develop his land outside the city limits — we’ve argued that point repeatedly in these pages over the years.
Dalidio was not some carpetbagger from L.A. trying to make a quick buck. He was a native son who’d labored for decades to meet the sometimes draconian demands of politicians and voters alike. He, like others trying to do development in an area that puts sharp limits on growth, was playing patiently and by the rules.
Having revised his project to meet the demands of residents, the only way to knee-cap his plan was to hide behind a cloak of anonymity to try to run him off the rails.
The “No on J” gang has done a disservice to SLO and to its reputation for fair dealing. They have written a shameful chapter in the story of “Happy Town, USA.”