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Mendocino County’s Last Real Supervisor

Joe Scaramella explained the moment in his life when he got the inspiration to get into politics:

“I've been on the receiving end of injustice many times. But the most significant thing that affected my total approach was the time I had a contract to transport high school kids in the Point Arena area in the 1930s. I got that contract by means that some people thought were improper, although they were totally legal. The result was that it manifested itself into a political situation. They elected a man on the school board -- the man who I had gotten the bus driving contract from instead of him. So he was a school board trustee. In those days there wasn't much of a big deal about things like that. I started out with a three-year contract. It was written up. Official. But there was an election and some other change so they'd want me to go a little further, a little less south, a little more north, etc. I was a little ignorant about such things. They would modify the contract, but by oral modifications. But I always did what the governing board wanted me to do. All I tried to do was to accommodate them. I could have insisted on the terms of my contract and required them to make formal changes. But then I would have had trouble of course. I was just getting started and I thought I had to be a good guy so I accommodated them. So this fellow gets up on the board and he raised all kinds of holy hell saying the governing board didn't know what they were doing. I certainly didn't know what I was doing, I just obeyed what they told me to do. But according to him, what we were doing was “Wrong!” It was, technically, legally, it was not permissible. So they called me up there and, godammit I thought I was heading for San Quentin. So, damn it to hell, I had an older friend there with me and we cleared the situation up and I didn't suffer any consequences. But the exposure and the danger got me to thinking: ‘By God, No More.’ I would no longer rely on those guys to tell me what to do, I was going to do it on my own. Get it in writing. And I made it a point for the rest of my life to make sure that kind of thing didn't happen again.”

Not long after that Scaramella made his first of four unsuccessful runs for Fifth District Supervisor. “Nobody can match my record,” he said. “Four straight defeats. Some people have been supervisor longer, but they don't have my record of defeats.”

In 1952 Scaramella was up against John Ornbaun from Anderson Valley. “He was a good man,” said Scaramella, “but he liked to drink too much. That was the only reason I eventually succeeded. If I had to run against anybody else, I wouldn't have had a chance because I was considered to be a troublemaker. A troublemaker was not desirable.” (Laughs).

That year was a special eleciton because the incumbent had died near the end of his term.

At his first Board meeting the freshman supervisor recalled, “I walked into the boardroom one day and there was a lady by the name of Edith Beck who was the Clerk of the Board. I had been highly critical of the board and she knew about my criticisms. So I walked in and she said, ‘Am I going to have a job?’ just like that. I came back with ‘Why do you ask?’ She said, ‘Well, everybody tells me that you're a troublemaker and you're going to change the whole damn thing.’ I said, ‘Let's get this thing straight. Anybody can get an axe and demolish things. It's not my job to demolish things. My job is to construct things. You just do your job and you'll have nothing to fear from me.’ And she became one of my best friends from that point on. They fostered that notion that I was a troublemaker because I was critical. Perhaps sometimes unnecessarily. But, criticism in my judgment is an essential part of life. If nobody says anything negative, how can you expect things to improve? In line with my nature, I tended to be critical, and I suppose some would perhaps say revolutionary, I thought reform was a part of the job that needed to be done.”

“At that time the lumber companies thought they could run everything. In the first major experience I had in the budget making process in the county, As Board Chairman, I was called over to approve the budget. The budget had been worked up and prepared by Paul Matthews, the County Auditor. The final budget hearing was held in his office. Present was a man by the name of Charlie Strong who was the general counsel for the Union Lumber Company. He was the only other man there. After the meeting he took us over to the Palace Hotel and bought us a drink of wine. He liked wine so he did that. Well, I said then and there that this will never happen again. I said, ‘The Board meets up there in the boardroom and the budget will come up up there.’ And, by God, that's what happened. I wouldn't go back down there any more. I just didn't like that private sort of thing.

The County budget in the early 50s was around $500k to $600k for the whole county. Adjusted for inflation that would be $5 or $6 million today. 

“It had all been prepared and it was perfunctorily adopted by the board. There was no open discussion. That was one of the things… I had criticized that sort of thing. I was called a ‘troublemaker’ for things like that. I was able to reverse that kind of thinking. That was because I simply started out with the notion that I wanted to prove them wrong. That was the motivating force that influenced my performance as Supervisor. They thought I was going to be a first-class son-of-a-bitch but it turned out I was a second-class son-of-a-bitch.”

By chance, with one Supervisor having died and three being up for election, four new Supervisors were elected that year, 1952. The Ukiah Daily Journal editorialized at the time that the new Board represented “a meat axe operation” to reform County management.

“I came onto the Board with Joe Hartley from Hopland who succeeded Ed Haehl who liked to drink. There was Harold Bainbridge, who succeeded a drunk, pardon the expression, from Fort Bragg. And Paul Poulos defeated Guy Redwine who was also a man who was inclined to tilt the bottle.”

“We got the huge salary of $200 a month and we met once a month at the County Courthouse.” (Adjusted for inflation that $200 a month would be $2,000 a month now, or about $48k per year, no benefits.)

“I’d have to say that it was a fluke that I won election that first time. By this time I had run four times and then after those first two years, people started to realize I wasn’t quite the pain in the butt that they figured I’d be. But Mr. Ornbaun's friends got him to run against me again. They still opposed me. The first time, I defeated him narrowly in the general election. The second time I defeated him handsomely. In '58 I had no opposition — that was the only free ride I ever had. In '62 my friend Ted Galletti ran against me, There were still a lot of disgruntled old-timers who thought I was a troublemaker so they got Ted to run against me.”

“This is a small community,” said Joe. There were family relationships and business relationships — all of those played a part in it. In 1962 why, hell, I beat Ted damn near two to one. But after that the district was enlarged and went damn near up to Fort Bragg and up to Highway 20 and Ted had a lot of friends and relatives up there. Hell, I carried Mendocino by only three or four votes, it turns out. When the votes were being counted, my wife Geneva and I were over there in Ukiah and things were going badly. She said, ‘Let's go home. You've had it.’ I said, ‘Let's wait a minute...’ Pretty soon the lady came out and she said, ‘Well, you may find this hard to believe, but the south coast came in and you made it.’ The south coast never cared much for Ted Galetti ever since he was on the school board here. For some reason he offended somebody. Anyway, when that vote came in, instead of trailing by a few, I was leading by about 40, so that was the last time I defeated him -- but narrowly. So when I went to the supervisor's convention they used to refer to me as Landslide Joe because I beat him by so few votes.”

Geneva & Joe Scaramella at my parents 50th Wedding Anniversary, 1986

“Some of the reforms that I fostered and encouraged and supported did not go over very well,” said Joe. (This was before the Brown Act.) “Most of what I wanted to do at first was open the system up. It was all closed in, I wanted it to be more open and to have more in writing, to be more fair to contractors and employees.”

With the same kind of perseverence that he showed in his four previous runs for Supervisor, Joe Scaramella went on to create Mendocino County’s Civil Service Commission and wrote its first rules. He also wrote the first Board rules, a version of which is still in place.

He helped and supported Tax Assessor Webb Brown to raise the assessed value of huge swaths of Mendo’s provably under-assessed ranches and timber tracts, against significant push back from wealthy ranchers and timberland owners.

Joe Scaramella was also instrumental in Richard Wilson's opposition to the proposed Dos Rios Dam project which would have flooded Round Valley and turned it into a huge lake for shipment to L.A. Joe’s reason for his opposition to that dam had nothing to do with budding environmental concerns or water politics. Scaramella realized early on that flooding Round Valley would remove tens of thousands of acres of productive agriculture land from County tax rolls which would have seriously reduced the County’s core operations which were expanding in those years.

Scaramella was also the sole vote to put up more money for the Coyote Dam so that Mendo would retain rights to more of the water stored in Lake Mendocino. He described his fellow Supervisors as “short-sighted,” and “stingy,” because they had money available to make a bigger contribution to the dam cost, but simply didn’t see the need at the moment.

Space and memory don’t permit a longer list, but Joe Scaramella has a record of accomplishment over his 18 years in office that no other Supervisor can match, before or since.

These days, people run for the much more highly paid Supervisor position with nothing more than vague claims of “I’m for water and other good stuff… I’m a nice person and I support good things,” etc. But they never propose any specific projects or reforms, much less pursue them if elected. And no Mendo candidate would ever let themselves be called a “troublemaker,” or a “second class son of a bitch” when up against organizational resistance.

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