SB County in the Media Glare

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Hollister
– Local residents seem generally dismayed at their 15 minutes of
fame after being featured extensively in a San Jose Mercury News
story this weekend.
Hollister – Local residents seem generally dismayed at their 15 minutes of fame after being featured extensively in a San Jose Mercury News story this weekend.

“It’s humiliating,” San Benito County Chamber of Commerce President Frankie Valent-Arballo said. “Hollister’s dirty laundry was aired in a large newspaper. I can’t believe we aren’t ready to move on.”

The story, “Fury on the Range,” chronicles the sordid details of the Los Valientes/District Attorney scandal, 2004’s growth-control initiative Measure G, and the results of this month’s and June’s local elections. The piece was printed in two parts, the first on Sunday and the second Monday, and totals nearly 7,000 words.

Most of the residents asked Monday in front of local coffee shops and grocery stores said that they were vaguely aware a story had appeared in the Mercury but had not read it, while others had no knowledge of the story at all.

Of those who had read the story, very few were pleased with it or how they felt their community was portrayed. Nearly all refused to give their name for the purpose of this story, citing the controversial nature of some of the article’s subject matter.

“I think it published another side of what’s been happening here,” said one resident, a woman who had finished shopping at Target. “But I think it was slanted in favor of (District Attorney John) Sarsfield, when both sides were culpable.”

Others, however, appreciated the change of perspective the Mercury was able to bring to local politics.

“I thought it was very fair and even-handed,” said local rancher and “smart-growth” advocate Joe Morris. “The truth is some pretty ridiculous things have happened here. But it’s too bad the community has to be smeared like that. Obviously not most of us, but some of us have done some not very honorable things.”

Morris said that he wished the article would have included, after stressing the division between pro-growth and slow-growth political camps, the advent of Vision San Benito. Vision San Benito was formed as an effort to create a consensus between opponents and supporters of Measure G shortly after the 2004 election, but was not mentioned in the story.

Sarsfield has been embroiled in a costly legal battle with the anonymous Los Valientes for the better part of two years, alleging that the group violated the civil rights of eight elected officials and business owners through extortion and by filing false lawsuits. Others have lauded Los Valientes, which the Mercury labeled a “secret society,” as courageous individuals fighting against government corruption.

Many residents and community leaders fear that the unsavory acts depicted in the story – the poisoning of Sarsfield’s two dogs and the harassment of former Pinnacle newspaper publisher Tracie Cone, for starters – could reflect negatively on the community as a whole to Mercury readers. The Silicon Valley paper has a daily circulation of more than 276,000, according to its Web site.

“In this case it will make people think we’re a bunch of ridiculous hicks down here,” said Jan Hille, who was shopping Monday morning. Hille said the article was a hot topic among her friends, who discussed it at length over dinner.

Locals working to improve local commerce and tourism worry that the story could damage San Benito County’s reputation in the Silicon Valley and, in turn, its economy.

“The community just doesn’t deserve that kind of press or exposure,” said Marilyn Ferreira. Though she is president of the Hollister Downtown Association, she stressed that she was speaking as a private citizen and real estate agent, as the HDA has a policy of staying out of political matters. “We’re not the country bumpkins, and a lot of people I know who read that story took offense. They just want to live here, spend their money here and be good citizens,” she continued. “That story doesn’t portray the pulse of the county; it was a slap in the face.”

Though the HDA will not be getting involved, Valent-Arballo said the Mercury story was certainly something the Chamber of Commerce would be discussing.

“This is definitely something we need to talk about,” she said. “It could affect businesses, real estate, ag – anyone who needs people to come to Hollister.”

Though it makes for exciting human drama, many said they wanted to highlight the good work happening in San Benito County as opposed to mud-slinging and politics. Valent-Arballo used the Small Steps program, local FFA club, scouting and the YMCA as examples of positive measures being taken to improve the local quality of life.

“Our community is full of kids doing great things,” she said. “It’s a shame that adults are dragging us down when we’re trying to look to our future.”

Danielle Smith covers education for the Free Lance. Reach her at 637-5566, ext. 336 or [email protected]

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