Nielsen puts a wrap on one tough year |

Nielsen puts a wrap on one tough year

Greg Risling

Mark Nielsen is glad 1997 is coming to a close.

It’s been three years of rampant speculation, numerous phone calls and unfavorable publicity for the El Dorado County supervisor. To put it mildly, Nielsen will be ringing in the new year with a well-deserved bang.

The District 3 elected official held back the tide of two time-consuming efforts that could have ousted him from office. He was subjected to harsh criticism for allegations of wrongdoing while in office, charges that were dismissed by a visiting Superior Court judge in September. And just removed from two weeks, a recall campaign against Nielsen sputtered short of the needed 3,366 signatures to hold a special election. The former attorney never lost faith in voters and held fast in the belief he hadn’t broken any laws. He said the events of this year won’t haunt him.

“This year ended with two welcomed events,” Nielsen smiled. “I believe the charges were of more concern to others than me. It was an occasional distraction but will have no appreciable impact to me otherwise.”

The Nielsen charges went beyond a minor scratch on his political report card. The claims were like the county’s Pandora’s box. Whenever Nielsen made a move, there were people who clamored there was a controversy lurking in the shadows. Nielsen’s legal problems embodied the grim atmosphere in El Dorado, a county torn apart over growth and water rights issues. There is also a perception among some residents that Nielsen is part of a “good old boy” clan that rules over the county with an iron fist. It’s a dubious distinction of constantly being accused that you and three other board members scheme and plot to swing a vote to your favor. But it also isn’t any coincidence that the odd man out, District 1 Supervisor Sam Bradley, hasn’t served as board chairman in his six-year tenure.

Nielsen has escaped from the growing pool of California politicians in recent years who have been found guilty of various crimes. Last year, three supervisors in Tehama County were expelled from office by a recall election. In Contra Costa County, a board supervisor was convicted of instructing her staff to work on her re-election campaign during work hours.

As one of El Dorado’s embattled leaders, Nielsen has shown he is durable under considerable duress. He likes pointing to the fact that he withstood the furious assault by his opponents while maintaining the public’s confidence and trust in the midst of a re-election campaign in 1996. He won by a hair – 119 votes – a 1 percent victory over Carol Louis.

In the beginning

Many residents forget what put Nielsen in hot water from the outset. The allegations started to build in 1991 when two former county employees fought bitterly over the “write-off” of a $13,000 debt owed by now-retired Superior Court Judge Terrance Finney. Seen by some as a rabble-rouser, Deputy County Counsel Bruce Kimsey resigned under purported pressure by his boss, Sam Neasham because of the Finney file. Kimsey allegedly had conversations with Nielsen about his pending lawsuit against Neasham, which was eventually settled out of court.

The 1994-95 grand jury stepped in with their annual review of county government and said an “unnamed elected official” had failed to disclose his attorney/client relationship with Kimsey to other board members and didn’t recuse himself from the board’s decision to settle the case out of court. It was later revealed after a lengthy court battle between Bradley and District Attorney Gary Lacy, that Nielsen was indeed the grand jury’s lamb.

The grand jury also found that Nielsen had willfully violated a section of the government code by releasing confidential memos to the media and the public about the Kimsey lawsuit. Nielsen was heralded in some circles for “opening up government” and lauded by others for blatantly overusing his authority.

Nielsen was also charged with lobbying other supervisors for consensus on board matters including the termination of former Chief Administrative Officer Paul McIntosh, a violation of the state’s opening meeting law, the Brown Act.

Case dismissed

The allegations against Nielsen crumbled over this past summer when a judge dismissed the case on technicalities. Superior Court Judge Allen Fields said the grand jury documents weren’t signed and dated, which could be susceptible to fraud, and the allegations themselves didn’t meet specific state statutes.

Nielsen was fully acquitted two weeks ago when recall proponents failed to gather enough signatures for an election. The group actually had more than the required amount but more than 25 percent of the signatures were invalid.

“All of the flames have been extinguished,” he said. “But there are still people out there that believe my vindication is a product of corruption.”

Nielsen may never emerge from the shadow of belief that he has a hidden agenda. Reportedly linked with developers and influential big-wigs, Nielsen could only name one friend who is a developer that he considers part of his inner circle.

Nielsen would rather steer his comments to the uncertain future of El Dorado’s water woes. The El Dorado Irrigation District is entangled in a bitter dispute with Pacific Gas and Electric over water. If things don’t work out for the county, it could lose one-third of its water supply.

Nielsen defends the county’s General Plan, which has aggravated some residents and developers because it limits growth, a bone of contention in the county. Nielsen said if there isn’t enough water, future growth can’t be accomplished.

“Some residents who are ‘no-growthers’ presume that all development shouldn’t occur in El Dorado,” he said. “They can’t be so regimented in their viewpoint that they can stop any change.”

Retirement on horizon

It looks like Nielsen will fill out the remainder of his term and he discounts any talk that he will run for state office once he is through. He concluded by saying he has weathered the storm and looks forward to a much easier retirement.

“I won’t go back to law,” he said. “I hopefully will retire and relax. Politics can take a lot of you.”

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