Q and A with Supervisor Nielsen
For the last several years, Mark Nielsen and controversy have gone together like milk and cookies. However, there isn’t anything sweet or delicious with what he must cope with in the upcoming weeks. With grand jury accusations filed last Thursday against the El Dorado County supervisor, “Old Hangtown” is ready to fasten the noose around one of its own.
The 66-year-old supervisor from Placerville has been charged with three counts of misconduct while in office: 1) a conflict-of-interest by giving legal advice to a county employee who was suing the county 2) a disclosure of information deliberated in closed-door meetings by Nielsen regarding the same lawsuit and 3) more than 10 reported violations of the state’s open meeting law, the Brown Act.
Nielsen also faces a recall effort by a grass-roots group. He is holding up well amid all the negative publicity, more claims of impropriety and allegedly ducking the press.
He spoke to the Tahoe Daily Tribune reporter Greg Risling on Monday but couldn’t discuss the allegations because he has been appointed legal counsel. A Sacramento firm will handle the case on behalf of the county. An arraignment hearing has been scheduled for July 29 in Placerville.
Q: With the accusations filed and a recall effort under way in your name, how have these things affected your job?
A: “No, it doesn’t have any effect on my performance. I will continue to perform as board supervisor. I think the aforementioned items are a political opportunity for some to try anything to discomfort me.”
Q: There has been talk of grand jury members who have been appointed and are following their own personal agenda. What is the opinion of the last several grand juries and should the application process be revisited?
A: “As for the 1994-95 grand jury, I can’t comment for obvious reasons. The grand jury in this county is conducted through a volunteer process instead of random selection. Unless we move to the latter, I think the notion of bias attributed to volunteers is unlikely to disappear … I fundamentally support the watchdog function. It’s good to have outside, fresh views. It’s a good thing to have this scrutiny.”
Q: It has also been reported that the grand jury is the handmaid of the board and the supervisors indirectly influence the final report. Can you dispel those myths?
A: “The supervisors today have never been involved in the selection process. They may have been 20 years ago when the courts asked the supes for their personal recommendations. We get interviewed and I give my views at that time.”
Q: Your Dec. 23, 1995 memo releasing a closed-door conversation to the press and public was deemed by District Attorney Gary Lacy as a “violation of intent of the Brown Act.” You said you would do it again. In hindsight, with all the legal proceedings recently, do you still stand by that comment?
A: “It’s hard to improve your own rationale. There is the First Amendment and under certain circumstances freedom of speech applies. You don’t lose the benefit of the First Amendment. One of the platforms in my re-election campaign was to take issues out of the back room and put them forward. Today, right now, I’m convinced my action was in the best interest of the public.”
Q:How did you get a copy of Lacy’s memo to Judge Patrick Riley regarding his reasoning for not filing the accusations?
A: “It was printed in lengthy detail in one of the newspapers. Lacy has never authenticated it because he hasn’t seen the copy.”
Q: Some of the public has criticized the board for not responding adequately to the grand jury report. Why haven’t those recommendations by grand jury members been addressed (i.e, board training on the Brown Act, setting up advisory committees within their districts, comprehensive code of ethics, etc.)
A: (Pulling from the trash) “Here’s my response on May 11, 1994. We’ve expanded the grand jury to amplify our response. There is language in the charter specific to grand juries and response. The state law is comprehensive on code of ethics. Setting up committees is purely political. And we have received training weekly on the Brown Act. I’ve had all the training I need up until now.”
Q: Some say that the board also misuses their power. An example is making a set of motions prohibiting Supervisor Sam Bradley from county-appointed boards and commissions. Why did you do it?
A: “In advance I drew up a chart of all the committees and who I saw in the future in those positions. (Bradley) is qualified to serve because he’s a member of the board. But the rest is totally subjective to individual preference. I expanded my time on the committees by my actions and I don’t even like them. I seek to avoid them.”
Q: But do you think you had the right representing District 3 voters by making that call?
A: “I was making that call on behalf of El Dorado County. There was a false perception that this was orchestrated in advance. During that time after the vote I saw a significant change in the conduct of Mr. Bradley. He was placed on two boards … it’s my place to decide whether someone should be on a board or not.”
Q: Do you think there is a growing trend at the local government levels of the public targeting elected officials for wrongdoing before they know all the facts?
A: “No, I haven’t seen that at all. Serving in public office has some aspects gratifying to a kamikaze pilot. I haven’t had a greater opinion of any associated risk with public office … the public likes to see some measure of stability.”
Q: Is there stability in El Dorado County?
A: “At the moment we have stability in the county. An initiative on land use failed in four districts but it garnered support in District 1. There is clearly a different makeup and approach to land-use issues but there isn’t a schism. We do have elements of collision of views.”
Q: Do you think the local press has treated you fairly with your legal issues?
A: “I have no comment on the press … my brother was a journalist and eventually recruited by the CIA. His perspective was ‘they are all bureaucrats that should be exposed.’ I understand journalists’ dilemma. How can you find anything interesting at a Board of Supervisors meeting? You have to find something to titillate the public.”
Q: The concept of a “good ol’ boys network,” who have far-reaching influence has been at times the prevailing mindset. How do you wipe away that belief?
A: “Most people go to the polls and cast their ballot. I believe the vast preponderance of the public want to see good results. As far as conspiratorial theories, that conviction exists regardless of who is in office. The good ol’ boy system doesn’t haven’t a current application.”
Q: What is the biggest misconception about Mark Nielsen?
A: “That I’m Swedish (laughing). Seriously, though, it’s the idea that I have almost occult powers to bring about results. It seems to be that I’ve complete control over the governmental apparatus, which seems to have some marketability. But it’s probably extremists saying that … they have put that viewpoint out publicly, though.”
Q: You still have three and a half years to serve your term. When all is said and done what impact do you think this case will have on your public and private life?
A: “I’m virtually retired now and won’t go back to law once my term is finished. I ran a second time to get things done … our county government is in excellent shape. I may have created some scar tissue in certain quarters. If I’m vindicated from the grand jury accusations, which I’m certain I will, I think the area of potential recall won’t progress. I expect to complete my term.”
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