"Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passeth from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud. There is always something," said Willie Stark, the fictional governor in Robert Penn Warren's classic political novel "All The King's Men."

Something, Warren meant, that shows flaws, weakness, or scandal. Poke hard enough at even the seemingly most benign politician or political institution -- say a small community service district -- and the stink and stench can quickly fill the nostrils.

Kensington sits nestled beside Berkeley up against the East Bay hills, a tiny unincorporated enclave in southwestern Contra Costa County governed by a five-member elected board overseeing basic community needs. It's so small that the chief of its eight-person Police Department also serves as the district's general manager.

Nearly two years ago, Kensington's board awarded a raise and bonus to the person in that job, Gregory Harman. Longtime critics of Kensington's recalcitrance and lack of transparency raised questions. They claimed the raise wasn't properly listed on the agenda of the meeting where it was approved, a violation of the Brown Act, and that the board violated its own rules by voting, 3-2, after its self-imposed 10 p.m. curfew.

Nine people -- call them the Kensington Nine -- sued the district and the three directors who supported Harman, Charles Toombs, Linda Lipscomb and Richard Loyd, to nullify the vote. They called the bonus meant to retain him a "gift of public funds."

In an odd twist, their lawyer, Mari Metcalf, was one of the two directors who voted against the raise.

Metcalf quit the board in late 2012, giving a blistering speech in which she said district officials had "little regard for professionalism," were awash in "rampant sloppiness" and "very partial to secrecy."

Rather than just schedule another vote on Harman's pay and dispose of the complaint for the good of the district, directors fought back, racking up legal fees exceeding $200,000.

And they found an opportunity to punish and, mostly important, silence their critics. After all, what's better than revealing one's vindictive nature in minor local politics?

The directors brought a SLAPP -- Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation -- motion in court, claiming their vote on Harman's raise was protected free speech and immune from the legal challenge. They were the harmed party, they cried, their rights had been trampled upon.

The residents' intent was to "intrude upon the First Amendment rights of individual board members by punishing those with whom they disagree," the motion states.

Judge Steven Austin, though, rejected that idea.

The directors appealed. The rights of the residents to question and challenge their government became a significant enough issue that the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California became involved, filing a friend-of-the-court brief.

At risk, ACLU lawyer Michael Risher wrote, is a "chilling effect on public-interest suits."

But a three-justice panel at the 1st District Court of Appeal disagreed, overturning Austin's decision in April. That now means the Kensington Nine are on the hook for the district's legal fees.

The justices' message is clear: The public challenges their government at great peril. That is exactly the message that Kensington's petty leaders wanted. Mess with them and you will pay dearly.

The Kensington Nine could appeal to the state Supreme Court. But the fear of paying even more legal fees "looms like the sword of Damocles above their heads," Metcalf wrote to me in an email. "These are regular citizens, not entities with deep pockets."

The blame in Kensington is solely on the directors who rammed through Harman's raise in the dead of night. All they needed to do was delay for proper notice. Instead, they chose to stifle dissent and further their government's reputation as little more than a cesspool.

"There is always something," Willie Stark said, and that something often stinks. In Kensington, that something is the leaders.

Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter for this newspaper, teaches Public Records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and co-chairs the Society of Professional Journalists Freedom of Information Committee. Follow him at @thomas_peele.