The wacky politics of Bradford Island have taken another turn toward the absurd, with the tiny Delta island's bombastic primary landowner making another run at capturing his hold on its reclamation district.
Paul Sosnowski, who along with his girlfriend, Holly Davis, was unceremoniously booted from the reclamation district board last year, is making a legal attempt to reclaim those two seats; the pair, along with an employee of his who is still on the board, would give Sosnowski a board majority.
Armed with that influence, the Novato resident -- who owns a large portion of the 2,172-acre island north of Bethel Island -- has said he hopes to develop his acreage. But regulations and financial issues would still stand in his way, as he owes a half-million dollars in delinquent county taxes and island assessments.
The board president says Sosnowski's return would waste all the good will and economic stability the district has achieved since his ouster. And the board's attorney has launched an investigation into whether Sosnowski's attempt to rejoin the board is legal.
The latest stink comes after Sosnowski, 69, recorded amended 2006 board bylaws in February with the Contra Costa County recorder's office. The amendments would allow him and his girlfriend to return to their former seats and return the board to five trustees.
"He purports to make the bylaws retroactive to 2006," attorney Mia Brown said. "I cannot find a legal basis to support that position."
The landowner said he and Davis deserve to be back on the board.
"I'm the majority landowner out there," he said. "I'm the person that has a tremendous investment out there."
The tiny Delta island -- population 13, home to ranchers, farmers, natural gas wells and vacation homes -- has had more than its share of political intrigue in the past decade, most of it involving Sosnowski. In 2006, he successfully petitioned the district to expand the board from three to five members -- after which he and his girlfriend were elected to the new seats. Thanks to what Brown called "archaic" laws that govern reclamation districts, majority landowners have significant power and the right to change the district bylaws, she said.
Sosnowski later used his majority landowner power to get a maintenance worker at his marina business, Steve Lucas, elected to the board, forming a majority voting bloc. Sosnowski gifted 1 percent of a parcel to Lucas to make him an island "landowner" eligible to serve on the board. Sosnowski then used his many votes -- reclamation district rules allowed him to vote more than 1,000 times, one vote per acre owned -- to get his employee elected.
Sosnowski has said he hoped to use the voting bloc to develop his land; over the years, he has pitched a casino, a convalescent home, a golf course, a Western saloon and a winery.
Critics chuckle at the projects, saying Contra Costa's general plan prohibits urban services, such as water and sewer, outside its urban growth boundary. Also, any significant development on an island well below sea level would require numerous long-shot state and federal permits.
Meanwhile, Sosnowski drove the tiny levee maintenance district to its financial knees, its leaders say. In addition to owning the most land, Sosnowski must pay the most assessments, which keep the levees maintained, the ferry running and district employees paid. He owes the Bradford Island district $182,000 in delinquent assessments, a large portion of its overall budget. Sosnowski also owes $322,000 in late Contra Costa property taxes, according to the tax collector's office.
"Throughout all of whatever he has wanted to do, it has been to bring himself personal gain and nothing to do with the rest of landowners," said Cate Kuhne, another Bradford Island trustee.
In 2011, Sosnowski responded to critics by calling fellow board members "stupid" and landowners "dumb."
"I wish I never invested in that island," Sosnowski said at the time. "I hate the reclamation district. I hate the island. I hate the people on the island."
Everything changed last summer after Brown researched the bylaws and found that Sosnowski was short 3.6 acres of reaching the majority-landowner threshold, because he had counted some land that was underwater. She ruled those bylaws void and on July 17 the two additional seats -- occupied by Sosnowski and Davis -- were removed from the board.
Sosnowski's alterations to the 2006 bylaws included a new signature page with his name, along with the signatures of Bradford Island residents Matthew and Jan Fleumer, whose 4.9 acres provide him a combined majority acreage. The Fleumers' connection to Sosnowski is unclear; they did not respond to a message asking for comment.
"He's trying to automatically get reseated to the board without going through the election," said Brown, the attorney.
The retroactive move does not appear legal, she said, but if he filed new amended bylaws he could potentially add those two seats. But he and his girlfriend would have to run for those seats in the November election. Sosnowski could also just wait until November and run for President Robert Davies' seat, whose term is ending; if elected, Sosnowski would join Lucas to form a majority on the three-person board.
A letter from Lucas to the board president, read aloud at Tuesday's meeting, said the bylaws have been amended and the board needs to return to five members. He said he fears actions made by a three-member board could later be ruled as "improper action" for which he and other trustees could be held personally liable.
Board President Davies, whose family has vacationed on the island for 47 years, said he has serious reservations about a Sosnowski return.
Since Sosnowski left, Davies said, the reclamation board persuaded the county to collect its island assessments and the state to fund levee fixes, which has put money into its coffers. The increased revenue has stabilized the island's ferry service -- the only way on and off the island -- and satisfied creditors that had been clamoring for back payments, he said.
"He wants to develop and he wants to be dominant and sway the board and push his own agenda," Davies said of Sosnowski. "He's going to dictate everything and ruin everything we gained in the last 18 months."
County documents show numerous loan defaults for Sosnowski and his company, including an April 16 default on a Bradford Island property. If it is foreclosed on and a bank takes ownership, Kuhne said, Sosnowski would fall further below the majority landowner acreage threshold.
When contacted by phone, Sosnowski answered a few questions before quickly ending the interview, saying this newspaper has never printed the truth about his situation.
"So, why don't you go your way and I'll go my way," he said before hanging up.
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026. Follow him at Twitter.com/mgafni.