A recall campaign against two Pinole city council members is generating allegations of death threats and stalking, smears, special-interest influence, intimidation, political revenge and lies.
The flash point in this small-town political saga worthy of an HBO series was May 14, 2007, when the council voted 3-2 not to renew the contract of city manager Belinda Espinosa. The decision came in the wake of revelations that local Pear Street Bistro owner Gary Wong had fallen more than a year behind on his loan payments to the city.
The vote starkly illuminated a wide schism on the council and triggered the recall against Councilwoman Maria Alegria, Mayor Pro Tem Stephen Tilton and Councilman David Cole. (Cole would later join the Army and resign.)
In the months that followed, Pinole residents would see some of the nastiest political fighting in the city's history.
On one side, recall proponents contend that Alegria led a three-member voting bloc against Espinosa to shift blame for the bistro loan fiasco away from the council and protect Wong. As for Tilton, they say he's incompetent and the mayor's puppet.
They also cite a bizarre January incident outside the bistro where written accounts of three Pinole police officers describe an intoxicated then-mayor Alegria interfering with an officer who had pulled over a restaurant employee. (Alegria has said she was not drunk and the officer misinterpreted her statements.)
In the other camp, Alegria and Tilton view the recall as a pot of sour grapes soup cooked up by an angry former Councilwoman Betty Boyle, who lost her 2006 re-election bid, and stoked by Councilwoman Mary Horton in a pique over the mayor's decision to endorse Tilton instead of her.
They contend that Horton and Councilman Peter Murray view the recall as a strategy to put an ally on the board, regain majority control and rehire Espinosa.
Unraveling the truth between these two emotionally charged camps will be no easy task for Pinole's 9,000 registered voters.
To start, there are some tortured facts floating around this campaign that warrant clarification.
The recall advocates' literature contends that Alegria and Tilton have been "under scrutiny" by a trifecta of agencies: California Fair Political Practices Commission, the Contra Costa County grand jury and the district attorney's office.
This incorrectly implies that these agencies have launched a coordinated probe of Alegria and Tilton.
To start, the complaint to the state had nothing to do with Alegria or Tilton. It involved former Councilman Cole, who was forced to revise his annual disclosure forms after he failed to disclose the fact that his employer had a contract with a company that did business with the city.
A Pinole citizen did file a complaint with the district attorney about alleged council conflicts of interest on the council with respect to the bistro and other business dealings, according to a June 9 Times story. But anyone can send a letter and the district attorney has not indicated whether it contains credible information that warrants a probe.
It's also true that a member of the grand jury held a meeting with Alegria and city staff about the Pear Street loans and requested additional information on at least two other occasions. But the grand jury makes numerous such requests of local governments, and it does not mean there have been or will be an investigation or findings of wrong-doing on the part of Alegria and Tilton.
The recall folks have also made liberal use of a photo of Alegria and Tilton seated with Wong. It illustrates one of the central themes of their campaign, that the council members had a too-cozy relationship with Wong, whose more than $400,000 in loans with the city had been in arrears for months when the photo was taken.
But the photo was cropped and as a result, it implies a far more intimate occasion than was the case.
The original picture featured a table of Pinole officials and business leaders who attended a small business awards banquet and posed for a group picture. At the time, Wong was the president of the Pinole Chamber of Commerce. The presence of these three people at a civic event does not prove an unholy alliance.
On the other side, Alegria and Tilton say the recall advocates' chief motivation is revenge, the result of promised political payback when they refused to keep the city manager.
That may be true among some of the proponents.
But others have had little or no personal contact with the city leaders. They are genuinely upset about the management of the city and view the rarely used recall process as a means to hold elected officials accountable. Characterizing recall advocates as mindless pawns in a sour-grapes scheme could backfire.
Alegria and her supporters have taken photos of recall activists at council meetings and in front of the post office. For what purpose? Granted, the pictures were taken in public places but it borders on intimidation.
It's also a Grand Canyon-sized leap to conclude that nine death threat calls made to Contra Costa Democratic Party Chairman Nagaraja Rao are recall-related.
Rao said four calls came on the morning of the Times' publication of a story about the party's vote to oppose the recall. But the Berkeley police investigated and say the two are unrelated.
If you count yourself among the Pinole residents sick of the whole sorry mess, don't expect a reprieve soon.
It's five weeks until the Feb. 5 election -- ample time for further mischief -- and both sides are bracing for an escalation in January. Campaign finance reports due early next year will offer voters a critical picture of who is raising money and from whom.
Politics may be a blood sport, but let's hope Pinole doesn't cut its own jugular in the process.