Bill Pisenti, longtime conservative activist, dies at 96

  • News/--Bill Pisenti, 91, is a Bennett Valley rancher and a John Bircher. Pisenti is a regular speaker at the Sonoma County supervisor's meetings, and often presents his arguements about government spending and regulation. A lifelong conservative, his family has been in Sonoma County since 1889. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)2008

For years on end, it wasn't a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting without a gravelly plea for fiscal restraint by old-school Bennett Valley rancher Bill Pisenti.

Pisenti, the John Birch Society member and anti-tax crusader who died Wednesday at nearly 97, lost many battles and often felt dismissed in generally liberal Sonoma County. But he went to his grave knowing he'd helped to pass and preserve Proposition 13.

"If we crow about it," wrote the nearly lifelong resident of Santa Rosa in a guest editorial in The Press Democrat in 2003, "it is simply to inform people that it does pay to stand up and fight for what you believe is fair."

Gruff and typically dressed as if he'd come from the barn, Pisenti was also a man with a deep appreciation of opera. Despite his stony views on taxation and government spending, he wore a ready smile and swapped stories even with his most extreme adversaries.

"He attended all our board meetings unless he was ill," recalled retired left-leaning supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who represented the 5th District from 1980 through 1996.

"He was a crusty, old, irate taxpayer, but he was consistent and actually had a big heart," Carpenter added. He remembered coming upon Pisenti in a wheelchair at last year's Sonoma County Fair and his former foe saying, "We didn't always agree, but we got along."

Retired 2nd District supervisor Jim Harberson characterized Pisenti as a true, to-the-bone conservative "untainted by other influences."

"He believed what he believed and he stuck to it the whole time," said Harberson, who served on the Board from 1984 through 1998. "There is no doubt that Prop. 13 was his Bible."

Pisenti didn't simply advocate or vote for Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that amended the California Constitution to limit property tax rates. He worked alongside primary authors and proponents Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis.

Pisenti also appeared often before the Santa Rosa City Council to argue for less government and fewer taxes.

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