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Sonoma County supervisors question Bohemian Grove police services contract

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The female-majority Sonoma County Board of Supervisors balked Tuesday at approving a law enforcement contract with the exclusive Bohemian Grove for its encampment next month in Monte Rio, citing the 147-year-old club’s policy of prohibiting women as members or attendees at its annual gathering under the redwoods along the Russian River.

The objection, initially led by supervisors Shirlee Zane and Lynda Hopkins, focused on whether the county could legally enter into the contract with the male-only San Francisco-based club founded in 1872.

Zane said the club’s gender exclusionary policy raises a “constitutional issue” of whether taxes paid by men and women could be used to provide an estimated $151,127 worth of police services during the encampment from July 10 to 28. Under the contract, the Bohemian Grove reimburses the county for its costs.

“I don’t see how we can be providing law enforcement for a club that discriminates so blatantly,” she said.

“How does this still exist in 2019?” Hopkins said, noting that wealthy and influential men fly in from all over the country for a mid-summer respite in the community that has Sonoma County’s highest unemployment rate.

Zane called for postponing action on the contract for a week, giving county attorneys a chance to review the legality of the deal.

If the board rejects the contract, the Sheriff’s Office would still be required to provide public law enforcement services in Monte Rio but without compensation from the club, Sheriff Mark Essick said.

The board protest targeted a contract seen as routine in past years, and it renewed in a narrow way longstanding public scrutiny of the annual Bohemian Grove gathering, cloaked in secrecy, of rich and powerful men on a 2,700-acre enclave where members reside in rustic camps scattered among the tall trees.

Founded by San Francisco journalists, artists and musicians after the Civil War, the club soon included wealthy businessmen and now blends plutocrats and power brokers with musicians and actors for entertainment.

No one representing the Bohemian Club spoke at Tuesday’s meeting. The contract was listed on the board’s consent agenda, which includes items typically approved without discussion.

The club’s general manager and a San Francisco spokesman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

After some debate, the five-member board agreed to postpone a decision until next week, despite Essick’s statement that the delay would make it “extremely difficult” to meet the contract obligations and “could possibly damage our relationship” with Bohemian Grove.

“I certainly hear your concerns,” Essick said, adding that it was a “late hour” to take a “deeper dive” into the legal issues.

The Sheriff’s Office sees deputies in this case as “rental public safety officers” and is not endorsing the Bohemian Club, he said. Female deputies would be able to enter the grove if needed, Essick said.

The deputies’ purpose is to protect the Bohemians and grove employees, and maintain the right of free speech for any protesters who might congregate around the gate, Essick said later in an interview.

From a public safety standpoint, Essick noted that two deputies are assigned to downtown Guerneville on busy summer days. Without the grove contract, those deputies could be pulled away in response to calls for service in Monte Rio, he said.

All deputies working under the grove contract are paid overtime at a “premium price” to the club. “We’re trying to look out for the taxpayer,” Essick said.

Sizable protests greeted the Bohemians at the gate for several decades, but have tailed off in recent years. Critics have asserted that members take advantage of the grove’s secrecy to discuss political and business matters.

Supervisor Susan Gorin initially said the contract discussion is “legitimate” but could wait a year, and later said she was troubled by the club’s “long, rich tradition of discrimination” and supported holding off the decision for a week.

“The guys can’t be silent on this,” Supervisor James Gore said, aligning himself with his female colleagues.

“I think discrimination is a problem for everyone, male or female,” Board Chairman David Rabbitt said. “This is a tough one.”

The discussion should have come earlier, he said. Without reimbursement by the club, taxpayers will “eat the costs” of Bohemian Grove security, Rabbitt said.

Essick said the $151,127 contract figure — covering 1,290 hours of personnel time and 4,002 miles driven — was an estimate, with the final amount to be determined at the end of the encampment. The supervisors have approved law enforcement contracts for the encampment for about the past 14 years with few changes, he said.

Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Crum said in an interview that in the absence of a contract, deputies would respond to Bohemian Grove as needed during the encampment. If a major incident occurred, additional deputies would be called in on overtime pay, he said.

The contract would place a group of deputies on hand in Monte Rio, enabling a more immediate response that is advantageous to the department and the Bohemians, Crum said.

The club “wants a quick response and they are willing to pay for it,” he said.

Under the contract, at least two deputies, working eight-hour shifts, would be assigned to the grove around the clock during the 19-day encampment, Essick said. As activity at the encampment ramps up, as many as four deputies could be assigned to the day shift, he said.

Deputies typically spend 90 percent of their time at the gate and in the parking area at the grove, the sheriff said.

The club hires private security guards to patrol inside the grove, Crum said.

“We’re just there if they need us,” he said. “They can call us, and we’ll be right there.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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