Sonoma County supervisors approve sheriff’s contract for all-male Bohemian Club

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Sonoma County supervisors grudgingly approved a deal Tuesday that will provide standby sheriff’s deputies to the all-male Bohemian Grove summer encampment, but only after the board’s three women voiced their outrage over the public obligation to protect a private club that continues to exclude people on the basis of gender.

For the second time in a week, the county’s first female majority on the Board of Supervisors used a series of passionate speeches to call out the San Francisco-based Bohemian Club’s historic exclusion of women and indicated they were loath to continue a contract in future years with an institution they find discriminatory and outdated.

The comments seemed to resonate among some spectators in the board chambers who murmured and applauded as supervisors spoke.

Supervisor Lynda Hopkins said the board’s 5-0 decision to advance the contract for supplemental law enforcement coverage did not amount to a public endorsement for the club’s exclusive makeup.

“The right to freedom of assembly does not prohibit society from judging your actions, right?” Hopkins said, chastising the club for a membership policy that she said she would be unable to explain to her three young children, including two girls.

“At the end of the day, I feel very strongly that I did not run for office to provide services to elite, wealthy, powerful individuals who exclude people from their ranks on the basis of sex,” she said.

Though long a source of public scrutiny, the highly secretive club has maintained a fairly low profile in recent years, generating little in the way of friction around the annual July gathering of wealthy and powerful men at the 2,700-acre forested enclave in Monte Rio.

The deal for sheriff’s services has sailed through board votes each year — the county agreeing to provide supplemental patrols of up to four deputies during the encampment. This year the total estimated cost for all sheriff’s personnel and vehicles came to $151,127.

Sheriff Mark Essick has noted taxpayers, not club members, would have to pay for deputies’ response to the grove if the county rejected the contract. The department would still be obligated to respond to public safety calls at the property, but would have to do so by tapping scarce deputies on regular patrols and without any promise of reimbursement, he said.

Still, the backlash was swift and uniform among female board members starting last week, when Supervisor Shirlee Zane raised questions about the legality and propriety of contracting with a group “that discriminates so blatantly.”

Hopkins, whose district includes the grove, said she did not want to “pull the rug out from under the contract” with only weeks remaining before the annual 19-day encampment. But she said she wouldn’t vote to do so again, absent evidence of a “clear public benefit” she said she had yet to see.

Representatives of the Bohemian Club did not respond to an interview request on Tuesday and have not offered any public comments on the matter over the past week.

The secretive fraternity maintains its own security inside the grove, where members reside in rustic camps scattered among the tall trees.

A County Counsel’s opinion that supervisors voted to make public on Tuesday noted that the Sheriff’s Office is legally mandated to preserve the peace in public and private places within its jurisdiction, whether or not it chooses to allocate resources preemptively.

But it remained a hard pill to swallow for female supervisors, especially, including Zane, who first suggested last week that her colleagues reexamine the practice of approving the annual contract.

Zane noted Tuesday that she raised her objections about the Bohemian Grove contract amid tremendous national upheaval over women’s access to abortion services.

She said she has been encouraged since “by a lot of men to let this go,” but said now is not the time to sit down and be quiet.

“We are having our rights taken away,” she said. “There have been at least three states that have taken away reproductive rights of women, so yeah, it’s scary right now to be a woman. We need to speak up and let our voices be heard.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin addressed the history of voting rights for women and, her voice breaking, pointed to the board’s female majority, solidified for the first time with Hopkins’ 2016 election.

“Sonoma County has been a leader in gay rights, women’s rights, environmental rights, social-justice equity issues,” she said. “The time has come for this all-male, elite, powerful group to stand up and say, ‘OK, we hear you, and let’s think about this.’ ”

The 147-year-old Bohemian Club has its origins among writers, artists, musicians and others interested in art and culture but grew to embrace titans from business and politics, and eventually included some of the world’s most affluent and influential men.

Critics staged demonstrations outside the gates for years in objection to the guarded gathering, but the protests have waned in recent years.

After last week’s board session, an open letter that Hopkins penned and published on her Facebook page reignited some of the scrutiny.

In it, she called out the Bohemian members for the court order from the 1980s that forced the club to hire female employees.

She voiced dismay that those seeking to advocate on its behalf in recent days had been calling her male colleagues on the Board of Supervisors — James Gore and David Rabbitt — though the Bohemian Grove sits in her district.

“Because, you know, it’s easier for a guy to talk to another guy about why the Grove is OK than it is to talk to a woman about it,” she wrote. “It’s a little more challenging to talk about sensitive issues — particularly sexism — with someone of the opposite sex.”

She would not share Tuesday who she understood to have spoken with Gore and Rabbitt about the sheriff’s contract.

But Hopkins noted that any of her predecessors in the 5th District seat, all men, would have been welcomed to visit the grove, as, she said, former Supervisor Efren Carrillo did.

“The Grove is part of a paradigm that has disempowered women for hundreds of years,” she wrote. “The most powerful thing you can do is to acknowledge that fact — and as you continue to have your fun in the redwoods, try to do other things in your life to help out those who aren’t ‘lucky enough’ (either anatomically or socially speaking) to be members of your precious Club.”

Rabbitt, the board chairman, did not address the controversy on Tuesday.

Gore, in his comments, acknowledged his own status as a privileged “white dude” and his obligation to “be aware” in his actions.

“So rock and roll,” he said. “I feel inspired to be with powerful women.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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