Stanislaus County’s board of supervisors started the new year with four supervisors on the dais, as supervisor-elect Tom Berryhill was absent for health reasons.
Berryhill, who was elected to succeed former state senator and supervisor Dick Monteith, who retired, was absent from the board’s first meeting of 2019 on Tuesday and also did not attend a county ceremony Monday for swearing-in newly elected officials.
Terry Withrow, who took over as board chairman Tuesday, said he was told Berryhill didn’t attend Tuesday’s meeting for medical reasons. Questions about the former state senator’s health have persisted since before the primary last June.
“I am not sure what we are going to do,” Withrow said after Tuesday’s meeting. “I think we are trying to figure out what happens next.”
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Berryhill has not returned messages seeking comment in the past few days. The county said it is in communication with Berryhill’s family and will provide further information as it becomes available.
Berryhill, who termed out of the state Senate in December, captured 53 percent of the vote in defeating Frank Damrell III in November. Due to a broken hip suffered in July and a diagnosis of early stage Parkinson’s disease, Berryhill wasn’t able to actively campaign last fall, but in his words, relied on mailers and a strong name to win support at the ballot box.
Berryhill, 64, used a walker in attending a retirement reception for Monteith in December. He served 12 years in the Legislature, as an assemblyman and senator, after undergoing a heart transplant in 2001.
County officials didn’t have information on whether there’s a legal time frame for a supervisor to take the oath of office and begin service.
The board approved a consent item Tuesday to bring its field staff back to full strength, or one field representative for each supervisor. The support staff positions for supervisors were cut from five to four in the economic downturn. Tuesday, the board approved $48,750 in contingencies to hire the fifth field representative.
In response to a Bee inquiry, county staff said a person who worked as a senate aide for Berryhill had not been hired by the county. A recruitment for the field staff position has just begun, said Liz King, clerk of the board.
Last week, Berryhill also was appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the State Compensation Insurance Fund board, a position paying $58,600 a year.
Damrell, a field representative for state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, attended the meeting Tuesday to hear an update on a plan to move the homeless camp at Beard Brook Park in south Modesto to a site in Tuolumne River Regional Park. Damrell also was there to support county employees affiliated with Service Employees International Union Local 521, he said.
Damrell said he hadn’t heard any talk of declaring the District 4 seat vacant. The district includes most of Modesto. Damrell said if that were to happen some time in the next several months, he would ask the governor’s office to consider him for an appointment to the seat.
Berryhill’s absence drew a reaction from people who posted Facebook comments in reaction to a Modesto Bee report on the swearing-in ceremony.
“Absolutely infuriating,” wrote Steven Finch. “Modesto voted for an empty chair.”
Chris Murphy of Modesto wrote that Damrell would have hit the ground running if he had been elected. “Sad when people vote pure party vs. voting for someone who will dive in and take action and work hard for our district.”
Joey Rizotto countered: “Not fair to judge him (Berryhill) without knowing why he was unable to attend.”
Removing a non-performing elected official from office is difficult and time-consuming. A recall is one remedy. In the early 1990s, the city of Modesto reluctantly took legal action to remove then-councilman Richard Patterson, who was hospitalized and absent for 18 months following a pair of strokes in December 1993.
Patterson ultimately resigned in July 1995 and the city dropped the lawsuit.
Officials said the county counsel is researching legal questions, such as: What is the legal time frame for swearing-in a supervisor and the process for declaring a seat vacant if necessary.
“We need to figure out what is going on,” Withrow said. “If he is sick, we hope the best. But we need to figure out what the plan is. I know we are checking into all that. This is unprecedented for us. We are trying to find out what the rules are.”