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Town divided over center

If not for a 1976 recall that reversed a Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors' majority, the Tuolumne County Administration Center (left), next to the courthouse in downtown Sonora, might have been built on Greenley Road. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).
If not for a 1976 recall that reversed a Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors' majority, the Tuolumne County Administration Center (left), next to the courthouse in downtown Sonora, might have been built on Greenley Road. (Amy Alonzo/Copyright 2003, The Union Democrat).

This is the second of a three-part series on recall elections that have occurred in Tuolumne County. Yesterday, the long history of recalls in the county. Monday: Two county supervisors targeted by recall. Just one survives.

By CHRIS BATEMAN

How did the Tuolumne County offices built in the late 1970s and early '80s come to be next to the historic courthouse?

The choice of sites, it turned out, had its roots in a tumultuous, explosive recall election held more than a quarter century ago. That election almost literally moved millions of dollars-worth of buildings.

By the mid-1970s, a controversy that had been simmering for at least a decade had come to a full boil. That's when a change in the board of supervisors' majority reversed long-held county plans to build new offices in downtown Sonora.

This change of course was more than the then-extremely active Tuolumne County Taxpayers Association could take. In early 1976, it launched recall campaigns against Supervisors Delbert Rotelli of Sonora and M. E. "Benk" Benkula of Brentwood Park.

Their sin? Along with Supervisor Billy Marr, the two favored a new administration center on a Greenley Road parcel where the county library and senior center now sit.

Every move this bare board majority made was contested by not only the two-member minority (Supervisors Ralph Thiel and Tilio Chiappelli), but by the taxpayers association and a vehement coalition of downtown Sonora residents and merchants.

If the county offices were moved, opponents contended, central Sonora — then an economically healthy cross-section of drug, hardware, clothing, furniture and variety stores, restaurants and offices — would wither and die.

As the 1970s began, the need for more county office space was more than obvious. Although the county built a new jail and sheriff's office in 1961 and nine years earlier had purchased the Rose Court (a collection of small offices where the A.N. Francisco Building now stands), the 1898 courthouse was jammed.

For close to a decade, supervisors had considered various expansion plans near the courthouse. But funding and property glitches seemed to stall each one.


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