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Peaceful end for once ferocious watchdog group

The Tuolumne County Taxpayers Association is no more.

After 76 years of public involvement and political activism, the association went out with a whimper. Jerry Morrow, the once-powerful organization's president, announced its demise at last week's Board of Supervisors meeting.

The cause of death?

Apathy.

Once a ferocious government watchdog with membership of more than 1,700, the association's rolls had dwindled to "10 or 15 people at the most," reported Morrow. Association meetings, which once packed public boardrooms, in the past few months could barely fill a living room.

"People don't want to get involved and participate," said Morrow, telling supervisors that the Taxpayers had trouble finding young members to replace those who had died or had become too old to participate. "It's really a shame."

The few remaining members bequeathed $1,512.57 left in the association treasury to the Sheriff"s Office for recruiting, but that is paltry compared to the price of doing without an engaged and involved citizenry.

Although newcomers may not know it, the Taxpayers Association, in its prime, was a case study on how effective ordinary people can be in influencing the course of government.

If it weren't for the association, the Tuolumne County Administration Center and the A.N. Francisco Building — which now flank the historic county courthouse in downtown Sonora and are all but taken for granted — might not be there.

In the mid-1970s a three-member majority on the county board decided it wanted to build a new multi-million dollar government center east of town. Despite long and loud protest by angry crowds who filled the old courthouse boardroom weekly, the thin majority persisted: The county bought acreage off Greenley Road near the present county library and hired an architect to draw up plans for the new center.

That's when the Tuolumne County Taxpayers Association stepped in: After the board rejected its pleas to put the location of new county building on the ballot, the association in early 1976 launched recall campaigns against two of the three supervisors backing the Greenley move.

One recall succeeded — in June voters replaced Delbert Rotelli, a pro-Greenley supervisor, with Mildred Filiberti — and the majority shifted. Voters also favored downtown expansion in a November election and the new board never looked back.

Thanks to the Taxpayers Association, the Administration Center opened its doors in 1979, and in 1982 the Francisco Building did the same.

Back then the association was respected, feared and influential. Not only did it take action to right wrongs, but its members kept a keen eye on local government and prided themselves on seeing through platitudes and double talk to the essence of a proposal or decision.

It was not a one-issue, special interest organization, like so many involved in politics today.

Issues tackled over the association's long history have included water district reorganization, U.S. Forest Service timber policy, parcel map and zoning rules, deficit spending, court consolidation, school unification, educational spending, highway projects and more.

"A united force in our community, with and for the people, to provide a more efficient and wisely spent tax dollar," is how Association President John Matkin described his organization in 1974.

"An advisory committee to the powers that be," was 1959 President Ed Jasper's description.

And the words of Jerry Morrow, the latest and maybe last association president, ring just as true: The association's demise is indeed a "shame," and a sad comment on a community that seems increasingly detached from its government.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.


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