Ex-Council Member is New Face of Sargent

Bob Dillon hired as spokesman for Sargent Ranch development
Gilroy – Robert T. Dillon, a former city councilman and recent addition to the Dispatch editorial board, has been hired to serve as the public face for efforts to develop Sargent Ranch, more than 6,000 acres of untouched hills and streams just south of Gilroy.

Dillon, who lost his November re-election bid but retains strong ties to council members and civic leaders, was hired in January to serve as a local spokesman and liaison by San Diego-based developer Wayne Pierce.

Several years ago, Pierce withdrew a proposal to build golf courses and hundreds of hillside homes on the property in the face of resistance from Santa Clara County supervisors. He has instead forged a pact with one of two rival factions of the Amah Mutsun Indian Tribe in hopes of developing up to 3,000 acres of the group’s ancestral lands. The deal hinges on the Amah Mutsun gaining federal recognition as a legitimate tribe and placing Sargent Ranch under their sovereignty, outside the control of county regulators.

Dillon is the latest addition to a lobbying team with access to congress and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Wayne contacted me in the last part of January and asked if I was interested in working for the tribe with the local political people,” Dillon said. “I was interested, but I wanted to see the documents and stuff they had so far.”

He spent a week reading hundreds of pages sent to federal officials in support of the tribe’s claim to legitimacy and its ties to land around San Juan Bautista Mission, where thousands of Amah Mutsun lived before being rounded up and converted to Christianity under Spanish rule.

He said the tribe’s promises about the future struck him as much as its past.

“The thing that stuck out to me is that gambling is specifically forbidden by the tribal constitution and the business plan,” Dillon said. “The reason I like the Amah Mutsun petition (for federal recognition) is because they’re talking about Sargent Ranch and that is their ancestral land.”

But the legitimacy of the tribe’s connection to the land has drawn far less attention than the internal rivalry among its leaders. Pierce has placed his stake with Irenne Zwierlein, who organized the tribe’s government in the early ’90s but resigned under pressure in 2000, after members began questioning her management of the tribe and its finances.

Rival leader Val Lopez says his faction hopes to preserve the vast majority of Sargent Ranch. He has accused Zwierlein of striking development deals without proper authority from the tribe’s membership – a claim Zwierlein denies.

The feud has been further complicated by Lopez’s allegations that forged documents were sent to federal officials in order to cloud the history of the tribal split and bolster Zwierlein’s claim to legitimacy. She has denied any responsibility for the forgeries and insists that she remains the rightful leader of the Amah Mutsun.

The forgery claims, first published in the Dispatch last August, prompted U.S. Representative Richard Pombo (R – Tracy) to stall legislation that could fast-track the tribe’s recognition efforts. Shortly after, investigators at the U.S. Department of the Interior opened an inquiry to trace the source of the documents.

“The forgery is a subject of great concern. There’s no doubt about that. A federal investigation is under way and we feel that will resolve itself by showing that no one in the San Juan (Bautista) Band was involved,” Dillon said, referring to Zwierlein’s faction.

“The recognition of the tribe is a matter of justice,” he added. “Which faction winds up as the tribal council is kind of secondary to that goal.”

Dillon, who declined to specify his salary for serving as Pierce’s local representative, said he landed the job because of his pro-development council record and past writings as a columnist for the Dispatch. Dillon was widely expected to cruise to re-election last fall but ended up finishing last in a five-man field. He blames the loss on a strategic mistake – omitting a ballot message to Gilroy’s 17,000-plus voters in an effort to save the city $1,500. Dillon joined the Dispatch editorial board earlier this year.

Despite working on behalf of a controversial development effort, Dispatch Executive Editor Mark Derry and Publisher Steve Staloch decided to let Dillon remain at the newspaper.

“He’s going to stay on the editorial board but clearly he won’t be allowed to discuss anything related to Wayne Pierce and the Sargent Ranch development,” Derry said.

Pierce, who did not return a call for comment late Wednesday, has said he no longer plans to build golf courses and hillside homes on the property. Last year, he said plans could include housing for senior citizens, but has not disclosed additional details.

Sargent Ranch is one of three major developments that could rise south of Gilroy in comings years. DMB Associates recently announced plans to build 6,800 homes off Highway 25, a few miles southeast of Gilroy. The Arizona-based developer also announced it has purchased 7,000 acres immediately to the south of the first project site, though it has not yet decided on plans for the area.

South Valley officials are collaborating with leaders in San Benito County, where the DMB projects are located, to address environmental and traffic concerns related to the projects.

Gilroy City Councilman Craig Gartman, who campaigned with Dillon and remains a close friend, said the former councilman is perfectly positioned to aid those efforts.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for both sides because Bob understands the issues facing the city and region, and this is a person who can take those issues to the developer and be able to work with him concerning it,” he said. “I think it’s good for the city.”

Mayor Al Pinheiro expressed a more cautious opinion.

“I think if there’s anyone that knows our community it’s Bob,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Bob, but the city comes first and Bob now has an interest that’s different than when he sat with me as a colleague.”

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