By CHRIS SMITH
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
For years on end, it wasn’t a Sonoma County Board of Supervisors meeting without a gravelly plea for fiscal restraint by old-school Bennett Valley rancher Bill Pisenti.
Pisenti, the John Birch Society member and anti-tax crusader who died Wednesday at nearly 97, lost many battles and often felt dismissed in generally liberal Sonoma County. But he went to his grave knowing he’d helped to pass and preserve Proposition 13.
“If we crow about it,” wrote the nearly lifelong resident of Santa Rosa in a guest editorial in The Press Democrat in 2003, “it is simply to inform people that it does pay to stand up and fight for what you believe is fair.”
Gruff and typically dressed as if he’d come from the barn, Pisenti was also a man with a deep appreciation of opera. Despite his stony views on taxation and government spending, he wore a ready smile and swapped stories even with his most extreme adversaries.
“He attended all our board meetings unless he was ill,” recalled retired left-leaning supervisor Ernie Carpenter, who represented the 5th District from 1980 through 1996.
“He was a crusty, old, irate taxpayer, but he was consistent and actually had a big heart,” Carpenter added. He remembered coming upon Pisenti in a wheelchair at last year’s Sonoma County Fair and his former foe saying, “We didn’t always agree, but we got along.”
Retired 2nd District supervisor Jim Harberson characterized Pisenti as a true, to-the-bone conservative “untainted by other influences.”
“He believed what he believed and he stuck to it the whole time,” said Harberson, who served on the Board from 1984 through 1998. “There is no doubt that Prop. 13 was his Bible.”
Pisenti didn’t simply advocate or vote for Proposition 13, the 1978 ballot initiative that amended the California Constitution to limit property tax rates. He worked alongside primary authors and proponents Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis.
Pisenti also appeared often before the Santa Rosa City Council to argue for less government and fewer taxes.
“You can’t go on charging extra fees. There are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay,” he pleaded before the council voted 5-to-2 to jack up residents’ water bills by 8 percent in 1997.
William Woodrow Pisenti was born in Pleasanton in 1917 as the ninth of 14 children of James and Rose Pisenti. He was 5 when his parents moved the clan to Santa Rosa.
The Great Depression was on when Pisenti quit Santa Rosa High School to help his family get by. He earned $30 a month as a live-in worker on one of Santa Rosa Valley’s many dairies.
He praised his parents for teaching him many valuable lessons, among them “to live with gusto — yet to be content with the little things.”
In 1934, Pisenti was a member of the crew at the Beach Dairy on what would become Summerfield Road. His eldest sister, Ann, had married into the ranching family.
In February of ’34, Pisenti rode with the Beaches to a dance at the Bennett Valley Grange, an organization that would benefit right up today from the support and participation of the Pisenti family. At the dance that night, Bill Pisenti met the love of his life, Perina Mazzetta.
They married in September 1938. Bill Pisenti went to work delivering gas for the fuel company owned by his brothers Joe and Walt. He switched later to working for Flying A Gas and then sold cars, first for the Lincoln, Mercury/Nash Rambler dealership and then the Bishop-Hansel Ford.
Throughout World War II, Pisenti served in the Home Guard. Shortly after the war, in 1948, he and Perina bought a piece of land on a bend on rural Bennett Valley Road and called it Rock Hill Ranch.
They reared three children there. And they raised, on the 16 acres, hogs, veal calves and sheep.
For decades, Bill Pisenti poured energy into taxpayer organizations, the Bennett Valley Fire Department, the grange and its credit union and numerous Italian-American groups. He served as an usher at many Masses at St. Rose Church and then St. Eugene’s Cathedral.
Through his long retirement, Pisenti boarded horses and treated seriously his role as a watcher of Board of Supervisors and the Santa Rosa City Council, and a stalwart of conservative ideals.
Come Election Night, he’d stake out a piece of real estate at the county office where votes are counted and hold it until the end.
“My mother would get angry with him for this because she was at home and had to answer the many phone calls he received from people asking how he was going to vote on the issues,” said daughter Gloria Anderson of Santa Rosa.
Pisenti’s daughter added, “He had his opinions and his ideas and he stood up for them. He didn’t care who was against him. And he did have a good heart, I can tell you that.”
Through most of his life, Pisenti found refuge and wonder in opera music. It was a passion shared by his son, William Jr., who sang for a time with several West Coast opera companies.
The younger Pisenti recalled, “My father and I traveled to New York City to attend the operas at the old Metropolitan Opera House before it was torn down.”
Perina Pisenti died in 1987. Bill Pisenti continued to live on the ranch until failing health forced his move into a Santa Rosa convalescent hospital about a year ago.
Pisenti is survived by his son and daughter in Santa Rosa and by sister Ann Burow of Santa Rosa, brothers Allen Pisenti of Santa Rosa and Eugene Pisenti of Chico, a grandson and two great-granddaughters.
Recitation of the Rosary will be at 6 p.m. June 19. A Funeral Mass will be celebrated at 1 p.m. June 20 at St. Eugene’s Cathedral. Interment will be at Calvary Catholic Cemetery.
Pisenti’s family suggests memorial contributions to St. Eugene’s Cathedral, the American Heart Association, the St. Vincent de Paul Society or favorite charities.