Wind In The Plastic

by Mark Scaramella, April 13, 2011

Unremarked at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting were several bracing personal snipes of the purely gratuitous type at a prominent Arcata-based PhD fisheries biologist named Dr. Patrick Higgins.

During what should have been a routine discussion of ten carefully vetted proposals assembled by the County’s Fish and Game Commission, funded largely out of poaching fines, supervisors Carre Brown and John McCowen said they didn’t like Higgins' proposal number 6, a simple water temperature monitoring project on a couple of tributaries on the southern fork of the Eel River.

Higgins’ modest project would “place at least 20 automated temperature sensing devices to assess stream temperature" to see if the water was cold enough for embattled salmon and steelhead to thrive in. Or merely survive in.

The sensors would be installed with the close cooperation of the Mendocino County Water Agency, California Department of Fish and Game, PG&E, and private property owners. Temperature data back to 1995 are available for the study area; new data demonstrating that the water was warming might then indicate that stream flow be torqued upwards for the health of the few fish who've survived the relentless assaults of contemporary claims on the water.

Supervisor Brown: “It’s not that I don’t like [Higgins]. I don’t know him. But I dislike the way he uses and twists, uh, true science into political science. I want to see the money spent wisely and I don’t think… As a contractor, I do not think he should get the money. Good contract, wrong contractor.”

Supervisor McCowen: “I cannot support Number 6, because I can accept that Mr. Higgins is passionate — but he has proven himself to be very inaccurate in the way that he uses or misuses the data and he makes very outrageous statements and draws conclusions that are not supported by the data. I simply can’t support funding that particular project.”

Neither Brown nor McCowen offered any examples to back their damning of Higgins.

Supervisor Hamburg defended the biologist.

“I’ve known him for 20 years. I know him personally. I like him. He’s a zealot for fish. We’ve had zealots for lots of things. I understand why a lot of people don’t like Pat Higgins. He’s flamboyant, he likes to talk, he likes to hear himself talk, but he’s also a top-notch scientist.”

Supervisor Brown interrupted Hamburg: “But he misuses the information!”

Hamburg: “Well, you know, that’s your interpretation. That’s your interpretation of a lot of people.”

Ouch!

We contacted Dr. Higgins in Arcata and asked him if he cared to respond to the criticisms of his work by McCowen and Brown.

“I have been an independent consulting fisheries biologist since 1989 and am an expert on salmon and steelhead restoration,” replied Higgins. “I wrote the paper that first raised the issue of Pacific salmon extinction risk. I have a long history of showing patterns in data that negatively effect fish and public trust resources. It doesn't pay as well as working for moneyed interests, but something in my Irish nature finds the work more satisfying. I have also put together a regional fisheries, water quality and watershed information system that covers two-thirds of Northwest California (www.krisweb.com). I am very well versed and, there-fore, a formidable opponent. I have never been proven to make any false scientific statement and those who oppose me are usually vested interests that resort to character attacks. I never make any assertions in my papers that are not based on data. I invite Ms. Brown or others to challenge the scientific basis of any piece of my work. I suspect that the problems are regarding papers I have written on land and water use and declining fisheries resources (see www.pathiggins.org). I have raised societal questions about the relative worth of a rebuilt salmon run in the Eel versus 9 megawatts of power."

(Carre Brown lives in and represents Potter Valley and other downstream areas, as does McCowen. If the Eel River Diversion at Potter is reduced or, horrors! eliminated, there goes free water for all their constituents.)

Higgins continues. “Water Use: There are huge problems with epidemic, illegal water use that are ignored by the State Water Resources Control Board Water Rights Division."

(I.e. Potter Valley ranchers and farmers who've enjoyed free Eel River water for a hundred years and, lately, the downstream wine industry that thinks they, too, are entitled to endless free water for their entirely destructive and superfluous "industry.")

“That said, too bad the Mendocino Fish and Game Commission decisions got politicized. The proposal was to measure water temperature in Eel River tributaries in Mendocino County. I had a lot of grassroots support for taking the pulse of creeks from streamside landowners concerned about deteriorating conditions. I helped with an Eel River basin-wide water quality survey back in 1995-1996 and water temperature data are available since then. I was also going to look at temperature trends to see if there have been patterns of change. I was closely coordinating with local and state agencies and prepared to organize and share data with them for on-going use. I also am very curious as to whether there are improvements locally in the upper main-stem Eel River as surface and ground water connections improve due to reduction of fine sediment in stream gravels. A lot of bang for the buck.”

Dr. Higgins, then, is rightly regarded as an ongoing threat to the continuing diversion of Eel River water into Ms. Brown’s free water-dependent Potter Valley and Mr. McCowen’s free water-dependent grape growers strung out along the Russian River. McCowen has fervently lobbied the State Water Resources Control Board to go easy on the grape growers on the subject of fish protection and water flow regulation.

Supervisor John Pinches didn’t like Proposal #6 either, but avoided lobbing personal insults at Higgins. So, on a 3-2 vote (Smith and Hamburg dissenting) Proposal #6 was 86’d.

It’s one thing to lobby for your political and financial supporters. But it’s quite another to take personal potshots at a well-respected scientist, outside his presence, in a public forum about a minor and uncontroversial project without even offering a single example of his alleged deficiencies.

* * *

Prior to taking his seat on the Board, Supervisor Hamburg took great pains to praise his predecessor, Supervisor David Colfax for his “incredible contributions to this county for so many years in education and in politics,” which Hamburg “deeply respected,” failing to cite any of Colfax's "incredible contributions" because, other than engineering a huge pay raise for the supervisors, there weren't any. Colfax’s constant demands for more money for himself still bleeds the taxpayers of Mendocino County to the tune of over $20k per year in Colfax’s jacked-up pension.

So it’s not surprising that Hamburg seems to be taking up the challenge of maintaining as much money for himself as possible even though the County is in an even deeper hole than when Colfax was supervisor.

The Supes were discussing their own budget unit out of which burbles their magic salaries and the lushly generous perks that flow with them including the County’s share of their retirement contributions.

“When David Colfax came on this board he was very determined to raise the level of pay for County Supervisors in Mendocino County to something commensurate with other counties,” began Hamburg, failing to mention that the “other counties” always conveniently include the much bigger Sonoma which pays its Supervisors much more than Mendo could ever afford. “And I think that’s kind of where we are. I don’t think we pay our board of supervisors disproportionately more than other counties of our size. And I think there’s a good rationale for paying, uh, uh, a reasonable amount to Supervisors. For one thing I think Supervisors, you know, even at $68k, are not particularly highly paid for what they are asked to do.”

$68k a year is “Not particularly highly paid…”

Then Hamburg took a sideways shot at you-know-who.

“And I know there… it’s always good sport for the media, um, you know, particularly certain media in the County, to say, you know, well, it’s not like minin’ coal. Well, it’s true, it’s not like mining coal, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a hard job and I would not like to see us go back to the situation I was in when I ran for supervisor in the 80s, uh, there were many, many years when I was on the board when the pay was under $30,000 a year and try raising a family on under $30,000, I mean, even in the 80s it was extremely tough.”

Boo bleeping hoo, and pass the hankies.

The average family of four in this peculiar sea of trustafarians and dope magnates known as Mendocino County is lucky to net $30,000 a year, and that's with mom and dad both working at jobs that don't involve going to meetings all day and drinking coffee with comparably overpaid bureaucrats.

That’s right Supervisor — disputing pay raises for politicians is just “the media” having fun, not legitimate criticism in the face of what you, yourself constantly remind us: “There’s no money — that’s a fact.”

Hamburg Colfaxed on: “And we know what’s happening with our currency and our spending power, so, we’re, so, you know, there are some people on this board who, um, you know, have other sources of income, you know, came to this job with, you know, with a good amount of income, I just don’t want this to become a position where only people of means dare apply because that’s exactly what Supervisor Colfax, who, I think this was a gutsy thing he did because it didn’t make him popular, in fact it made him the object of ridicule, with certain elements of the media in Mendocino County, but he felt strongly about that, that there is good rationale for paying, um, members of the Board of Supervisors a reasonable salary that’s commensurate with the salary that’s paid in other counties and although I agree with Supervisor McCowen, it would be, you know, a ‘good thing’ if all board members took the same, uh, voluntary salary cuts, uh, we don’t all come to this job necessarily with some more means. I mean no pejorative about any member of this board who’s not going to, um, take less than the salary that I consider to be pretty modest, uh, given the amount of respon… uh, we’re running a quarter of a billion operation here and if people don’t think that it takes a lot of work, and a certain amount of knowledge and experience and discretion and all kinds of things to do this job, then they ought to try running for it and if they’re fortunate enough to win, try doing it because it takes a lot of skill, so, um, I guess those are my comments for the moment.”

Truly pathetic.

The ancient Mendolib argument that to attract people like ourselves we've got to dangle a lot of money at their excellencies, never mind that we all ran for these jobs like starving rats to piles of Velveeta when it paid peanuts.

Public defender (and attorney union president) Carly Dolan put it nicely last week that the County's publicly-paid lawyers "will accept whatever cut the board is willing to give itself as a permanent pay reduction.”

I.e., none.

The Board, with Hamburg leading the charge, decided to “voluntarily” give back 10% of their $68k salaries (about the same salary as Ms. Dolan, an experienced attorney makes). The Board carefully avoided considering an actual salary cut, which wouldn’t even take effect this year, because it might mean that the County’s share of their majesties’ pension contribution would also be saved.

One Supervisor, and guess who? Board Chair Kendall Smith, steadfastly refuses to even take the voluntary 10% pay cut that her colleagues have taken, droning on at her usual length about how “we are underpaid at $68,000 a year.”

It may be cruel to say this in black and white, but Ms. Smith, in a just world, would be fortunate to get work delivering roadkill pizzas. Except for her pseudo-bureaucratic lingo, she has no brains and no skills, which may account for her job with Congressman Thompson, but what weird kind of cosmic curse inflicted her on Mendocino County?

Whatever “certain elements” of the media or Hamburg may think about Board member salaries, you can be certain that County employees are keeping a very close watch on what the Board does, making the Board’s faith-based hope that the budget may be balanced by “wage concessions” highly unlikely.

Morale among Mendocino County employees, in all departments, is at an all time low as workloads increase while the Supervisors impose pay cuts that they them-selves not only won’t take, but won't take because they're entitled to because they're, well, they are them.

* * *

Sheriff Tom Allman briefed the Board on his budget status.

There wasn’t much new or hopeful in All-man’s report. Overtime has been reduced (but with some increases in Jail overtime due to staff shortages), asset forfeiture funds have been used to cover some drug-enforcement related overtime, and staff has been reduced by 24 since 2009. Three more are slated to depart before June ends.

Some additional money may be coming in from dispensary permits, zip-ties and marijuana eradication fees charged to growers who get caught with big grows. But permit fee revenue is nowhere near the level that Super-visor McCowen or Sheriff Allman (among others) had expected. (McCowen had optimistically predicted in the range of $600k to $800k as late as last month. Of course that prediction occurred when the most successful growers were still on winter holidays in Bali and Costa Rica.

When asked by Supervisor Hamburg about the marijuana permit sales, Allman replied that 46 people have signed up for cooperatives so far, which would translate to about $276k. However, Allman noted, they have not all paid yet; some of the 46 have signed up for third party inspections, but there’s no guarantee they’ll all go through the full permit application routine and pay upwards of $6,000 each.

Another testy exchange between the Sheriff and Supervisor Hamburg then unfolded which Supervisor McCowen subsequently described, with diplomatic understatement, as “unproductive.”

Hamburg said that the Sheriff’s office is still at 700 hours a week of overtime, noting, “This indicates some real — I’m not blaming anybody — but that does not compute — hundreds of thousands of dollars of unnecessary expenditure.”

Allman: “I’ll take umbrage at ‘unnecessary’ expenditure, Supervisor. I don’t tell you how to be a Supervisor; you don’t tell me how to be a Sheriff.”

Hamburg: “All I’m saying is that 700 hours of over-time does not make sense from a budgetary point of view.”

Allman: “I guarantee you that overtime would go away if we had the proper staffing to go to homicides, to go to burglaries, to go to rapes, to go to arsons, to staff 3,510 square miles in this county. But we don’t. We’re at 1968 staffing levels.”

Hamburg: “But we don’t have the money, Tom.”

Allman: “I provided the information you asked for three months ago. So if you’re going to chastise the Sheriff’s Office for doing our job and giving public safety to citizens in this county, you, supervisor, are not listening to what the citizens are saying. The citizens are saying, let’s keep our public safety where it is.”

Hamburg: “All I’m saying is that if wishes were fishes there’d be plenty of money to fund your department and every other department in this county. But wishes aren’t fishes and we don’t have the money to fund your department at the level we’ve been funding it. This is an old story. We’ve been talking about this for month after month after month.”

Allman: “Thank you, Supervisor.”

Hamburg: “Talk up here does not change that fact. Facts are facts. Sorry.”

Allman: “The sheets in front of you are facts.

In the section called “Looking Forward,” Allman reports, “The Sheriff is currently working with the Executive Office to explore the possible consolidation of facilities. Such consolidations could save significant costs for leases and utilities for the Sheriff’s Office, as well as other departments. Despite enormous amounts of time and energy being devoted to the Sheriff’s budget, the amount of funding provided to the Sheriff is still well below the cost of providing an ever-decreasing level of service. There is no magical solution. Either the Board of Supervisors must increase its funding allocation to the Sheriff, the Sheriff must decrease costs (staffing), or some combination of those two alternatives.”

This prompted Smith to comment:

“This is a review of the status quo. But it doesn’t say how these will be mitigated. You mentioned $346k [marijuana permits plus eradication fees]. But that’s not a mitigation plan. … Your ‘Looking Forward’ section is very boilerplate, not dollars and sense about where we need to go. We need more concrete information for the game plan.”

Allman: “The game plan for the future is represented by the game plan from the past. We’ve reduced our expenditures by such an enormous amount that I think you can count on the Sheriff’s Office to continue to reduce our budget. Murder is $100k each and that’s done on overtime because we don’t have the staffing to solve homicides or double fatalities or things like that. Law enforcement is not a predictable force except for what the computer tells us and we do our staffing at the right levels. You asked for this, I gave it to you. You’re not happy with this, I don’t know what to say. Our printing press is broken. I don’t have an answer other than to show you what we’re doing — and we’re doing a lot. To the men and women of the Sheriff’s Office: I’m extremely proud of the sacrifices they’ve made. I’m extremely proud of the mileage they’ve cut. I’m extremely proud of the decisions they’ve made to issue citations to prisoners instead of arresting them because of the cost. But apparently there’s other people who don’t understand the dedication and the commitment that these employees have who are really trying to make it work.”

Smith: “That’s where I think you’re wrong.”

Allman: “We can agree to disagree.”

Smith: “You say there are people who don’t under-stand. I do understand. I do thank them as you do. But without your concrete report, it lacks the next step as to the mitigation and factors that you’re proposing. If you don’t give us anything, we have nothing to do but go to the CEO for her recommendations, because she has to balance the budget. So without your proposals, she is really forced to produce them.”

Allman: “And it’s my job to produce public safety. If you’re going to force us to go against each other, Madam Chair, the CEO and myself, we’ll do it. We both have our jobs to do and we’ll do it. The CEO and I are working together to mitigate this. … If you put the CEO in the position of saying, ‘Sheriff you have to lay off people,’ you’re going to build that wall up. We’re going to get into the lawyer talk again and that’s a waste of time and energy. But for now, we’re making it work.”

Smith: “We need tangible written material for how we go forward next year.”

Allman: “We cannot afford to reduce the Sheriff’s Office budget any further without compromising public safety and have your constituents say, Really? Is it time for me to buy the gun? Is it time for me to arm my kids? Is it time to buy extra locks? I don’t want to cause that panic.”

The $68k-per-year board members wasted a couple of hours discussing a countywide plastic bag ban proposal without noting that the Ukiah WalMart, and WalMarts everywhere, have already banned plastic bags. Of course if Walmart banned plastic its shelves would be empty, but I bring it up because in this County the liberals always make it seem that their nambo-pambo stances are so cutting edge when really, my dears, hide that joint because here come the Blue Meanies. It’s months away and will have exceptions and phase-ins and plenty of blah-blah. The two hours of discussion added nothing to the proposal.

CEO Carmel Angelo summarized the budget situation, and it doesn’t look good for the Sheriff’s budget: “We have a workshop coming up soon. 27 of the County’s 387 vacancies are in the Sheriff’s Office [implying that the Sheriff’s Department has not taken its share of the cuts]. We will have a layoff/position elimination list by May 17. We have a $6-$8 million shortfall next year. Half of that is in public safety, including retirement cost. I hope to have the list agreed to by the Sheriff’s Office.”

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