The Big Nurse & The Mother Of All Ukiah Eyesores

by Mark Scaramella, May 25, 2011

A mutinous parade of disgusted County employees took the forum during the public expression portion of last Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting to complain about the Board’s recent declaration of “impasse” in the labor negotiations between the County and them as represented by the Service Employees International Union.

Helen Michael bluntly declared: “Impasse? Baloney!” — pointing out that the county has failed to provide information regarding savings already achieved through concessions and mandatory time off. Ms. Michael said the union was certainly not at any impasse and had proposed a series of contract changes that would save money and they were willing to discuss more.

“This is movement, not impasse,” declared Ms. Michael, adding that the 20% reduction the County wants to impose on her fellow workers would result in $400 a month less pay on average, which would hit lower paid employees particularly hard.

“We certainly don’t make the $77,000 average being used as a savings number,” Ms. Michael said. “That’s closer to what you all make.”

Candy Prairie, an intake worker for Social Services pointed to a big sign with a list of dozens of names.

“This is a list of the workers who have left in the last year. We want to know how much salary savings that has produced. You have provided no answers to the questions which would enable negotiations. The process has been working. Impasse is premature. We are perplexed. We need answers to make intelligent decisions. Things were moving along nicely before impasse was declared. Let’s get back to the table. Why is the extension of [CEO] Carmel [Angelo’s] contract on consent? Her contract doesn’t expire until 2012. Funding is an issue everywhere.”

CEO Angelo, a nurse by training, Big Nurse in practice, recently saw her lush contract renewed for another four years via the automatic, undiscussed consent calendar route. The Board's thinking seems to be that "The devil you know..."

Employee Barbie Swenson was even more blunt.

“Why ask employees to take a 20% reduction when the Board doesn’t lead by example? You claim that your salaries need to be left alone so that you are able to attract qualified people, but when compared to other people, salaries do not compare. We actually have the same problem with positions at the line staff level. We’ve been losing very qualified and experienced staff and leadership due to this same issue. If you can’t afford to do this, how do you think we can? Too much information is being filtered out of some reports that the Board is receiving. I believe that for the leaders of our county, the best decisions can be made by having 100% of program information by funding sources.

“For example, when a position from the Public Guardian Administrator was cut, the CEO and Board did not truly understand the funding stream. Once that information was supplied the Board was able to realize that it was a revenue-generating position and the decision to cut was overturned. Most positions in Social Services draw from the same revenue generating stream, so it doesn’t make sense to cut these positions by any percentage because in turn the County will be losing more revenue, thus sending our county into a spiral of more cuts and less revenue every year. How can you justify penalizing programs with a positive fiscal impact? The Health and Human Services staff did MTO for a year and a half. This was supposed to offset the deficit. Yet, each year the deficit continues to grow and we are asked to continue to take cuts. Other bargaining units did not take the MTO. Other departments did not take MTO. Department heads chose not to take any cuts. Leadership in the County didn’t take any cuts. So why is line staff repeatedly asked to take a greater cut than leadership in our County?”

Ms. Swenson stared intently at Supervisors as she waited for one of them to respond.

The Supervisors stared silently back at her. No comment.

“Thank you,” Ms. Swenson, fully aware she was in Wimp City, walked briskly back to her seat.

SEIU Business Agent Jackie Carvallo told the Board she’d heard a lot of opinions regarding the renewal of the CEO’s contract from her membership.

“This has nothing to do with Ms. Angelo,” said Carvallo. “But a three year extension is not non-controversial. It sends a mixed message that we’re not all in this together and we’re not all equals. We are only offered a one year contract. We deserve similar consideration.”

Again, no comment from any board members.

Board Chair Kendall Smith, however, did pull the CEO contract item from the consent calendar, drawing complaints from Supervisor John Pinches, and Supervisor Carre Brown who was uncharacteristically gruff when she complained, “I object to number 5 being pulled.”

Smith tried to explain, “The Board should be able to explain why it’s taking the action that it is and the contractual obligations.”

Supervisor Pinches was also annoyed that the CEO’s contract was removed from the consent calendar:

“I totally disagree,” Pinches grumbled to Smith. “We should approve this contract today. That’s why it’s on the consent calendar.”

Supervisor John McCowen clarified:

“This is a sensitive issue at this particular time when we are still in negotiations with one bargaining unit. We recently had a closed session regarding the evaluation of the CEO. One can infer that this is related to our negotiations. The CEO draws heat from the public and the employees. But it should be directed at the Board. These positions are the Board’s, not the CEO’s. It could have been handled better. But this Board is unanimous in supporting the CEO. It’s unfortunate that the CEO’s complete contract was not in the agenda materials. The only change is to extend the contract. There’s no increase to compensation or benefits. The question has been raised, Why no cut? Well, the previous CEO got $180,000 [a year]. Ms. Angelo took a $30,000 cut to $150,000, or about a 16.67% cut. Others took 10% or 12.5%. So she has already been cut more than any other position.”

Smith thought the Board should postpone the item until more information was made available to the public, but Pinches stoutly disagreed again, saying, “Nothing more needs to be said about it.”

Supervisor Dan Hamburg pointed out that the County has suffered through a high turnover of CEOs over the last decade. “It’s important to choose and retain a competent CEO,” said Hamburg, bluntly adding in an apparent contradiction to his reputation as somewhat of a populist, that the CEO’s contract “is not a matter for public discussion. It’s a decision made by the Board in closed session. Information about the CEO’s contract is not necessary.”

Smith fatuously described her fellow Supes’ remarks as “excellent comments.”

County resident Don Crawford took to the podium to tell that Board that Ms. Angelo “took the job at a certain pay. She wasn’t cut in her own pay. And OK, if it’s not the CEO who’s responsible for the state of affairs, then it’s on each one of you. If you can rest comfortably with that stance [imposing a 20% cut for employees] then it’s you who will have to answer the questions when the system begins to unravel.”

McCowen insisted that the position of CEO had taken a 16.7% pay cut.

However, more than one County official has told us off the record that the whole discussion misses the point. Former CEO Tom Mitchell, who everyone admits did a poor job, was more qualified, at least on paper and in terms of his experience, to be a CEO than Ms. Angelo — Mitchell was a CPA, had a master’s in public administration, and had been a CEO in another California County. As so often occurs in the higher paying public jobs, his high pay rate reflected his background if not his ability. Ms. Angelo has no advanced degree, no admin or management experience, and has a background as a public health nurse. Yet she’s still earning $150k a year and has not taken a cut — in fact she took a promotion from department head to CEO which came with a significant $30,000 or so pay increase. Angelo made her bones as a department head where she demonstrated an almost gleeful willingness to decapitate line workers. Her nurse's fearlessness in bloody circumstances seems to have won her the County's top job.

The Supervisors, in a rare demonstration of unanimous collegiality voted 5-0 in full support for Ms. Angelo and to give her the three-year contract extension, which also includes a $400 per month car allowance, full mileage for out of county travel (she owns a home somewhere to the south), the maximum vacation allowed for exempt (privileged) employees, and payment of 75% of the County’s group medical insurance policy.

* * *

The Board listened to a presentation about the “very fragile” state of Emergency Services in the County and the possibility of proposing a parcel tax to help fund its various components.

Former Supervisor (and retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief) Jim Wattenburger who, as Supervisor, revealed he often carried a gun to meetings because, basically, he claimed that he and Mrs. Wattenburger had been menaced by hippies, told the Board that not only was the emergency response system in Mendocino County fragile, but that the County has a very low percentage of residents with medical insurance, which means that the County’s ambulance services have problems collecting for their calls.

“Ambulances involve very long travel times both to the patient and to the hospital. Reimbursement rates are going down. Two ambulance services that serve Mendocino County are from out of the county. There’s too much reliance on air [helicopter] ambulance. And the system depends very heavily on volunteers as first responders to stabilize patients. There are many response areas without funding. Ambulances are on the edge of existence. Any new [business] failures [by ambulance services] will result in dominoes falling because the remainder of the ambulances would have to pick up the slack.”

Here in Boonville, if the Ambulance is threatened by anything, it's its own chintzy board of trustees as they sit on a pile of donated money but rely almost entirely on one or two volunteers per shift to respond to emergencies.

The Wattenburger-presented study concludes with the idiot statement of the obvious that the County’s emergency response system is “complex and important.” Travel for training can require long distance travel. Quick response is critical — even if that response is EMTs, not paramedics and doctors. Mendo is big. It can be a long drive to the hospital. One third of patients are on MediCal. Only one third have the, ah, much more lucrative private pay insurance coverage. Over half of patients pay “less than cost.”

Helicopters can’t fly in bad weather and pending FAA rules may make their availability scarce. If a helicopter can’t fly, and an ambulance is engaged hauling someone to the hospital as a carload of drunks out wine tasting piles into a tree on 128 and there's an earthquake followed by a tsunami, may the goddess save us all.

“There’s no money for EMS; no money for training, maintenance, or upgrades,” Wattenburger continued. “We are failing our citizens under this present system. Training times are getting longer and farther away. Responders are aging. The system is on the verge of collapse. The odds of a car accident on our rural roads are high because of the long drive times involved. What if an accident involved a school bus on a remote road? (Or a head-on collision between two school buses?) We can barely handle six to eight patients at a time, max. This recommendation is only to support the system we have today. Not more. This is a very serious situation. We urge you to allow a ballot initiative in November and let citizens choose what level of system they want.”

Like, dude. Relax. We live in a rural area. We understand the difficulty. And life, from bloody arrival to final incineration, is what you might call "fraught with hazard."

County Counsel Jeanine Nadel proposed a working group to develop a proposal for draft parcel tax measure to perhaps provide for emergency services. She pointed out that a special tax requires a two-thirds vote and it would have to be ready by August at the latest to make the November ballot.

Boonville cattle rancher Peter Bradford, an inheritance prince, was the only person to express any opposition. After a perfunctory thank you to the unpaid volunteers who make the system work, Bradford told the Board:

“I have concerns about what this will cost the landowners. My family supports many health centers and providers [through the usual wealthy family tax dodge of the tax-exempt foundation, in Bradford's case the Bradford Foundation which donates modestly to local non-profits as the overall fortune accumulates]. And we’re not alone. If you add a parcel tax, will you lower what you might receive from that? In Anderson Valley I pay a CSD fee for every residence and other taxes. This could be a potential breaker for businesses like mine. Can I sustain my business? Business is up right now but so are costs. I urge caution and I am concerned about how this is arrived at and how it will affect those who need it. But we have to balance what it will cost with what it will provide. There are those who will pass through who will not pay in but who will receive the benefits of it. The Cattlemen’s Association is in line with the Farm Bureau with these concerns.”

(Mr. Bradford no doubt "passes through" other locales where he doesn't pay into their system. Is he saying they should refuse to respond to him if he has an accident in, say, Tracy?)

The Board voted to have an ad hoc committee prepare a proposal. “Don’t expect a one-size fits all approach,” said Ms. Nadel.

* * *

Last Tuesday’s agenda was dominated by a discussion of the State’s plans to build a gold-plated new Courthouse somewhere in Ukiah's downtown area.

A local advisory committee has worked with the State’s courthouse construction project team to rank possible sites. The new edifice, which we've declared a major eyesore before plans have been drawn up, will require at least two city blocks. The Taj MaCourthouse won’t even house any support staff, but will be mostly devoted to the convenience and ease of their majesties of the Superior Court. The DA’s office, probation, public defender will stay separate.

The two sites that ranked the highest (by far, reportedly) were the downtown block that contains the library and the abandoned railroad depot on Perkins, two blocks east of the present Courthouse.

The “Library site,” as it’s called, would require the acquisition of several separately owned parcels in the two-plus blocks from willing sellers; if they’re not willing the site would either be scrapped or the Taj would become a high rise of five or so stories.

The project is currently estimated at $120 million with construction set to begin somewhere around 2014 and to end sometime in 2016, both estimates being wildly optimistic.

The project manager for the Taj MaCourthouse is a tightly wound woman from the State’s Administrative Office of the Courts in San Francisco named Anne Ording. Described by one meeting attendee as the AOC’s “dragon lady,” Ms. Ording is confidently brusque, her graying hair pulled back into an almost painful-looking utilitarian, un-Frisco bun. Ms. Ording answered every question put to her with such robotic aplomb that several people were tempted to disagree with her just to see how she handled dissent.

(San Francisco's court facilities are lavish beyond all reason. Ms. Ording works for Frisco's judges. She can be depended on to bring wholly decadent Bay Area standards of judicial comfort to Ukiah. By the way, this done-deal structure is not only the concern of Ukiah, but of everyone in Mendocino County whose traffic tickets, fines and fees have gone way up to pay for it.)

Ms. Ording assured the Board that the design their high-priced, East Coast architect devises will be compatible with "Ukiah’s downtown aesthetic," making the thing an even more frightening prospect than we'd thought.

Supervisor Hamburg was more than happy to accept Ms. Ording’s promises that the new courthouse would be attractive. “Please make it fit,” gushed Hamburg. “I know this building won’t be a monstrosity like a couple others downtown. Please make it beautiful.”

There hasn't been a beautiful public building erected anywhere in this country in many years, and the only interesting one in those many years, also an eyesore, but at least imaginative, is the Marin County Civic Center by Frank Lloyd Wright, and that one houses all Marin's public functions, all of them. We might have a shot at an attractive building if this County's architects were permitted to design the new Courthouse, but they probably don't charge enough money to get a public contract. Our judges' silence on the issue is, of course, deafening, as it was on the Willits Courthouse, the ugliest structure its size in all of America.

Supervisor Pinches asked if the new courthouse would require more county staff and more county cost to operate.

“I’m not prepared to answer that at this stage,” said Ms. Ording. “But we will insure the operational viability of each design. What we build will be affordable.”

Given that the $120 million courthouse is already not affordable, this smooth assurance isn’t particularly comforting.

Ukiah City Planning Commissioner Judy Pruden, for many years the only person preventing utter squalor for Ukiah's public areas, asked,  “What happens to the current courthouse?,” “Who pays for demolition?,” and, “What happens to the other offices that are there now?”

Ms. Pruden, however, was speaking as a public citizen and so the Board and Ms. Ording simply ignored her, as they did a few other skeptics speaking from the floor.

Supervisor Kendall Smith asked if it’s the State’s responsibility to relocate the library if the library site is selected.

Ms. Ording blandly replied, “We have statutory obligations to pay for moving existing buildings. The ultimate development will be compatible. I can’t say exactly what the final design will look like. We will make a wise (sic) decision for the ultimate location of the library.”

It isn't even a take or leave it proposition. We'll handle this thing for you rubes, and you chumps will get whatever Hizzoner Big Bro brings you.

Ukiah City Councilwoman Mari Rodin, an ongoing, multi-faceted hazard to local progress, was of course giddily enthusiastic about the done deal Courthouse:

“This project is like a gem falling in our laps! We’re so fortunate to have this happen now and to have the wonderful staff and the thinking-outside-the-box advisory committee.” (In all our years in Mendocino County we have yet to hear an idea coming from outside the box).

Ms. Rodin did at least ask what would happen to the criminal justice staff that needs to be nearby? (But she didn’t demand an answer.) “You need to look at this project holistically,” Rodin declared, “and look at the whole community. This is a very wonderful opportunity.”

In living fact, Ms. Rodin, it’s a huge boondoggle at a time of holistic economic distress everywhere in the land which serves no one but the over-large Mendo judicial delegation whose function it is to process economically distressed persons in and out of the state prison system.

Curry’s Furniture, a family-owned business on the proposed library site, appeared in the form of the woman who now owns the store with her husband. She told the Board that the current owner of the furniture store parcel “doesn’t want to sell it. This is a family building in perpetuity. There are no other sites for us to just pick up and move to. This is very stressful for my husband. We were not expecting to give up our business now. We have a long-term lease, 10-12 years. We generate a lot of sales tax and we as a county need it. If we can’t function somewhere else that tax revenue will be lost.”

As the presentation wound down, Supervisor Carre Brown said she wasn’t happy with the limited amount of information provided and wanted to have the subject re-reviewed in the next few weeks at an upcoming Board meeting. But it’s already obvious that anyone who gets in the way of Ms. Ording’s courthouse train will wind up dead on her cowcatcher.

There are a number of behind the scenes factors also in play here, which, of course, went unmentioned in the public part of the meeting.

Any state-run project draws great flocks of vultures.

Ukiah uber-realtor Jack Cox, who owns the “Brush Street Triangle” north of town which was once a possible site for a combined “criminal justice center,” which turned out to be too expensive after $200k was spent studying it, is still jockeying for real estate position on the courthouse project. Mr. Cox’s daughter, Kerri Vau, along with Mr. Cox and former Supervisor John Mayfield have been constant presences at Ukiah Valley Area Plan meetings regarding the new Courthouse. Cox and Mayfield, along with one of the Thomas brothers, control the Brush Street Triangle, now slightly less triangular for the piece of it that Cox recently sold to the Rural Communities Housing Development Commission based, naturally, in Ukiah. Cox and Company have made it clear that they’d be happy to sell some land in the Brush Street Triangle for the new courthouse or its satellite facilities because their nearby holdings would be greatly enhanced.

The Black Robe's monstrosity's final resting place is sure to inspire much holistically entertaining argument, a grand farce that could only be pulled off in Mendocino County — without even trying.

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