Septic Easements & Other Effluent

by Mark Scaramella, August 19, 2009

Mendocino County is broke and getting broker by the week. Just last week the State announced that it was “borrowing” another $3 million from Mendocino County and proportionate amounts from all the other counties in our troubled state. This forced loan is supposed to be paid back in three or four years when the State economy recovers or rebounds or re-boots, when all those fiscal green shoots have matured into money trees.

But what was the Big Item at last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting?

Septic easements.

But before the crucial discussion about how poop flows downhill began, County CEO Tom “A Laugh A Minute” Mitchell opened the meeting by presenting Board Chair Cowboy John Pinches with a humorous award.

“The Board chair,” Mitchell giggled, “says we want to try to be unanimous in all our decisions. And the Board has done so well coming together on these issues,” said Mitchell, “that I wanted to give him this award.”

Mitchell then exhibited a hunk of wood with the words “Riding For The Brand” professionally burned into it.

Pinches explained the cryptic inscription.

“What that means is in cowboy days you rode for the person you worked for and that was the brand. We'd like to support the state but we're here for Mendacino County and that's what the sayin’ is about. We're tryin’ to look out for the best interests of the people in Mendocino County.”

Another item that got a lot of undeserved attention was a road change in a small subdivision outside of Fort Bragg.

Supervisor Colfax had pulled the item from the consent calendar because, well, let the Supervisor explain:

“Yeah, I, I pulled it because, uh, you say it's a final action, and yet there's an offer of dedication, and, uh, not, uh, I… uh, number 1 and number 2 on, uh, the, on the, uh, 27th July 09, uh, document, page 2, uh, at the top, uh, and it says one of these, uh, is not being accepted, so it doesn't seem like it's final anything. I… Why is it coming to us in this form, uh, at this time? Wha…? What does this facilitate? I guess, basically, what I'm trying to figure out here is, uh, to whose benefit does this action, uh, accrue, and why are we facilitating it when we seem to have something in this document that we're saying, uh, uh, we're not approving but it's in the document? It's a strange document, is, what I'm saying is it strikes me as just a document that is incomplete or it is, uh, uh, certainly, uh, subject to, uh, some confusion. You're not… had confusion on another item here.”

After 11 more minutes of muddled discussion involving an equivalently befuddled County Surveyor Art Colvin and the *always* befuddled Supervisor Kendall Smith, Smith invoked Board Rule 23, which allows a Supervisor to put items in their district off for a week to “study” them.

County CEO Tom Mitchell then informed the Board of another “really important issue” – the 2010 census.

“Every person translates to $1200 of federal aid to Mendocino,” said Mitchell who had been to a Census kick-off meeting in Ukiah recently. “The speakers really engaged the community,” continued Mitchell. “This will be the least intrusive census in memory. There are a lot less questions. It’s more of a numerical exercise.”

Supervisor Colfax disagreed, saying he was an “old census employee” and that he was “disappointed.”

“The planning for the census this year has been very, very poor,” said Colfax, droning on incoherently about undercounts, low pay for enumerators, and calling the 2010 census plan “offensive” and “Ukiah-centric” before calling for meetings in Gualala, Point Arena, Elk, and “right up the Coast and Anderson Valley.”

“I have to suggest to you, Tom,” Colfax said, “that if you're in any kind of contact with these people tell them the Fifth District supervisor is bent out of shape about the undercount the last time around. We are losing a huge amount of money. It’s harder to count people in the hills outside of Elk than it is where people are on paved sidewalks and nicely laid out subdivisions.”

That's right, supervisor! Flush every single one of those hill muffins out of their ridgetop hidey holes. The leadership says they're worth $1,200 each in freshly printed U.S. dollars!

During a presentation of the annual Mental Health Report, Dr. Mark Klein, a psychiatrist from the Coast Clinic, delivered an emotional plea for “care and treatment, not incarceration” – a phrase the doctor repeated several times.

“I’m ashamed to live in a county where a substantial portion of our jail inmates are seriously mentally ill,” said Dr. Klein, breaking up a little right off the bat. “I apologize for my emotion. A patient of mine, a young man with serious mental illness, woke up in middle of the night recently in a serious delusional state and smashed out the window of a neighbor's car with a club. There was no revenge or malice. It was mental illness. The police responded quickly. He’s now in isolation at the jail receiving medication. Another patient, who looks really intimidating, was behaving in a frightening manner. He stopped taking his meds. He didn't hurt anybody. There were no illicit drugs involved. He was arrested and after his trial he remained in County Jail for several months before he was transported to Metropolitan State Hospital in LA, several hundred miles away from his family on the coast.”

Dr. Klein said that such incidents could be prevented with appropriate services and programs.

“Schizophrenics without treatment are more likely to commit a crime,” said Klein. “It's a matter of public safety. If 911 is called, you’ve already lost the game. Averting one serious hospitalization saves enough money for a case worker or a mental health counselor. Things you could pursue include Mental Health courts, supervised housing, assertive community management, vocational support, dual diagnosis, intensive outpatient selective management and resident crisis management.”

But Dr. Klein admitted that at present there were very few funds for these creative approaches. In fact, the Mental Health budget, and its staff, has been drastically cut in the last year.

Sandra O’Connor, vice chair of the County’s Mental Health Advisory Board, told the Supervisors that although many of the Advisory Board’s issues had been addressed, Mental Health staffing was down to the minimum.

“There’s been an increase in suicidal calls,” she noted, and “losing any more staff will shred what’s left of the fabric of support.” Remaining staff “are close to burnout.” Ms. O’Connor said it would be good if the County could keep hospitalizations local. “Two psych beds per hospital would be very helpful,” said O’Connor. “Localizing 5150s keeps people in contact with their families.”

Neither Supervisor Clarity, nor his cohorts had anything to say to Dr. Klein or Ms. O'Connor.

Then it was time for the Truly Big Ticket Item: Septic Easements.

Stacy Cryer, Community Health Services Director for Health and Human Services, pointlessly introduced John Morley, Director of Environmental Health who said he was going to give a “brief presentation.” Morley began his brief presentation thirty years back, “back to 1984” when leachfields were haphazardly placed.

The problem is not exactly overflowing. Between 2003 and 2005, during a relative housing boom, the *final* housing boom it seems, there were 14 septic easement projects in the County. Morley invoked the “Uniform Plumbing Code,” which now says that all new construction must have septic systems confined to their own parcel. But the ever-flexible Morley was willing to give a little by allowing off-parcel leachfields “when all other options are ruled out.”

Ukiah civil engineer George Rau told the board that there is “lots of opposition” to Morley’s proposal, adding that the issue rarely comes up in his experience. He also said that Environmental Health “guidelines” were frequently enforced “draconianly.”

Supervisor Colfax seized the opportunity to launch into another of his patented free association analyses.

“If you can get a neighbor who allows you to go across the highway as we had in Anderson Valley a few months ago putting in a new leachfield at extremely high cost for the farmworkers there… We could have cut the cost of that in half if the neighbor across the road had said, You can go under the road and put the leachfield on our property. She didn't want to because she felt it would devalue her property. It's a rational, appropriate thing for her to say. We would have been in a heck of a situation if we didn't have access to a great amount of money that it took on site.”

(Colfax was apparently referring to the Casa de Gaudalupe, a ramshackle farmworker housing cluster owned by the Ashiku family of Ukiah, a family well able to afford necessary site improvements to their Anderson Valley holdings. Casa de Ashiku sits across from the Philo Grange but had to develop an expensive on-site private septic system because its on-site leachfield could no longer accommodate the number of people living there at maximum profit to the Ashikus.)

“We need a policy that takes this forward rather than leaving it up to, Are you a nice person? Are you a friendly person? Are you the right person? And so on. I think that can enter into too many situations I've seen.”

County Service Employees International Union rep Jackie Carvallo told the board that the mandatory one-day-off-per-pay-period time off agreement that the union had agreed to last month was “being systematically violated in every way possible. We are consulting with our attorneys about filing an unfair labor practices lawsuit. People are being coerced to take two days off when they agreed to one. They were supposed to have some option about which days to take off, but they are being coerced into taking specific days off. That’s not the agreement. This is very disheartening. The County is systematically destroying the agreement. I just thought you ought to know that.”

Neither the Board, County Counsel or the CEO responded to the sole major issue raised on the day, albeit briefly.

Even though employee morale is falling faster than revenues, there was no budget or CEO report. Routine map alterations, septic easements, and the ancient issue of locally non-existent mental health services dominated most of the day’s proceedings.

* * *

In a separate development Sheriff Allman announced that in response to the Supervisors’ July order to lay off five deputies, he planned to lay off the two newly hired resident Covelo deputies – who have already been trained to the tune of $55k each – and two or three Coast deputies, but not Anderson Valley’s second deputy.

Of course the Sheriff's plans were announced before the state “borrowed” the $3 million more dollars from Mendocino County.

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