Merengues, Shuffles, Snuffles & Stomps

by Mark Scaramella, November 3, 2011

Allysum Weir, Executive Director of the Arts Council of Mendocino County, introduced a harpist at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting in Ukiah: “Today, we are bringing live music to the County Administration Center to celebrate Arts and Humanities month and to honor the art champions we are recognizing today. Allow me to introduce musician, Arts Council member, and Good Arts In The Schools Program grant recipient Jessica Schaefer to play a short piece for us.”

Ms. Schaeffer, fetchingly clad in the consistent red dress, told the Board that she would be playing one of her favorite tunes, “Merengue Rojo” (Red Merengue). Positioning her harp directly in front of the Supervisors' dais, she proceeded to pluck out a passable version of the Paraguayan standard.

After the performance, Supervisor John Pinches remarked, “You are a lot more entertaining than we are.”

Supervisor John McCowen added, “Perhaps we should include a musical interlude as a regular feature of our meetings.”

* * *

Supervisor McCowen threw some cold water on the entertainment by advising his fellow Supervisors after the “legislative update” that Very Bad News was on its way from Sacramento. “I agree,” McCowen began, “that [Health and Human Services] Director [Stacy] Cryer and her staff have done a great job of anticipating the funding reductions that have been coming along steadily over the last few years and that will continue. Unfortunately, the plan for the next fiscal year is going to result in reductions in programs, reductions in staffing, ultimately, if necessary, layoffs of staff. It's a pretty grim reality that is being planned for. Just for people who do not have a copy of the CEO's report, which I understand is posted online, the cutbacks we are discussing would involve over $3 million and more than 40 full-time equivalent employees in Social Services administration, over $2 million in direct Social Services assistance to people who are served by their programs, approximately $500k in public health for programs including the women and infant children program, and a reduction of over six full-time equivalents, reductions in Mental Health staffing to the Department of over $300,000 and four full-time employees, as well as a 10% cut to the mental health community-based organizations that provide children's services of over $1 million.”

In other words, an intensification of the ongoing bi-partisan war on the poor presently presided over by “liberals” like Obama and Jerry Brown.

* * *

CEO Carmel Angelo told the Board that her staff was still examining the implications of Laura’s Law, the “assisted outpatient treatment” program for mentally ill people who are also deemed dangerous. Laura’s Law is being considered in the wake of the murders of Matt Coleman and Jere Melo on the Coast by Aaron Bassler who was shot dead by police snipers early last month in the woods northeast of Fort Bragg after a 35-day manhunt.

Aaron Bassler’s father, James Bassler, has become one of the leading local advocates for Laura’s Law, and he took to the podium last Tuesday to explain why: “I'm James Bassler and I think you all know me as Aaron's father. Basically, I want to speak about Laura's Law and I want to just kind of break it down to those of us here, the reality of this, of what it is. Basically, it's all about responsibility. That's all that law is. People taking responsibility. I'm here to assure you that I feel responsible. Legally, when Aaron turned 18 I wasn't responsible. But I'm still his father. I'm responsible for his death and that of two other people. I couldn't handle the job. It involved more than I could do. As far as being a parent up to 18, it was like anyone else, a broken home, but I did the best I could with Aaron. It had its trials but it was a positive experience, an enjoyable experience, but when he came down with schizophrenia, the joy of being a parent went away fairly quickly. I was required on my own to study psychiatry. I was supposed to be a mental health worker, a social worker. I was supposed to find an advocate for the disabled. I tried to find him work. I tried to find him housing. I tried to police him. I tried to coerce him into doing the right thing. I mean, the job I had was pretty extensive. I did them, but I was all alone in it. Really. I had some family help but I failed, and I imagine other people in my position failed too. I'm going to live with that the rest of my life. But the point is, Laura's Law is about responsibility. Government hasn't taken the responsibility. There's only one organization which has taken responsibility. The law enforcement community and Sheriff Allman are the only ones who I think can hold their head up and say they dealt with this. The Sheriff is not a psychiatrist. He's not a mental health worker. He's not a social worker. He treated Aaron's mental health in the only way he really could. Of course, I don't approve of the methods entirely. There are three reasons that I think the public — everyone in this county. It's so real and easy to understand.”

(At this point in Mr. Bassler’s remarks, Sheriff Tom Allman walked to the podium and turned off the Board’s three minute timer saying, “Don't worry about it, Mr. Bassler.”)

Mr. Bassler continued, “First of all, his treatment came way too late. I mean, that's got to be obvious to everybody. You bring the Sheriff in at that late date and two lives have been lost already. The second point is that his treatment is pretty expensive. Aaron was an extreme case. But it goes on all the time with other mentally ill people, the dangerously mentally ill. They're in the jail; the Sheriff is dealing with them constantly. To have somebody say that Laura's Law is too expensive, I mean, I would choke on those words..... The real sad part of it is that the Sheriff doesn't even realize how county government has dumped on him. They've dumped their job on him. We have mental health workers in this county. We have judges. We have lawyers — people who would love to have been able to prevent this. But we have no system to do it. Laura's Law — we hear it over and over again: why is only one county implementing this? The answer to that is so obvious to me that I don't see how it's not obvious to everyone else. There are 44 states where Laura's Law has been successful. It's proven to be successful. You cannot find any literature that says those programs don't work. The simple reason that it's not happening in California is that our state government that I'm sure were all very proud of and believe is doing such a fine job — they decided to hand it over to the counties. So what you have now — the counties before Laura's Law — it's like the fox is guarding the henhouse. Nobody wants to take responsibility for these tough cases like Aaron's. But when it's a matter of public safety and mental health, the two things together, that's what's not being addressed here. For the state to expect the counties to do it is like asking the fox to come up with a program where there is accountability and it's transparent to the whole community. That's the last thing they want. They're comfortable with the way it is. They're not taking any responsibility right now today. Not at all. The only one who is the Sheriff's Department and law enforcement in general. They are the only ones who have taken responsibility.”

* * *

Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, otherwise unavailable to the pesky public he allegedly serves, appeared to give Board members a rundown of how bad things have become in Sacramento. He spoke as if he and his Democratic colleagues were innocent bystanders, and went on to laud the minor bills he'd  “authored” that the Governor signed.

But when Chesbro tried to explain how wonderful AB-964 was, he botched the explanation: “As you well know Forest Protection is important but hopefully not at the expense of the fish, um… I mean frost protection — I didn't mean forest protection. I should put my glasses on here. Frost protection.”

We'll pause here to point out the obvious — the Assemblyman's craven pandering to the wine industry, one of his largest campaign funders.

“AB-964 which I co-authored with Assemblyman [Jared] Huffman will help grape growers by revising the necessary bureaucratic process for building off-stream storage for water to be used for frost protection in lieu of direct diversions during the time of frost, which also can coincide and has coincided with critical moments for the fish when they need water. The goal is to help resolve some of the conflicts that have arisen when grape growers draw water from the streams and fish and other species are affected by sudden drops in streamflow.”

Grape growers happen to be among Chesbro’s major  donors, of course, and pond proliferation effectively dams up creeks during high flows however a high flow is defined. “As some of you know,” Chesbro droned on, “my parallel career outside of politics involves decreasing our waste.” (As an Arcata hippie in the 1970s, Chesbro parlayed his laid-back “activism” into a permanent job as an elected official. In between comfortable stays in office he has “served” on the State’s highly paid, do-nothing Garbage Commission, sinecures created specially for connected legislators termed out of office or in between electoral campaigns.)

Chesbro then tried some lame humor: “Some of my critics have been recycled a few too many times. I think you know that I was into garbage before I was into politics.”

Supervisor McCowen added to the mirth: “There is a certain compatibility there.”

Chesbro staggered on.

“When I was getting ready to leave a position I had in waste recycling to run for the state Senate in 1999,” he chuckled, “somebody anonymously sent me a box with a Pogo cartoon where Pogo is talking to a swamp creature. In fact, I have one in my office. The next time one of you visits I'll show it to you. And the swamp creature said, 'So you're leaving garbage to go into politics?' Pogo says, 'Yeah — I consider it a lateral move.' It's apropos. Somebody is a collector of fine Pogo cartoons and they managed to find that one and send it to me and I still have it.”

The Supervisors stared back unamused at the career officeholder's attempt at jocularity. Ordinarily, elected boards laugh hysterically at any attempt at humor by persons one pay grade their senior. Chesbro's so tedious the Mendocino County supervisors couldn't even work up a routine nuzzlebum.

Supervisor Hamburg questioned Chesbro about the impending park closures which will hit Mendocino County disproportionately hard. “There was another bill that I don't remember the number of that was reported on in the Sacramento Bee which alluded to it,” declared Hamburg. “The article in the Bee talked about how the state subsidizes timber harvest operations to the tune of about $18 million a year and it compared that to the $11 million which is the estimated amount of savings from closing 70 state parks, more than 10% of which, eight of them, are here in Mendocino County. It was juxtaposing those two. Why are we giving this $18 million subsidy to the timber industry while on the other hand we're closing down 70 of our parks? Is there a bill that's looking at that subsidy to the timber industry?”

Chesbro: “I think it's that same bill.” (No one explained what the “same bill” was.)

Hamburg: “Is that also 1005?”

Chesbro: “Yes. And there was an attempt in the governor's budget proposal at one point to require the fees. So there was both — Yeah.”

Hamburg: “I understand your contention that it's a bad economy and you don't want to make it even harder [to submit timber harvest plans], but are there other industries in California that are analogous to timber and that the state subsidizes the permitting process for those industries? Or is timber sort of its own thing in that regard?”

Chesbro: “I don't know of a single other case where the entire burden is attempted to be placed on the regulated community. There are certainly examples where a much larger proportion of the cost is allocated.”

Hamburg and Chesbro went on for a while about timber industry regs, the gist of which is that lots of government attention is being paid to timber, even though it's still way down from a few years ago, while state parks, a huge part of Mendocino County's tourist income, languish and prepare to close.

Upshot: Say goodbye to 70 state parks, including the eight in Mendocino and Hendy Woods State Park in Philo.

* * *

But not without a major fight from the formidable Kathy Bailey with the entire population arrayed behind her and already doing Boont war dances. Ms. Bailey, in a low-key warning shot of the war sure to come if the state is non-responsive, asked the Supervisors to sign onto a letter to the legislative joint committee belatedly considering the economic impact of park closures on local communities.

Supervisor Pinches thought the whole park closure idea was nothing but a liberal plot to raise taxes: “The legislature is basically on the hunt for money,” said Pinches, “and if they threaten people with the closure of 70 state parks which are near and dear to almost everybody…Forget about the people outside California coming to enjoy our parks, especially ones on the coast. But they are near and dear to pretty much every probably voter in California. Don't you think there's a political element there that it's kind of a, 'You folks better vote for a tax increase or we're going to close these parks.' I think it has more to do with them hovering over the people with that threat. They are obviously not going to say that, but I think it's a strategy that they have going. As you say, I don't think any analysis shows where it's a good idea. I remember a dozen years ago they came up with an idea about closing the Caltrans station in Covelo and they said it was going to cost them money but they closed it anyway. Well, why did they close it? Because it's an out-of-the-way place and there are not many people over there and the politics of it didn't affect very many people. So don't you think there is this political element that they are holding this 70 park closures over the heads of the voters of the state of California so when they come forward with tax increases the people are going to say, Well yes, if I vote for these tax increases were going to save our parks. I don't know if this strategy of going after a fiscal analysis is is the right strategy.”

Ms. Bailey calmly responded that she had been to Sacramento and spoken to the legislative staffers who are directly involved in the park closures. “They tell me that the threat to close the parks is very real. This other issue about 'we must raise taxes or else,' could well be there. However, I know that the committee staffers feel that the threat to close these parks is very, very real and they say things like, 'Well, the politics of this is, you're cutting back funding for dying AIDS patients or home health care.' So it's really hard for them to say, 'Well let's exempt the parks.' Each of these issues has a fiscal analysis. There are many other things that they are talking about doing that have very bad ramifications in the long run fiscally. People have told me that the Hendy Woods argument is very compelling however, but we better work hard on Plan B because no matter how compelling we find the argument, you may need to find some private operators or nonprofits who can in fact operate Hendy Woods. We are certainly doing everything we can to identify people like that. But the problem is that that comes with a cost for somebody also. We don't have all these nonprofits sitting around in Anderson Valley that can just come forward. The question is, Can I identify a single nonprofit in Anderson Valley which has the wherewithal to actually use the new provisions which make it easier for nonprofits to take over state parks? I'm on the board of the Anderson Valley Land Trust. We have a 10-hour a week staffer and a volunteer board and — yikes! As a matter of fact, Anderson Valley had to fight just to keep a deputy sheriff. We had to raise a huge amount of money to rebuild our health center, and then within three months of our health center reopening the State pulled the money for that. We were eligible for stimulus money to rebuild in that building, but we were not eligible for stimulus money to help pay the mortgage with a third of the funding having been eliminated. It just keeps on going. The fairgrounds funding has been eliminated. We are really struggling in our community to keep our basic community resources intact. This Hendy Woods thing came around before we even realized that we had been granted… Of 800 applicants nationwide, two were for health centers and one of them was ours in Anderson Valley. Two out of 800. Before we even realized that our Hail Mary pass there had been successful this Hendy Woods park closure announcement came along. People in Anderson Valley are swimming as fast as they can. We will keep on going with what we can. But everything I hear is that it's a real threat and the last time I looked it was reported that the state was hundreds of millions of dollars behind on revenue projections.”

Pinches: “There's $300 million in the Wildlife Conservation Fund. I don't think it makes any sense to buy any more conservation easements when we are threatening to close down state parks. When you are talking about where are we going to get the money, you can say that they can get it out of their Conservation budget.”

Hamburg then moved to send the letter Ms. Bailey had drafted and have her personally deliver it to the joint committee.

Pinches seconded the motion.

Supervisor Carre Brown balked: “The motion has been moved and seconded and thank you very much Kathy… You delivered your testimony with a lot of passion. You carry that with you. But with all due respect, you know, parks are also near and dear to my heart, although I have none in the First District, and again it's the economics of the situation. But as a protest to the way the frost water issue was treated previously by the sponsors of this item [an oblique reference to Supervisors Kendall Smith and Dan Hamburg who voted against signing the totally wacky Great Frost Protection Conspiracy Against Grape Growers letter a couple of months ago], I guess I'm going to do it as a symbol because that particular issue, and what came down, and not having full support on it on this board hurt me very much, and it was a huge economic hit to the economy of the First District and this County as well so I will be voting no. But I wish you great respect in going forward and hope you manage to change some minds.”

A nonplussed Bailey mustered a “Thank you.”

Supervisor McCowen: “Supervisor Brown, I understand your sentiments and I actually share them. I think we have five county supervisors that should represent the interests of the county.... and I think we should all be sensitive to important issues throughout the county and certainly the impact to agriculture in the Ukiah Valley is huge. It dwarfs by several magnitudes the impact of the state parks that will be affected by this closure in terms of the economic value it generates for the county. [A demonstrably fanciful statement of Mendocino County's economic facts, but that's what he said.] That said, I don't think that we should allow our internal politics to send a mixed message to Sacramento on this issue, and I would hope as we move forward since the frost issue is not going away, I would hope that the supervisors who were not supportive the last time around would reconsider the issue and really examine all the information and everything that's been done on that issue to address the problem and to understand that you can have responsible use of water for frost protection consistent with protection of endangered salmonids which I think is what the industry is doing, but I hope we can vote 5-0 on this issue.”

Brown relented: “Supervisor McCowen, you just reached my heart and my good sense, I guess. But you're beginning to turn me around, so let's call for the vote.”

Which sailed through, 5-0.

Plan B looks like the only plan that may keep Hendy Woods open.

Footnote: Nobody's done an economic analysis of the state water board's recently enacted frost water management program. Supervisors Brown and McCowen and the booze lobby they represent are nevertheless upset about them, although the new “regulations” will simply require that some kind of industry-designed program be in place before frost water can be pumped directly from what were once lush fish streams of inland Mendocino County. If the pump-from-ponds approach was so great, as the wine mob insists, why do they still need to pump unregulated amounts of water from the Russian River and its tributaries? And nobody — including Ms. Brown — has asked for any economic analysis. Even wine industry gofer Chesbro pointed out that it’s already easy for grape growers to pump river and stream water into their ponds whenever they want. If an economic analysis was done the short-sighted grape growers in Ms. Brown's district would discover that the Water Board's proposal will actually save money for the noble sons of Potter Valley's soil by allowing them to say they're complying with their own management plan!

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