What We Have Here Is…

by Mark Scaramella, February 18, 2009

Mr. James Houle, Concerned Citizen, began the meeting last week by asking the Board of Supervisors to reconsider Ordinance 4168, a 2006 stipulation making County CEO Tom Mitchell the County's top disaster management man. Mr. Houle also explained that his name is not "Hoo-Lee," as Supervisor Carre Brown had pronounced it the week before.

"My father," Mr. Houle explained, "was a railroad conductor whose friends called him 'The Chinaman.' He was known on the rails as Hoo-Lee so your pronunciation gave me warm memories. Actually, it is Houle, rhymes with school and is French rather than Mandarin."

Mr. Houle went on to tell the Supes that he thought that the person in charge of disaster responses should be an elected official, probably the Sheriff.

"Mr. Mitchell is not directly answerable to the public," continued Mr. Houle. "He has shown himself by his performance to be quite unresponsive to public criticism. And, unfortunately, he's not subject to recall. This puts this man in a tremendously powerful position if we have an emergency. It makes me quite nervous. We have a Sheriff who is an elected official. He's quite well known. He has spoken to us about disaster preparation many times. Not only that, but he is subject to recall and he has a trained staff in place to take over in an emergency. And he has taken FEMA disaster response training. This man should be in charge. Perhaps he'd like to make the CEO his assistant. That's up to you people. I request that you give this serious consideration. We're getting into dire straights in this County. Having this kind of regulation on the books is a dangerous thing. I request that you give further thought to the whole matter."

Mr. Houle later told us, "I don't know what they did. They had that same stunned look on their faces as if they had not ever bothered to think about any of this. The CEO looked at me as if I had committed the most amazing act of impertinence he had ever witnessed."

As usual, with good ideas, the Supervisors did absolutely nothing. Mr. Mitchell remains the County's chief disaster — person.

When The Big One hits, it'll go something like this.

"Mr. Mitchell, there's been an earthquake!"

"Oh? I didn't feel anything. Alison, did you feel anything?"

"No. I didn't feel anything. I never feel anything. Why?"

"This caller says there's been earthquake! In fact, he says Ukiah has been reduced to rubble, Captain Fathom just ran past the window at the head of a mob of County Jail inmates, and I can hear glass breaking somewhere."

"What are you going to do?"

"I'll look into it, Alison. And I'll report back to the Supervisors by April."

Mr. Mitchell, who seems untainted by irony, said he was "working on" the analysis of privatizing the south coast transfer site, and "looking into" the possibility of additional transfer stations because they might be money makers for the County. (!)

Supervisor Pinches, alone among the Supervisors in protecting the public against waste, asked that an expenditure of $465k for 19 new county vehicles be pulled from the consent calendar. Yes, nearly half a million public dollars was about to slide by with no discussion. Pinches wanted to know if they could use the Sheriff's patrol techno gadgets from the old patrol cars in the new patrol cars. General Services Honcho Kristin McMenomey just said, No, they can't, and did not elaborate further.

Supervisor Kendall Smith then asked if the $415k was already budgeted and, if the other $50k is covered by earmarked funds, why do the Supervisors need to approve it? "How do you connect the dots there?" asked Smith.

Big mistake.

"If I could be allowed to answer that," began Deputy CEO Jennifer Wyatt, as she launched into an explanation without meaning, and we were almost immediately lost in the thickets of virgin bafflegab.

"First of all, I just want to say, to answer your question, Supervisor Smith, the reason you're seeing these agenda items today, number 1, is because, because with the new MUNIS finance system, and this is the first year that, I will remind you, that we've been actually on the budget in the finance system, MUNIS, as opposed to the old finance system, doesn't allow you to do... to make any appropriations within the finance system, as it should, without appropriating increasing those appropriations. In the final budget, what should have happened, and it's just kind of a learning curve that we are just kind of getting used to, is, when we're using designated fund balance within a budget unit, we have to be able to, we have to appropriate those funds, so when we decided to suspend the vehicle replacement program this year and not have any additional charges go into that budget unit, we still had fund balance available in the vehicle replacement fund, for example, um, to, um purchase vehicles, which is exactly what GSA did in October but those purchase of vehicles did not actually get into the accounting system, so we have to increase our appropriations utilizing our fund balance. What you won't see is the revenue adjustment because it's just fund balance within the accounting system itself but you will see the increase in appropriations to, um, to actually purchase those vehicles. MUNIS does not allow us to do any transactions unless we appropriate those funds."

Instead of saying, "Huh?" Smith, tried again. "But if, the... ... ... " Smith was flummoxed. Then, perhaps hoping for a simple yes or no, she recovered a bit and asked if the Supes had approved the basic $415k.

McMenomey and Smith then delved into some arcane "delineations" about how the Sheriff budgeted vehicle purchases.

Nobody asked if $465k should be spent on new vehicles since the county is broke, but...

Apparently aware that the subject had descended into pure gibberish, Supervisor Pinches declared, "To put it simply, when the money comes in it doesn't take our approval, but for us to pay it out it takes our approval."

Smith, who seems to get high on confusion, had more picky questions about accessories in Sheriff's patrol cars. Then the Board had had enough and quickly voted 4-0 to approve whatever it was that Ms. Wyatt said. (Supervisor Colfax didn't attend last week's Supes meeting.)

Supervisor Brown informed her colleagues that "water continues to be a hot topic" and that the State Water Resources Control Board was reconsidering their decision ("Decision 1610") on how to allocate water from Lake Mendocino, saying that "A decision is a year to 18 months off." Real hot.

Supervisor Pinches complained that Sonoma County's "surplus water" is sold to Marin County and that Sonoma County "has accumulated about $500 million in cash just sitting there. Mendocino County never gave written approval for water to go to Marin. And Sonoma County was supposed to pay a percentage and we never got a nickel. The Russian River Flood Control District was going to get a legal opinion. We're waiting for that." Also hot.

Pinches noted that he had been in Sonoma County recently "and I saw no sign of conservation. But we're under severe cutbacks here. We take the brunt and our neighbors to the south get the cash and the water."

Brown also noted that the mile-long tunnel which sluices South Fork Eel River water through Potter Valley and on into Lake Mendocino has been shut down for the last few weeks because the tunnel had sprung a leak. "PG&E guarantees the tunnel will be open by February 13," said Brown. The tunnel was hand dug by Chinese labor early in the 20th century to run generators that supplied electricity for Ukiah. It's original purpose was not to fill lakes or provide drinking water to Sausalito. It was an electric project, not a water project.

February 13 has come and gone, and we've got several welcome inches of rain, but, according to Sunday's Ukiah Daily Journal, the very low water level in the Lake had only gone up "a few inches." Maybe the tunnel's still leaking.

"An individual was very critical of what the County was doing to address the water crisis," continued Brown, not identifying who "the individual" was. "He wants a press release about the board's action." An indignant Ms. Brown then summarized the board's "action":

  1. They're going to consider issuing a drought declaration on March 3.
  2. The board will get a countywide report from the Water Agency manager on Feb. 24.
  3. All the inland water entities are looking at 50% cutbacks.

"It's very serious," said Brown. "The County is engaged in doing what it can moving forward with a contingency plan."

CEO Mitchell is undoubtedly looking into it too.

The board briefly (and pointlessly) discussed the tracking of insignificant changes to the General Plan Update, the looming state payment delays to counties (summary: it'll be bad), a suggestion by Supervisor John McCowen to "develop a policy to govern access to department heads by the media, an "ag frost water protection task force" (as Supervisor Brown clumsily described it), why the County still needs some long dormant commissions, and the possibility that the state's proposed new septic system rules may be rolled back a little before they're implemented.

Couldn't their lordships simply direct their department heads to answer media questions and comply with the law? It isn't as if the Mendo media is beating their doors down. Most of them go for months, years even, without a media call.

What about the current budget crisis?, you ask. The Board is going to hold a budget workshop in two weeks!

PS. We couldn't help noticing that although it's been a month now since Undersheriff Gary Hudson was assigned as the County's interim Human Resources Director, he has not made an appearance before the Supes in that role. Hudson wasn't even listed in the closed session mandatory employee time-off discussions after the Supes meeting, even though Assistant CEO Alison Glassey, Auditor Meredith Ford and the County's very expensive outside negotiation consultant Fran Buchanan were named.

Late last week the County issued a press release saying that they expect to basically close down most County offices on alternate Fridays through the end of the year using mandatory time off. The Ukiah Daily Journal then reported that most elected county officials and several senior executives have voluntarily (not mandatorily, as the employees have to) pledged to also take 12 days off over the same period. According to the Journal, those pledging were Sheriff Tom Allman, District Attorney Meredith Lintott, Clerk/Assessor/Recorder Sue Ranochak, Treasurer/Tax Collector Shari Shapmire, Auditor/Controller Meredith Ford, Second District Supervisor John McCowen, 1st District Supervisor Carre Brown, County Counsel Jeanine Nadel, Clerk of the Board Kristi Furman, 3rd District Supervisor John Pinches and County CEO Tom Mitchell.

Conspicuously absent from the Daily Journal's list were the two Coastal Supervisors, J. David Colfax of Boonville and Kendall Smith of Fort Bragg, the same two Supervisors who were charged with (but not prosecuted for) misappropriating several thousand dollars of travel funds each by the Grand Jury in 2007.

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