Waterboarding Mendo

by Mark Scaramella, February 4, 2009

If you'd been forced to take a lower paying job because of the looming Great Depression Two, and your bank told you that if you didn't make a payment like right now you'd lose your house, what would you do?

If you were the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors you'd spend two days debating who'd pay the trash bill without coming up with a name.

Mendo's top brass spent two full days in meetings last week without accomplishing a single useful thing, a gaggle of Nero's fiddling while the County gets broker and broker.

Last Monday's "workshop," aka "informal round-table discussion," heard Supervisor Kendall Smith remark: "Accurate budget figures in relation to the Sheriff Department's budget and associated overtime overages are needed in order to make an accurate assessment of the county's budget situation."

Nobody in the County seems to have accurate budget figures. Or inaccurate figures even of the proverbial ballpark type.

Supervisor Smith's observation was ignored. Nobody's doing anything to obtain "accurate budget figures." It's as if some anonymous someone in the CEO's office said, "Oh well. Let's just lay off a few line workers and close some offices every Friday and see what happens."

In an attempt to clarify part of the budget question, Board Chair John Pinches offered this unhelpful tautology: "The County's debt is what it is. There is a lot of false perceptions out there. I don't want to make it seem like we don't know what the County's debt is."

But Pinches didn't say what the false perceptions were and he didn't say what the County's debt was.

"It's out there," insisted Pinches. But it's "complicated," Pinches declared. (Rockefeller the First always knew down to the dollar his current financial situation, and he owned half the world.)

CEO Tom Mitchell had promised months ago to prepare a "clarification and response" to John Dickerson's ominously large County debt estimates, but so far nothing. Dickerson, and KZYX financial commentator John Sakowicz, have repeatedly said that the County is in perilous fiscal condition. They would seem to be the source of Pinches' claim of errant perceptions.

Freshly elected First District Supervisor Carre Brown said the County's debt would "require further explanation" for the benefit of both Supervisors and the public. "A concern that I have is that there is a disconnect between the private sector and the County on the County debt," Brown said. "I would like to see an ad hoc committee brought in to see where the disconnect is."

The debt problem will require more than identifying the disconnect. And there's no need for an ad hoc committee to search it out. One big disconnect is sitting literally under Ms. Brown's nose: it's name is CEO Tom Mitchell. Another disconnect is named Alison Glassey. She's Mitchell's assistant and also well within Ms. Brown's viewshed. Then there are Ms. Brown's four disconnected colleagues and, a few months hence, Ms. Brown herself as she pitches in to add to the prevailing confusion.

Mitchell smoothly eluded criticism on another matter last Tuesday.

Ukiah Daily Journal reporter Richard Rosier had written to Mitchell to ask a few simple questions about the CEO and the County's department heads: How many people do you supervise, and who are they? How much is your yearly salary? Please provide a brief description of your job duties. And, what do you believe will be the challenges facing your department in 2009?"

Mitchell replied: "Thanks for the questions. I would decline the interview; however, the information you requested is contained in public documents such as the County Budget, Departmental websites, and HR (Human Resources job descriptions). You are welcome to use these sources."

Mitchell simultaneously directed his department heads to refuse to answer the reporter's inquiries which, as most of us know, would be routinely acceded to anywhere else.

Reporter Rosier, of course, knew he was "welcome" to use the County websites, jumbled and disjointed as they may be on those random occasions they're even functioning, but Mitchell, not content with telling Rosier to pound salt, added insult:

"I have similar feelings about educating the public about our local columnists in the UDJ," Mendocino County's lead public servant wrote. "Who are they? Why do they never contact the County for information? What are they paid? Do they have any experience in the areas they write about? I hear these questions constantly while traveling around the County."

This unhinged response had nothing to do with Rosier's questions.

And who's Mitchell talking about when he says "never contacts the County for information"? What information? The "accurate budget figures" that Supervisor Smith pines for? If all the data is already on the County website, why would anyone need to "contact the county" in the first place? And which website has which answers?

(We contact specific department heads for specific pieces of information. We know from covering the supervisors that there's absolutely no point in asking Mitchell or Glassey anything. They literally don't know what they're doing or talking about.)

Even Mitchell probably knows chain newspaper reporters don't make anywhere near the lush salaries of the supervisors at $68k a year plus medical coverage plus travel reimbursements. (Wouldn't you like to get $800 a month to drive a couple of times a week from Boonville to Ukiah to sit in a big leather chair with an hour and a half for a tax-paid lunch?)

Mitchell's crude slam at the local media is simply more evidence that the guy should have been fired yesterday. The supervisors, and everyone else in public positions in this county mostly get free media passes they certainly wouldn't get if they functioned in, say, the Bay Area where the media pay very close attention to officialdom. On those rare occasions they're challenged they whine like whipped dogs.

"Our office will always be supportive of your news needs in an unbiased manner," said Mitchell in his biased, non-supportive message to the UDJ. "There are many stories that I would suggest the community is interested in such as: Federal Economic Stimulus plans — Both the County and the City have been submitting paperwork and projects for several months. Cash Shortfall — Both the Governor and State Controller have different plans to limit cash reimbursements to Counties. There are real consequences to local families that you could help us highlight. How many homeowners are requesting reductions in their property taxes. What about the CNBC news program tonight on marijuana and the negative press on Mendocino County? What about the great work the MCPA is doing to increase tourism and benefit local businesses. These are only suggestions. I look forward to assisting you on future projects."

Most of these items have indeed been covered in the local and state media that Mitchell clearly doesn't pay any attention to. If you don't know by now that the state is literally cutting off poor people's life support because of the irresponsible budget impasse, you'll never know.

The County's stimulus package wish list is still incomplete and it's just that: a wish list. It'll be news if Mendocino County gets anything from their wish list. Additionally, there have been lots of stories on the impact of state budget cuts. At last count, 300 County homeowners had requested assessment reductions, a fact we reported last December.

The CNBC pot video contained nothing of news value to Mendocino County residents. The story has been done to death. It was stupid and sensationalistic.

The County wasted more thousands of public dollars on a consultant to survey tourist opinions of Mendocino County last summer. Conclusion: Tourists like Mendocino County, and that'll be $20k please. (We'd have supplied that particular foregone conclusion for a six pack of Bud Lite.)

But the question the Grand Jury posed a few years ago remains unanswered: Does the MCPA really "increase tourism"? No one knows. Certainly not Mitchell. The MCPA refused to cooperate with the Grand Jury's attempt at independent verification of its work a few years ago.

When Ukiah attorney Barry Vogel dared bring up the County's stonewalling of the UDJ's questions at last week's Supes meeting, no one mentioned Mitchell's snide response to the paper. The Supes simply declared that they're already as open and cooperative as can be and everything's on the website and what's all the fuss about? The supervisors were so concerned that they even mentioned maybe holding a workshop on press relations.

As usual, the board completely missed the point, acting as if they had been personally criticized:

Supervisor Colfax began with one of the hoariest clichés going before lapsing into the whining self-pity characteristic of his public remarks these days. "To paraphrase Mark Twain, we shouldn't get into an argument with someone who buys ink by barrel."

Supervisor Smith: "There are complexities on both sides."

Supervisor Brown: "We need an open discussion of what the public can have."

Supervisor McCowen: "I'm very intent on making information available."

Supervisor Pinches: "This board, and the previous board, went to considerable effort and expense to put more information on web. We've spent time and money on public requests in the Supervisors' office. I urge the public to read more facts and less opinions."

Gotcha, Johnny. So let's play fact and opinion:

  1. Mitchell did not respond to the Journal's simple questions for obviously public information. Fact or opinion?
  2. The Board did not ask Mitchell to respond. Fact or opinion?

All this unnecessary hassle about information could have been easily avoided if Mitchell had simply answered the questions or even if he'd merely deployed his standard dodge, "I'm looking into it."

The Board's reaction was so lame it stirred KZYX's normally unflappable Paul Hanson to editorialize, heatedly but correctly, that "you can't ask a website a question." Hanson went on to point out that Colfax had been late to one meeting and hadn't appeared at all at another, the supervisor not bothering to explain his absence — while complaining that a young, and completely uninvolved, UDJ reporter wasn't sitting through their entire tedious board meetings.

Of course, the Board won't do anything to expedite information to the few dozen people in the County who conscientiously try to follow County affairs. Mitchell, obviously, won't do anything to account for public business either. We'll have to wait for UDJ Editor KC Meadows to file her promised Public Records Act request — even for these simple answers.

In other non-accomplishment news from Mendocino County's leadership:

  • The Board discussed planning planning. They even announced that the CEO's redundant and ineffectual Planning Team function was leaving the CEO's office and returning to the Planning Department where it should have stayed in the first place. Assistant CEO Alison Glassey said that it was the CEO's (previously unstated) intention all along to put it back in the Planning Department. Unmentioned was the fact that Glassey & Co. ran the Team's budget way up and produced a wine and tourism oriented boilerplate "General Plan" that hardly meets its mandated update requirements.
  • Animal Control has been split off from Animal Care and Control and turned over to the Sheriff's Office, another long overdue change that should have been done years ago when former Director Greg Foss was fired. (The shelters will remain in Health and Human Services.)

In fact, last August I wrote the following private email to Sheriff Allman:

"Dear Sheriff Allman, I've been following the Animal Control problems going all the way back to Bob Arbayo and Greg Foss and the seemingly crazy decision by former CEO John Ball to fold Animal Control into Environmental Health after Foss was fired, from where AC was subsequently shifted to Public Health where it sits as a bastard step-child with no real oversight, chronic staffing problems and poor documentation (cf the Denoyer case). I know that in Humboldt County Animal Control is part of the Sheriff's Department. There are obvious natural links between Animal Control and the Sheriff's Department. In Lake County it's part of the Ag Department. Both of those organizational arrangements would be a step up from what Mendo currently has and would be more conventional overall in California. I also understand that the Sheriff's Department already does a good bit of animal control on the street level as it is, especially with large animals like sheep, cows and horses. And, although I've heard a complaint or two from Lake County over the years (improper seizures, allegedly), I've heard none about the Sheriff's deputies' role in Animal Control. The point? Would you consider lobbying the County's current admin apparatus to put Animal Control under the Sheriff?"

The Sheriff didn't reply back then, but on Monday he acknowledged that our email had got the ball rolling leading to last week's belated announcement that the Sheriff's Department would now assume responsibility for animal control.

  • A precedent-setting agreement between the Hopland Rancheria and the DA's office gives Hopland Tribal police peace officer status so that they can make arrests, file charges directly with the DA without going through the Sheriff, and Tribal officers can testify as peace officers in trials.
  • Grand Jury foreman Finley Williams told the board the Grand Jury will overrun its modest budget. CEO Mitchell said that if GJ did overrun somebody'd have to be laid off — never mind that the grand jury budget "overrun" represents about one tenth of Mr. Mitchell's salary. This discussion occupied an hour with no particular conclusion — the Board saying the Grand Jury should do more with less; Williams pointing out that state law requires the Board to adequately fund grand juries.

A chirpy grand juror from Mendocino Village — these people inevitably come from either Mendocino or Elk — named Wendy Roberts, managed to sabotage Williams' sensible presentation when she seized the podium to tell the Supes that she personally benefited from being on the Grand Jury because it's "interesting" and she was "better off" from the experience of "working collaboratively" with the other jurors!

  • Nearly two hours were wasted on a tedious presentation from a pro-forma parade of the Mendocino Traffic Safety Coalition's members, each going on about what a swell job he or she was doing. We won't bore you with any of the soporific particulars, but suffice it to say this could have easily been done with a two-page summary report and no meeting time at all.
  • Supervisor Brown boldly declared, "We are in a water crisis," which is of course painfully obvious. In fact, if Lake Mendocino sinks much further all agricultural water coming out of it will be cut off. Pinches agreed with Brown, remarking, "Even if we have some rain, we'd still be in a crisis." Brown suggested that the County should hold a "water summit." The Summit subject was on this week's agenda where it is likely to add a whole new meaning to the term "waterboarding."
  • The attempt to privatize the Fort Bragg Animal Shelter has been abandoned. The County only got one bid and was unable to come to any agreement. The shelter will limp along with reduced money.
  • There was another long discussion about the "board's rules," at the end of which the board did make it easier to rescind previous decisions — an obvious, but unstated, first step in revisiting the controversial allocation by the outgoing board to give four Mendocino Art Center motel room allocations to the MacCallum House.
  • Supervisor Brown said text messaging by Supervisors during Board meetings should be prohibited because, essentially, it's rude and it looks bad to fiddle around with gadgets while the public's business is being discussed. But an exasperated Brown exclaimed "Whatever!" when Supervisors Smith and Colfax, the latter never known for his graciousness, disagreed.
  • The Board ratified its new, exceedingly generous travel reimbursement policy, making sure that they get paid handsomely to commute to and from work — a stipend they receive over and above their overlarge $68k per year salaries and accompanying perks. Supervisor Pinches gets $1000/month to commute from Laytonville and Willits; Supervisor Smith gets $900 a month to make her way from Fort Bragg to Ukiah; Supervisor Colfax gets $800 month to drive from Boonville to Ukiah; Supervisor Brown gets $500 a month to commute 15 miles from Potter Valley to Ukiah, and Supervisor McCowen gets $250 a month to wend his way one mile from his home in Ukiah to Low Gap Road, which is also in Ukiah. (No one else in the County gets paid to drive to their jobs.)

Let's see. That's $12,000 a year for Pinches; $10,800 a year for Smith; $9,600 a year for Colfax; $6,000 a year for Brown; and $3,000 a year for McCowen. Total yearly Supes travel reimbursement: $41,400 — more than enough to cover the Grand Jury overrun without laying anyone off.

  • The Supes did, however, magnanimously "sacrifice" the $25/month road inspection stipend they used to get for doing nothing. During these uniquely insensitive discussions supervisor Colfax actually applied the word "sacrifice" to himself. Nobody laughed.

Some members of the public might ask, "But did the Supes talk about what to do about the state and county budget meltdowns? Will they make themselves examples of the new austerity by taking pay and perk cuts?

The answer so far is a resounding NO.

The Board didn't quite make it through their Tuesday agenda because Supervisor Pinches had to leave to appear at a State Water Resources Control Board hearing in Santa Rosa that evening to strongly object to the Water Board's proposed new heavy-handed septic system rules.

But that fizzled too. The Water Board canceled the hearing by the time Pinches got there because the hearing room wouldn't hold the more than 400 people who showed up to complain. It'll be rescheduled. We assume at least Pinches got travel money to drive down to the Rose City and back.

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