Ray Hall’s Revenge

by Mark Scaramella, July 8, 2009

Bad news for the supervisors. More and more people are tuning in to Jay Johnson's crucial on-line video service called UkiahValley.tv.

The wired part of Mendocino County's population, and we mean wired in the cyber sense, not the infamous self-medicating sense achieved at the cost of one's teeth and gray matter, can now watch the local leadership live. And put them on pause. And replay them. And even delete them, although only on-screen.

So, when we heard excited reports that "Wattenburger completely flipped out!, swearing about something having to do with solid waste and the other people in the room had to calm him down" we were naturally curious; curious, but not surprised because of this crew of supervisors can be very peculiar, individually and collectively.

But after reviewing the video of the meeting what we saw was a few melodramtic comments uttered while the Supes were discussing raising County fees across the board in obvious anticipation of the looming budget shortfall. The supervisors explained the expected shortfall merely as "costs have gone up." Some costs have gone up. But their own profligacy and gross mismanagement of the County's declining cash flow was, of course, ignored as the major contributing factor it is.

One of the proposed fee increases was a $1 or $2 per-cubic-yard garbage dumping fee hike. Somehow the Supes packet had an earlier proposal which nicked Caspar at a higher rate than the rest of the County's trash transfer sites. The revised proposal with a flat rate applied everywhere in the County didn't get into the Supe's package.

Confusion reigned. A series of obfuscating motions, pointless modifications, more pointless modifications, and irrelevant corrections ensued, thus multiplying the original mystification.

Wattenburger grumpily declared: "This is one of the most ugly documents that has come before me in four years. Dates, dollars, are not clear. There are too many concerns. Can we even act on such a document? We have a modification to a modification to a modification..."

"And a correction," Supervisor David Colfax chuckled.

But Wattenburger was annoyed by the confusion: "What I'm concerned about is the difficulty that this short little fat bald guy is having understanding, let alone asking the public to understand, what we're trying to do here. We're supposed to be the experts and I'm not exactly sure of dates, dollars, etc. We've had a lot of discussion. This should have been a much more fleshed-out document. Easy to read for the public. Easy to read for dumb supervisors. Or a dumb supervisor, I'm sorry. [ms notes: Right the first time, Jim.] And be able to bring it back in a clear concise situation. So maybe it's just me being tense and tired and late but um um I think maybe that unless there's a pressing need for these dollars tomorrow this might need to come back to us at the next meeting or something in a more clear and concise document that we can understand and we can answer questions to the public."

Supervisor Colfax, who had made several modifications to the original motion said, "I withdraw my second complicated or straightforward as it may have been because I think here what we need to do is just adopt the sentiment that Supervisor Pinches has expressed [postponing the whole fee increase discussion]. After your comments that it has confused a short bald guy, this hairy guy — I forgot to shave my beard (laughs) — this guy over here is not willing to uh, uh cloud your mind or tell you you really understand it when you think you don't. So I don't think we need to go forward with this at this time regardless of what County Counsel provides us with. We need to examine this anew and I think the day has taken its toll."

Supervisor Kendall Smith, was confused at her colleagues' confusion: "I don't see what lack of clarity there is with solid waste fees," she said. "But fine, continue solid waste to the next meeting."

There was no second for simplicity.

Pinches then moved to "continue the whole thing to another meeting. There are no life threatening changes here. I move to continue to August 5. To allow for corrections."

The supervisors eventually continued the subject to July 22.

The short little fat bald guy seemed mollified.

But going completely unremarked, however, were the following big ticket items on the consent calendar: "Approval of Request to Transfer Funds in the Amount of $1,200,000 ... Due to increased costs assocated with provider contracts, Health and Human Services Agency/Mental Health Branch," and "Approval of Fiscal Year 2008/2010 Agreement with Workforce Investment Board and Mendocino Private Industry Council in the amount of $2,344,176 for provision of Workforce Investment Act One-Stop Operation Services."

The state's budget is in free fall. Half of Mendocino is on fire. The current "budget" is nothing but a place holder. But multi-million-dollar contracts and with their huge cost increases disappear into the consent calendar while the Supervisors spend a wacky hour complaining about minor glitches in a proposed garbage rate increase?

John Pinches suggested that one way to reduce the budget deficit would be for the County to make more of an effort to get Mendo's many unpermitted buildings and improvements on to the Assessor's tax rolls. Pinches said the County should hire an outside company to find them like the County did in 1995, and also at his urging, the last time a major effort to locate buildings erected outside the permit process.

Back in the day, during Pinches' first term in office, he'd convinced a reluctant County Assessor, Charles Cliburn, that the County should do a systematic flyover of vast Mendoland where, the supervisor was certain, whole new neighborhoods, hitherto unknown, heck, hitherto unsuspected had arisen. Pinches wanted to hire a company that specializes in identifying unpermitted structures via low level flyover photography.

Which the supervisors did at a cost of roughly $45,000, but getting much more back in long-term property assessments of buildings nobody in the Assessor's office had known existed.

Pinches tried to get the current board to agree to a new flyover.

"The contractor gets a cut of whatever is newly assessed," Pinches noted, meaning that there probably won't be much net cost for getting the aerial property id.

"I'm not for increasing taxes," Pinches explained. "But it's an issue of tax fairness. Why should the people playing by the rules subsidize those who don't?"

But the rest of the Board was cool to the idea. They agreed to talk about it again someday, maybe, but no date was set.

The big news last week, reported here for the first time, was the major delay and its accompanying cost, a very large cost increase, for the County's already long-delayed and overly expensive General Plan Update. The consultant-driven update has been in the works for more than seven years now, at a cost of more than a million dollars so far for a very bad product, skimpy in many areas and downright wrong in many others. Its language has been watered down to the point that it doesn't commit the County to much of anything. The Supervisors also won't commit to anything because, obviously, the County is now incapable of meeting commitments.

To the Supervisors, commitments are nothing but a prescription for pesky lawsuits. They were sued in the 90s for not having the required grading ordinance the General Plan used to require. More recently they were sued for not doing anything about "inclusionary housing," a subject which the state requires counties to be specific about, giving public interest attorneys a perfect opportunity to sue if the counties aren't specific.

In 2005 John Ball was hired as Mendocino's new Chief Executive Officer, and Developers Diversified Realty (DDR) bought the 84-acre tract of industrially zoned Masonite property north of Ukiah, bought it knowing that they needed to have the zoning changed from industrial to commercial to get their supposedly "green" mall project built.

DDR went full steam ahead on the mall project as if the rezone was a done deal, and last year their expensive demolition of the left over industrial facility on the Masonite site was completed.

One of Ball's first acts as CEO was the creation of the so-called "Planning Team" which took the larger, longer-term planning projects out from under Ray Hall's Planning Department where they had been languishing unaddressed or in various stages of undress, lost in Hall's famously unexplored in-box. Those tasks included the General Plan Update and the accompanying Ukiah Valley Area Plan, plus accompanying Environmental Impact Reports. Also on the Planning Team's agenda were the Mendocino Town Plan, an updated Local Coastal Plan, and an updated inclusionary housing ordinance.

The General Plan Update was also supposed to be the vehicle by which the DDR zoning change was implemented.

This large set of tasks would have been a challenge even to a competent and properly staffed Planning Team. But the County had neither. The Planning Team had one experienced planner, Pam Townsend (whose experience was limited to Mendocino County, but was at least experience), plus Hall and former Social Services Director Alison Glassey and PMC, a consulting outfit from the Sacramento area.

Even if Ms. Townsend had not quit — she left in frustration to take a job with the more orderly City of Ukiah — the Planning Team concept was destined to fail. And so it did.

Having been dormant under Hall, the Planning Team received the planning ball but quickly fumbled it, losing community input, plodding on aimlessly with vague goals. Nothing happened in the two years between Mr. Ball's summary execution for the crime of demanding that the public's business, i.e, raises for the supervisors and the doubling of their travel budget, be conducted in public. The supervisors sacked Ball for not playing ball, one could say.

Last week Glassey, who always plays ball, told the Supes that the Planning Team's senior consultant, Mr. Phil Gorny, has also quit, and that Mr. Hall has submitted his retirement notice. This brings the vaunted Planning Team down to Glassey, two junior planners and a recently hired intern. Consequently, Ms. Glassey proposed to the Supes last week that they hire yet another consultant, Audrey Knight, a former St. Helena town planner, for "up to" $177k calculated at the rate of $85 an hour.

Glassey also proposed to have the Central Valley planning consulting outfit (Pacific Muncipal Consultants) on contract for at least one more year for "up to" $277k. These are the people who've run up a large tab on Mendocino County for providing the County with a load of boilerplate the County could have downloaded from the internet for no cost.

The General Plan update now includes several new planning tasks: a State-required "green house gas analysis," a water supply assessment for the Ukiah Valley Area Plan ($100k), and an updated traffic study.

These new tasks were, of course, pounced on by Glassey as the latest excuse for yet another major delay in the General Plan Update process.

And, according to supervisor Pinches, his reading of the $100k water supply study contract is that "it will raise more questions than it will answer."

According to the Board minutes "Following Ms. Glassey's presentation [entitled ÔPlanning Team Work Program, July 1, 2008 - December 31, 2009], Board comment reflected: frustration... concern... [and] reservations..."

Board comment did not reflect anything about schedules, budget commitments, or reasons for further delays and expense.

By January of 2009 the Board of Supervisors will have one, and probably two new members who will want to put in their two cents on the General Plan process, leading to more delays and additional costs. Both candidates in the run-off to replace Jim Wattenburger (Estelle Clifton and John McCowen) are on the record as opposed to the DDR rezone. And Carre Brown, who's likely to unseat Mike Delbar in the First District, is also on record as opposing the rezone.

Supervisors Colfax and Smith are also assumed to be opposed to the rezone.

We'll probably never know the particulars, but here's how it looks — since it's always safe to assume that personalities and petty vindictiveness are always the driving factors in official Mendocino County, not policy questions or good management.

Although former CEO John Ball was probably right in taking the major planning tasks out of Hall's ill-managed department, Hall was probably irked that his department lost the funding for the major projects and one of his top planners, Pam Townsend, instead of being properly funded and staffed as Hall had probably recommended all along.

Once the big ticket tasks were taken away from Hall, he no longer had any responsibility for them and could enjoy the spectacle of the inexperienced Glassey and her outside consultants getting nowhere slowly while running up costs.

In Hall's mind, a continuously delayed General Plan Update does at least two things: it proves that the Supes and former CEO Ball were wrong to take it away from Hall; and it reflects badly on the two supervisors who hired the irksome Mr. Ball, Wattenburger and Delbar, and everyone else who wanted the Masonite site rezoned and thought they could do it with a slight of Plan.

Along the General Plan's stumbling way, the Supervisors never asked the Planning Team for budget or schedule commitments and never complained for the record about the costly delays. All they could muster last week when Glassey announced the latest delay and cost increase was 1) Colfax's fatuous remark that using outside consultants does not build up in-house planning capacity, and 2) Maybe it's time to put the planning team back in the Planning Department.

After having been annoyed by a minor glitch in the solid waste fee increase proposal, lame duck Supervisor Jim Wattenburger took a ho-hum attitude to the latest round of planning delays and cost increases: "We should do it right the first time. We should provide the best document to the public."

Anyone who's read the various drafts of the General Plan Update knows that "providing the best document to the public" has never been a consideration.

So for a couple of million planning dollars down the rat-hole, the residents of Mendocino County get nothing — no more Masonite, no mall, no planning, a perfect trifecta!

And the meter is still running.

PS. After a perfunctory "emergency" meeting about the fires in the County last Monday — conclusion: It's bad! We need to write a letter! — the Supervisors are taking the next few weeks off to rest and recuperate. Their next meeting will be July 22nd, and Mr. Johnson's cameras will roll again.

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