What Kind of Supervisor Would John McCowen Be?

by Mark Scaramella, August 28, 2009

KZYX listeners are famously tolerant of audio tedium. But even they may recall Ukiah City Councilman John McCowen's long-winded appearances on the evening news when the droning Ukiah City Councilman delivered narcoleptic lectures on the sewer lateral upgrade process in Ukiah. These presentations were boring even by KZYX standards, and if you don't know what a sewer lateral upgrade is, and have trouble sleeping, please call McCowen. He'll knock you out a lot faster than Ambien.

Like former Supervisor Shoemaker, another master of verbal chloroform, McCowen used Ukiah's sewer lateral upgrade grant program to get himself on KZYX where he sounded like (1) the world's foremost authority on sewage disposal (2) a weapons-grade bore, and (3) a very weird practical joke. Since nobody was awake by the time McCowen finally shut up no one can say if he knew what he was talking about, but KZYX never jokes, so you can rule out number three.

The sane approach to issues of the sewer lateral type would be to reduce them to a couple of sentences and ask the few masochists who want more to call McCowen (or a city staffer) for details. But institutional sanity long ago fled Mendocino County, so every night, as tax-supported public radio news, we get endless presentations by either the master himself or McCowen-like drones buzzing endlessly on about comparably arcane subjects of interest to no one but the speaker.

McCowen and his brain trust — Richard Shoemaker, Mike Sweeney and Ross Liberty, two of whom have obvious mental health issues — realized that McCowen wouldn't be able ride sewer laterals into a seat on the County Board of Supervisors. McCowen, his advisors knew, would need a more engaging issue.

In Mendocino County that issue is dope.

McCowen and friends devised Measure B to criminalize mom and pop growers and to erode public support for medical marijuana, all the while claiming they were after large-scale grows.

Last Tuesday, McCowen appeared before the Board of Supervisors to urge the supervisors to go after "criminal, commercial problem growers." One might think marijuana is the only local government issue. For McCowen, it is the only issue because it's the one he thinks will get him a Supervisor's job.

The cynically devised Measure B does not target "criminal, commercial problem growers." It targets people growing 25 or fewer plants.

McCowen told the Supervisors that the County's nuisance ordinance needs a criminal provision like the one he pushed through in Ukiah for those "who refuse to come into compliance." He said the civil enforcement process takes too long, allowing growers to harvest their crop before any action can be taken against them.

Just as the Supervisors began to nod off at McCowen's sonorous delivery, McCowen invoked Sheriff Tom Allman's pre-election claim that he'd need six additional deputies whether B passed or failed.

"Lots of people are growing far beyond the bounds of what's reasonable," declared McCowen. "If we want to be serious about bringing the bad actors into line we need to devote additional resources to this. I know this is a tough budget year. But I encourage you to find additional funds to give Sheriff Allman the six additional deputies he needs to be effective."

The consensus bad actors are the armed thugs who annually establish themselves on public and private lands. The bad actors are not small-scale grows by individual property owners McCowen's Measure B targets.

Six additional deputies would cost upwards of a million dollars a year in salaries, overtime, benefits, pensions, health coverage, outfitting and vehicle costs. McCowen didn't say where he thought the $1 million should come from and, of course, as we all know, even 60 more deputies couldn't get to even half the gardens flourishing in the county, as a simple calculus of deputies in relation to Mendocino County's 3500-plus square miles informs us.

Nor did the Ukiah demagogue mention any of the County's other problems, such as the grotesquely bloated Health and Human Services staffing, a completely non-functional and expensive Planning Team (and associated endless General Plan Update delays), the non-functioning planning department management crew and on and on. (McCowen served as a Planning commissioner to no visible effect.)

Most of public expression was taken up by other Measure B advocates who also asked the Supes to crack down on smaller urban gardens, as if backyard and indoor grows are the most pressing local social problem.

The Measure B people did have one proposal that made sense to everybody, including the anti-Measure B opposition. Diesel fuel delivery outfits should be prohibited from pumping into anything but permitted tanks; they should not be allowed to deliver fuel to the leaking, off-the-books plastic jobs that many large-scale growers maintain. Unfortunately, the Supes didn't pick up on this no-brainer of a proposal and the discussion drifted back into the usual rhetorical pot swap.

Ukiah resident Cathy Puterbaugh sounded distraught, beleaguered even.

"Mendocino County is miserable. We need help from the Supervisors. We have been overrun by criminals in the countryside and in residential areas. You need backbone because they don't care about anyone else. All they care about is money. Greedy people are using medical claims to make tons of bucks. The County is so wimpy that it can't enforce its laws, which is making us miserable. You need to stand up and be strong. Please help us out."

Willits resident Joe Colison told the Supes he agreed that there should be some control over diesel fuel deliveries and then quoted Supervisor Pinches from an appearance Pinches made at a meet-and-greet in Willits recently: "Measure B is all about going after marijuana gardens between 6 and 25 plants."

Which it is, as McCowen knows because he and Sweeney wrote it knowing full well the gun boys up in the hills with the huge grows were the people causing almost all the problems, from environmental to social, but to go after them would require law enforcement mobilization on the scale of the recent lightening strike fires. It's easy and profitable to pick off residential growers. They're stationary, not moving targets. And the DA can take their property with impunity. A Mexican syndicate growing thousands of plants in the Mendocino National Forest is not a value-added target.

McCowen's calm, intelligent supervisorial opponent, Estelle Palley Clifton, neatly assessed McCowen's appearance before the supervisors this way:

"This issue is using public expression time for campaign related posturing," said Clifton. "You should not deal with this situation at the urging of a private interest group. The best way is to engage the diversity of stakeholders. Discuss issues as a united group. Don't let one stakeholder take over the process. You should facilitate a broader community dialogue."

Supervisor John Pinches replied that he supported a 50 plants per parcel limit (two patients with 25 plants per). But Pinches was indignant that the Measure B forces can't seem to focus. "Measure B has us arguing over 25 to 6 plants," said Pinches. "What about the 2, 3 5 hundred gardens? Gardens with thousands of plants? Isn't that where we should start? They're sucking streams dry — literally dry. Redwood Valley can't water cows, horses, sheep, let alone grapes. We're arguing about 6-24 plants? Come on! Let's get smart about this!"

Amen.

Supervisor Colfax seconded Pinches.

"I will avoid saying I told you so. This is exactly the direction I saw us going — a pseudo problem with pseudo measures. Are we going to continue this charade into the future? ... We can't deal with the big problem so let's deal with the little problem and say we did something. I see a proto-vigilante attitude here. When we start talking about flyovers to see where people are with equipment, to see into the rooms in houses, I get very nervous about the kind of country were moving to. We're not dealing with 10,000 plant issues or 5,000 plant issues. We have limits on what we can do so we pick on mom and pop growers. 'Save our local economy'? I'm not sure what that's about, 25 plants? I'm not sure if that's what we're about. We need to look at issues that make this country at least half-way reasonable to live in at this time."

If McCowen is elected supervisor, we will get Colfax's scenario and then some.

Lame duck Board Chair Jim Wattenburger tried to be accommodating, but what exactly Wattenburger was trying to accommodate wasn't clear.

"We'll put this on a future agenda very soon," he said.

By Mendo standards "very soon" probably means next year when Wattenburger's no longer on the Board.

Wattenburger then suggested "a citizens advisory board" to discuss the pot issue where, of course, it will be endlessly debated then buried beneath a headstone reading, "Here Lies Irresolution."

Wattenburger concluded with the preposterous declaration, "Then we can lead."

The Board spent almost an hour on an "economic development report" by a young suit named Steve Dunicliff. Dunicliff has spent some time documenting the dismal business climate in Mendocino County, which he and others say could be improved. Almost everybody thought Mr. Dunicliff had done a great job, implying that they weren't accustomed to great jobs from young men on the County's payroll, but when the discussion inevitably drifted into beefing up Mr. Dunicliff's staffing, Supervisor Pinches interjected that old bugaboo, common sense.

"We have a backlog in Building and Planning. We don't need another CEO staffer. If we add to anything we should add to the Transportation Department or Planning and Building. How can there be a backlog [of business applications] when there's so little going on? We need to address the backlog before any more hires. Projects get approved but nothing is happening. We should fix these problems right now."

The afternoon session was dominated by more than two hours of discussion about whether a doorway and two planter boxes at the MacCallum House Inn in the town of Mendocino was an "encroachment" onto a county road. Supervisor Colfax angrily denounced County staff for not nailing the encroachment when it first appeared.

But Supervisor Delbar disagreed. "Here is an applicant trying to restore this historical building, and we've been sitting here for two hours arguing about a 32 inch step."

By a three to two vote, the Supes voted to allow the Innkeepers to keep their planter boxes and doorway on the street.

More than two hours on the planter boxes; zero hours on an uncontested ordinance on diesel fuel deliveries.

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