Why America Is Dying, Exhibit A

by Mark Scaramella, November 29, 2008

Most of the people commenting at last Monday's Supervisor's General Plan meeting wanted the Supervisors to give the interested public, much of it from Anderson Valley, more time to comment on the environmental part of the Updated County General Plan. The environmental impact report presently exists in draft form.

A few speakers were curious about the status of zoning changes affecting their own holdings. These concerns could have been processed just as easily without updating the entire General Plan, an Update now approaching a decade in preparation and several million public dollars wasted on boilerplate-producing consultants.

But one speaker, KZYX's Christina Aanestad, perhaps the only person in the room who was doing honest work, asked the Planning Team's droning consultants a question.

"I have a question," she began. "I have made calls to the Planning Team and the Planning Commission and the CEO's office. [They're out when they're in, in when they're out.] My calls for clarifications were not returned. So I thought I would try asking it here. This is regarding some potentially significant and unavoidable impacts regarding water. The Draft EIR says that subsequent land use activities may increase demand from groundwater sources, which could result in overdraft, a potentially significant impact. Then it goes into mitigations RM 6 and RM 14. The mitigations state that there's a lack of current knowledge of groundwater and the sustainability of aquifers with impacts that are considered significant and unavoidable because there is this lack of information. How can you have an EIR without the information? Am I missing something? ... Am I missing something?"

The room fell silent. Then, beginning with Board Chair Jim Wattenburger, people began to chuckle, chuckle uncomfortably.

Ms. Aanestad persisted.

"Am I? Am I misunderstanding?"

Finally, a young, insufferably smug, freshly hired planning consultant named Patrick Ford, from that well known bastion of forward thinking, Tulare County, condescendingly replied, "That's a legitimate comment. We don't respond to comments until the comment period is closed."

"When is that?" asked Aanestad.

"January," replied Ford with a straight face, at which point Aanestad would have been perfectly justified in leaping for his throat.

"So it will be answered in that document?" Aanestad wondered. "Why not now?"

The County's newly hired senior planning consultant, Audrey Knight, explained, "This is all the information that's available."

Aanestad refused to back off.

"Which is not information," she said. "There is no information. There is no information about groundwater availability. If this document establishes the future of land use planning, which has an increase in over 500 acres for residential, which is what you need water for, and that's a state law, how can you have an EIR if you don't have that information?"

Another long moment of silence. Ms. Knight was among the silent.

Ford finally offered, "Actually, there's quite a bit of information about what's known about both surface and groundwater. The final EIR will respond to this point and provide additional detail and information that at this point I don't have in my ready hands. That would give you everything you're looking for."

No it won't. There is no groundwater availability information. Ford's attempt at faking it seemed to be undermined by his "ready hands" malaprop.

Ms. Aanestad, fresh off a truly excellent report she did recently on Willits' water problems that indicated she's becoming something of a real authority on the subject, remained skeptical.

Aanestad continued before the insufferable Ford interrupted her, "Elsewhere in the document it does state that the—"

"Yes," Ford said, without knowing what the question was, but weasel wording as best he could. "If you look in under hydrology and water quality there's citations to the best available data regarding the groundwater conditions of the county."

But that wasn't the question nor the answer. Aanestad tried again.

"Uh-huh. So how come it says here that the knowledge regarding groundwater availability, that there's a lack of knowledge about groundwater availability?"

Ford dropped back to punt. Again: "We can respond to this in greater detail in the final EIR."

"Ok," Aanestad finally conceded.

Ms. Aanestad, new to the ways of official Mendo, doesn't know that direct answers are as rare in the County as people asking for them. Having embarrassed the whole gang of Ukiah-based incompetents, the young reporter can look forward to "potential litigant" status, meaning the County will have a legal reason to stonewall her.

Welcome aboard, Ms. Aanestad!

Next up was another person bordering on potential litigant designation, Gene Herr of Philo. After a few remarks about the timing of the process Ms. Herr asked, "Is there any compulsion anywhere that says that you have to do what you say you're gonna do?"

Another long, embarrassed silence, followed by another round of nervous laughter. Finally, County Counsel Jeanine Nadel whose office is complicit in this and all County boondoggles, replied with a non-sequitur:

"The attempt is to try," a statement that of course elicited more laughter.

Ms. Herr then pointed out that by her calculations the County has spent at least $2.5 million on the General Plan Update so far, and will probably spend another $1.9 million this year.

"You've spent lots of money, and you continue to spend money on a document that does nothing for us. If you're not gonna do anything why have you done all of this work?"

"Thank you for your comment," blandly replied Chair Wattenburger.

After finishing with the public comment the Board of Supervisors then voted 3-2 to give the public 15 more days for public comment. Supervisors David Colfax and Kendall Smith dissented, saying that the public ought to get at least 30 days more.

In explaining his dissent Supervisor Colfax said, "This is the sort of thing that gives us a reputation for being divided and argumentative. Fifteen days, a 14-day difference. Does it make a bit of difference? I wouldn't have suggested 30 days if I thought it was something we would cut in half just to make our point. I really find this just... I think the word here is, and excuse me, but the word is really... No, I'm not going to use the word. I just think it's inappropriate. I think we can waste time on more important things than 15 days of public comment period increase."

No bullshit there, Dave.

* * *

The next day, Tuesday, the board got a budget status report from the number cruncher in the Chief Executive's Office, Jennifer Wyatt. Ms. Wyatt told the board that the County's expensive new computerized financial tracking system known as "MUNIS" only produces "canned reports which are very limited in scope. They can't be printed and read easily by board." (Translation: the reports are as useless as the expensive program producing them.)

It might be possible to pay the County's Information Systems staff to create "customized reports," but, explained Wyatt, "Some reports are only for certain departments. There are security limitations."

Not on financial reports, there aren't. The public's money is public business. What Ms. Wyatt was saying was, "We can't just let any old somebody see these slightly improved financial reports even if we wanted to create them because then the public would see how incompetent we are."

Wyatt then gave the Supervisors a "detailed worksheet with breakdown by department," which provides no real detail at all. Of course it's too early to draw any major conclusions, said Wyatt, before she pointed out that the County is substantially exceeding its budgets for extra help and overtime.

Supervisor Delbar asked, "What controls do we have on overtime and extra help? Some departments have overtime and extra help which were not budgeted at all and others are over by more than 100%. Is there any oversight? Any authority? Is this legitimate?"

How could a sitting Supervisor not know the answer to this question?

Ms. Wyatt replied, "There are controls within MUNIS by series on salaries and benefits. If they go over it looks at that series. The authority to expend is monitored by the Auditor/Controller. MUNIS allows us to send out warnings, but we have not implemented that. It's not monitored that closely. It's monitored quarterly more in depth. But on a routine weekly basis, there's no monitoring of budgets except by 1000 series [total employee expense]."

That wasn't even close to an answer, so Delbar tried again: "So this big accounting system we spent boucoup bucks on can't tell us if we're exceeding a line item?"

Wyatt: "Yes. It can. We just didn't set it."

Delbar: "The Board said we wanted to keep tighter controls on overtime and extra help, to monitor that closer. If it's exceeded, there should be authorization or a reason or we should quit paying and department heads should be held accountable. You're not monitoring it closely enough for me."

At which point CEO Tom 'I'm looking into it' Mitchell replied, "We'll be talking about this subject again in our regular department head meeting next Wednesday."

Mitchell went on to reveal that he had just discovered that high-paid deputies spend a lot of time-and-a-half overtime schlepping the County's orange-suited, shackled sad sacks back and forth from jail to the courthouse every work day. Never mind that the cumbersome, costly logistics of the practice has been a well known financial drain and security problem since the jail on the top of the Courthouse was closed in the middle 1970s. CEO Mitchell said the extravagant transportation process was "interesting."

Mitchell's recommendation?

"We will follow up with the Public Defender, the District Attorney, the Sheriff and the courts to see what we can do, to do it without unnecessary overtime. The Sheriff has heard the message and is trying to monitor those expenses."

Mitchell not only didn't know about the obvious long-running prisoner transport overtime problem, he has no clue what to do about it. The problem has very little to do with the Sheriff's office. It has to do with the Courthouse and the judges. Under the late DA Norm Vroman, Vroman's impressive Assistant DA Rick Martin (now a judge in Lake County), proposed setting up a simple arraignment court in a corner of the Sheriff's conference room at the jail one day a week to handle many of the initial pleas and routine hearings. Martin, a rare interlude of intelligence and clarity in the everyday operations of the Courthouse, had the Public Defender, Probation and his own DA's office all ready to go.

But their majesties the judges wouldn't cooperate. Martin said that the judges insisted on the expensive appointments they have always enjoyed at the Courthouse installed at the Jail before they would deign to convene proceedings at the Jail. Independent of the County because they're state employees, the judges are, at best, indifferent to local budget deficits.

And Martin and Vroman are gone, and with them whatever intelligence there was in the DA's office and the Courthouse itself.

Even on the off chance CEO Mitchell gets beyond research into the realities of the Sheriff's transportation budget, he'll quickly discover that nobody in a position of authority at the Courthouse, i.e., the boys in the black robes, cares one whit about the County's precarious fiscal situation. If the judges lavish pay and perks were on the line you could be sure their indignant whelps would resound from Covelo to Gualala.

There was, additionally, a brief discussion of bringing travel and convention costs under control. Mitchell assured the board that he's talking about it with the biggest exploiters of the County's travel and conference: County department heads and the jive five supervisors.

County employees are going to be paying a 16% higher share of their healthcare costs again next year. (It was already raised by close to 25% last year.) The Board voted to raise the employee contribution so that, supposedly, the County's self-insured healthcare plan can cover its costs and rebuild its scant three-month reserve. Since the Employees Union has apparently satisfied itself with an outside, independent audit (only obtained through the filing of grievances) that the increase is justified, there will be no opposition from the union. Union rep Linda McClure told the Supes that the union's agreement this year does not mean they'll agree with future increases. (For many employees the two consecutive large health care increases have more than wiped out their pay increases). McClure also told the Supes that she hopes they'll reconvene the CEO's healthcare advisory committee to take a close look at the healthcare plan to see if any cost-reduction changes can be made.

As is obvious from the day's earlier discussions there is no basis whatsoever for such hope.

The final item on the Board's agenda last Tuesday was a neighbor dispute over a six-foot high redwood fence built by a south coast property owner without a permit. A neighbor disputed the fence and hired famous property rights attorney Jared Carter of Ukiah to file an appeal to the Supervisors on the grounds that the fence interfered with his client's "viewscape."

Supervisor Colfax didn't think the Board had a role in the dispute, saying, "Talk about being embarrassed, I'm wondering why I'm up here. Mendocino County protects viewscapes? Either I'm appalled by the legal concept here or I should have gone to law school."

Senior Planner Frank Lynch read a few excerpts from the County's General Plan about the County's general intent to "protect views and visual quality" — but not on private property.

Colfax continued, "It's ironic or entertaining to see Mr. Carter talk about protection of viewscapes and not protecting property rights. ... This idea of protecting viewscapes — sorry. I'm on the side of property rights. If you want that property you buy it from them. If you want that fence removed you buy it. Pay whatever price he wants. If he doesn't want to sell it that's, well, that's the way it is. Private property rights prevail here. I find it funny to be on this side of this particular issue. I am embarrassed that I even have to enter into this kind of discussion. This is not what we're up here for, to arbitrate on matters we know nothing about as I am clearly demonstrating at the moment."

And as the entire bunch demonstrates every Tuesday.

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