Mendocino Talking: Lee Howard
by Dave Smith, April 22, 2015
Lee grew up here in the Ukiah Valley, attending grade school and high school, graduating in 1964 — then he went off to Napa Junior College for awhile. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Alma, and they celebrated their 50 years together this past November. Lee is a general engineering contractor who does public jobs and private jobs, and also farms hay crops and a few cows.
I always had cows when my kids were at home because it would teach them responsibility. Now that they are gone they only teach ME a lot of work. I also dig wells and monitor them for Hazmat things — hazardous materials and identifying hazardous materials in the ground. I do site work. I remove old gas tanks, and ship away contaminated soils. I have done roads and streets when I had a lot of people working for me. I did a lot of work for Masonite when they were here. I did two bridges out in Potter Valley and several others. I also do underground pipe lines. I’ve done water tanks and water lines for Water Districts. I used to do a lot of public works jobs for the City of Ukiah — streets, roads, under-grounding. At one time, in the 70s and 80s, I had 30 people on my payroll. Now, I just keep a two- or three-man crew.
Recently I had people who like to grow weed come onto my place here because there’s a creek down there. They grew 60 plants. I told my guys to just let it grow. The plants were 7 to 8 feet tall and they were getting ready to harvest and I went down there with the dozer and leveled it. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to grow, but don’t bring it on my property and get me in trouble for it. They were mad as hell. They grow elsewhere around here and we put up with it — as long as they don’t do it on my property we leave them alone.
I’ve sat on Boards of Directors since 1977. I sit on the Mendocino County Russian River Flood Control and Water Conservation Improvement District Board. I also sit on the Redevelopment Oversight Board for the City of Ukiah that I was appointed to by the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors. Over the years I’ve sat on Fire District Boards, Water Districts, and on other boards. I also participate in the North Coast Builders Exchange, which is a private entity, and I’ve been on that Board.
So I went over to Public Works the other day and asked for a record. They wouldn’t give it to me. It was a simple contract that had been awarded. I wanted to see the contract because one of the contractors called me and said there were some shenanigans going on. They told me it had to go through the County Counsel. I said, “Excuse me, this is a public record.” I got into my car and drove over to see Mr. Losak, our County Counsel. I told him what was going on. He said he had to view every one of these public record requests as they come in. I asked what for? He said there may be litigation issues there. I asked how many records was he going through? He took me over to this tote in a dolly and it was filled with papers to see if they were appropriate to let them go to the public. Every department was shipping their requests to his office for review. One of the office assistants spends more than one day a week approving them and stamping them for release.
If you get into your car and you’re in Covelo, Point Arena, Gualala, Westport, Shelter Cove, and you drive into town here and you want to see something in the public record and you go to the office and ask for it, they ask you to fill out a form and you get to drive back home. And the next week they call you and tell you that you can come in and see it. That’s unacceptable to me. When you want to see something important, but have to wait a week, the fire’s gone out of you.
So I went back to Mr. Losak and told him what my problem was. I pulled out my “Bible,” The CalAware Guide to Open Meetings in California” and said, “Mr. Losak, it says right here that you have to make it available immediately. He checked the book and asked where I had gotten it. He said that they were still going to do it the way they were doing it. I said, Ok, fine, and went to two Supervisors offices before I left and said, “This is bullshit.” I got in my car and was headed back home and the phone rang and they said I could come by Public Works and see the file.
I’m a firm believer in the Brown Act and in the Public Records Act. It does not make you popular when you challenge them on that. A lot of people today don’t like having any controversy. We’re all supposed to get along. All it takes is for one person to ask the question. Why should I have to wait for a public record I’ve requested? It’s the people’s business. Why can’t I walk into a public entity and ask for a record and get to see it? Why should it go through a county attorney to tell me whether I can see it or not see it? That’s what they were doing. The Board has now seen that maybe that isn’t right. So we are going to have a discussion coming up shortly about a new policy.
This is where I come from. It’s my love for the community that keep’s me going on this. I’ve been told, at a public meeting, that I’m not welcome. I will see something on an agenda, I will show up at the meeting, and they won’t talk about the item I came to hear about.
Yesterday I went and visited Carmel [Carmel Angelo, CEO of Mendocino County]. Was I there for her to tell me? No. She works for us. And I went in to tell her about some of the things I think are wrong with our county government. They say they want to be transparent. They’re not transparent when they won’t give you records. They’re not transparent when they blow you off at the counter and tell you that you don’t need to know that. If I come in and ask for it I want to see it. It makes no difference why I want to see it.
Anyway, I think Ms. Angelo is doing a very good job.
A few years ago the County had a fleet of about 400 cars. Our building trades people said that they see these cars everywhere, but there is no insignia on them to identify them as county cars. So we asked the county to put County seals on every public car that they had with the exception of Sheriffs and deputy District Attorney investigating cars. Then we asked them to develop a list of people who were taking cars home and why. We got it through the Board of Supervisors and put a policy in place. The departments, of course, hated it. We got insignias on all the vehicles. Then the list came out and there were 70 people taking cars home from the county at night and we citizens were paying for their gas — Public Works, Assistant Public Works, Assistant to the Assistant of Public Works, the Bridge guy. Why? On this last round there were only 14 people who are now authorized to take a car home at night. We’re down from 400 to a hundred and something cars in the fleet now. There was even a Supervisor who liked to get a car out of the garage and drive it to Fort Bragg. With our network we were able to track where she was going and what she was doing. She was getting paid for a private car plus she was driving a county car. We requested that she pay back the mileage and the District Attorney forced her to do it. It was a couple of citizens who made this huge change happen. We put an end to it.
All the City of Ukiah cars are also now labeled. The only one we haven’t had any success with at all is the damn Ukiah Unified School District. They’ve got a fleet that’s growing every day. You go to the School Board meetings and you can’t even speak under public expression without filling out a card. Wait, the law doesn’t say you have to fill out a card in order to express your opinion. I’ll get to that one eventually.
On the Flood Control Board that I’m on I got into trouble recently for shaking my finger at somebody — it was in the news. Mr. Shoemaker, the Flood Control Board President didn’t like me calling them on something, so they decided to censure me on it. Richard Shoemaker runs a very heavy-handed board and he does what he wants to do, but I have a different opinion. There is often a 3 to 2 vote on issues, and I’m one of the who dissents. Richard doesn’t like that; he wants everybody to vote with him. He says that he is facilitating the meeting, and I say, No, you are manipulating the meeting. He gets all pissed off, but that’s okay. I don’t believe my free speech should be impaired because I sit on a Board.
So on a 3 to 2 vote last night they hired a consultant for $3,000 to come in and tell us how we should be getting along with one another. Richard Shoemaker looked at me and said, “You will participate, won’t you?” I said, “I voted no, didn’t I? Don’t you understand no?” Why do we need to spend $3,000 of our ratepayers money to tell us how to get along? Either we get along, or the voters kick us off the board. I don’t care. I despise facilitators who come in and try to manipulate everybody into being warm and fuzzy. Hey, wait just a minute. I’m here to do a job. We have 8,000 acre feet of water. I’m here to protect it for the citizens of the district. That’s what our job is. Period. You mean we have to pay somebody $3,000 and when we’re done with it he won’t even have talked about that 8,000 acre feet of water and how to protect it? He’ll talk about all this peripheral bullshit. Richard Shoemaker wants a unanimous vote on everything his way. Why? He has three votes. He won. Isn’t that good enough for him? I think dissent is a good thing in lots of cases.
You know we are dumping good water out of Lake Mendocino and letting it run to the ocean. We have been dumping over a thousand acre feet of water in the last couple of weeks for no reason at all. It’s an old policy called D-1610 which is a water right from the State Water Resources Control Board that issued a permit to Sonoma County that operates Lake Mendocino. It says they will release certain amounts of water in Lake Mendocino. They were releasing only 50 cubic feet per second up until March of this year. The National Marine Services, Fish & Game, Fish & Wildlife all said that amount of flow was not hurting the fish at all. But the rules from the 1970s say that you have to have 150 cubic feet per second in Healdsburg. They’re just dumping water for what? We may need that water here. Why dump it just to be dumping it? I’ve been asking about this for weeks.
The Governor’s proclamation recently was that we are in dire need of water and we need to save. Let’s see: the Governor says to save and do whatever it takes to do it and they’re still dumping. So we’re going to be sending a letter from the flood control district to various people saying we need to shut it down. Who’s to say that this drought continues and we have another dry year? Waste not, want not.
There are many other problems that people don’t recognize. Redwood Valley decided not to be in the Russian River Flood District and did not want to help pay for the dam because they said they would never need the water in the future. Rather than own 14,000 feet of water in Lake Mendocino, Russian River District only has 8,000 feet. But now, Redwood Valley and Mr. Shoemaker, and Mr. Zellman, and Mr. White think we should bring Redwood Valley into the Russian River Flood Control District and share the water with them. Redwood Valley has been in a water-hookup moratorium since 1987 because they don’t have adequate water. But, wait a minute. Redwood Valley is already using some of the 8,000 feet. The ag customers and the domestic customers in the flood control district paid for building the dam paying $633,000 for it and retired the bond. They’re entitled to their water. What’s fair here? Two of us said no, but the other three said yes and it’s going to the next step [LAFCO].
Redwood Valley does not have a building moratorium. You can build a house there, but you can’t get a water hookup. So you drill a well. In a half-mile radius, you have 15 wells pulling from the same area, so you go from 3-gallons a minute to a half-gallon a minute and you figure you have to deepen your well. How long can we continue to do that and keep up our quality of life? How many houses can have wells out there before it starts affecting the guy next door? The County does not want to address that. I bring it up now and then, but it’s not a popular topic. This is stupidity. We are designing Redwood Valley for disaster, and now it is here in the form of a drought. 180 truck loads a month, 4000 gallons each, are being trucked in to residents right now to fill tanks. How long can we sustain that? Where is that water coming from?
I think the biggest problem is that no one wants to take the time to come to meetings anymore. They would rather stay home and watch “reality” shows. It’s sad. A lot of people don’t care for me. I know that I’m not a real popular guy because I’m blunt and outspoken. I told the Board that I was going to the State and talk to the water people. I’m going to represent myself, not representing this Board. They don’t want me talking to governmental entities. I try to do my homework. The hell with them.
With our water problems, Supervisor Pinches suggested building a pipeline from Scout Lake up near Willits to Redwood Valley. The scouts were okay with it and the estimate was about a million dollars. The Redwood Valley Water Board said it was too expensive so they let it go. Why? They thought there was alluvial water under Redwood Valley and they got the state to pay big dollars for a well they said would pump 500 gallons a minute. They drilled down, around 600 feet deep. Maybe you might get 100 gallons a minute but it’s not good water. Big wells in Redwood Valley don’t work because the geologic formations out there are not water bearing. So now they’re thinking of drilling in another area and now we’re getting over a million dollars, aren’t we?
Redwood Valley is indebted to the Bureau of Reclamation for their water system to the tune of almost $7 million. There has been a surcharge on their water bills to pay the debt off that has built up to $3 million, and even though they owe it, they started spending the money looking for new water. They paid a guy $30,000 to go back to Washington DC and lobby to get that debt forgiven. He stayed a week at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. They think that’s okay? I have problems with that. It’s our money and that goes on all the time.
Who’s willing to go out of their way to come to the various Board meetings we have around this County? I don’t sit on the Fire Board in my district, but I am the only public citizen who comes to their meetings. They went through their agenda and didn’t ask for public comment on any of it. The public has a right to have input on each agenda item. How do we know what is going on? They said that they had set up an ad hoc group. The Brown Act says you can set up ad hocs and be in closed session, but it has to be of short duration or it has to be a standing committee that is open to the public. This ad hoc had been going on for two years and was continuing. And they were going to have a closed meeting with only invitees allowed. Unfortunately, the only way to get this stuff dealt with now is to get your own attorney.
There are 51 special districts in Mendocino County, governmental entities with elected boards: fire districts, sewer districts, water districts, cemetery districts, community service districts, etc. I don’t get all the agendas mailed to me, but I get most of them. So I get this agenda and it says “Bonus for Employees.” Wait just a minute. I ask them what this is all about and they say that they give Christmas bonuses to their employees. I said, “Really?” I ask how much are they? Well, it varies. I asked what the highest was. $5,000 was the answer. “You gave an employee of yours a $5,000 bonus? Do you know there is a strict prohibition against that in the State constitution?” “Oh, Really? Well, thank you Mr. Howard.” Am I being a hardass? The law says you can’t do it. They can be held personally liable for the total of $12,000 they paid out. So I notified the Grand Jury, but I doubt there will be anything about it in their report. People don’t like you bringing things like this up. What am I doing wrong?
People will say that Ukiah has a five-member City Council. It’s not a five-member Board, but it’s a six-member Board. I’ve watched city managers change, and Council members change many times, department heads change, yet things don’t change at the city. There is one thing that hasn’t changed in 24 years. Since Randy Hayes left as the employed City Attorney, David Rapport came on board, and he sits there, not only as the City Attorney, but the sixth member of the City Council. He sits up on the dais just like the Council does, and he interjects himself not only in legal, but also in policy. You can see it happen. The only thing he doesn’t get to do is vote, but he’s already voted, lots of times. He knows where all the skeletons are. New Council members drink the Koolaid. I told the City Council that they not only need to get rid of the City Manager, they need to get rid of the City Attorney. He knows just enough to always keep the status quo.
It’s too bad there isn’t a group around here that could do some of this stuff. Pretty soon we’ll get to total anarchy where the law doesn’t mean a thing because no one is interested in making our democracy work by paying attention.