Marauding Bears & Abalone Poachers

by Mark Scaramella, March 25, 2010

Board Chair Carre Brown introduced newly promoted CEO Carmel Angelo last week by saying, “This will be your first report in the official position.”

That position might soon be prone with her own pistol pointed at her head given the County's financial situation, among the most dire, relative to its size, in the state. Mendocino County has a big load of debt, not as bad as some counties, but still big.

Ms. Angelo proceeded to inform the board that the County’s $7.6 million net deficit will roll over into next fiscal year and dealing with it will involve “workforce reduction.”

Ms. Angelo also told the board that retiree health benefits may be exhausted as early as January 2011. The CEO’s special retiree health benefits sub-committee is considering moving Medicare eligible retirees into Medicare supplemental plans, which Angelo says could produce savings. The CEO’s office is still evaluating the younger non-Medicare eligible retirees.

Deputy CEO Jennifer Wyatt responded to a previous board request about conducting a poll to see if Mendo’s citizens would support some kind of tax to help close the budget gap (although it wouldn’t kick in for at least another year). Ms. Wyatt said that such polls cost at least $28,000 and could be funded out of the CEO’s budget. Then the CEO’s office would make recommendations based on the results.

Supervisor John Pinches asked how much it would cost to skip the poll and go directly to the ballot.

Ms. Wyatt said there wouldn’t be any new cost for that. (Although that’s debatable.)

Pinches then asked, “Then why not take it directly to the voters? Why spend $30,000 to hire a consultant?”

And why put it on the ballot when the answer would be a resounding NO?

A small parade of Mendo conservatives including Employers Council rep Mark Johnson, former Supervisor John Mayfield, a local businessman named McGehee, and Measure B zealot Ross Liberty, all said they were not only opposed but they were surprised the Board was even considering a tax in the current economic climate.

Instead of simply saying he didn’t think a poll was necessary, Supervisor Colfax took the opportunity to make sure everyone knew about his polling expertise.

“A poll is not necessary. We know that 13% of the people in California think that the way out of the budget crisis is by increasing taxes. We know that 52% of the people in California feel that cutting back on services, somebody else's services usually, should be cutback to get out of the budget crisis. The 13% they are talking about somebody else being taxed. So we don't need a poll. What we may need is some idea of what we might look at if we put something on the agenda. Transient Occupancy Tax [bed tax]? A parcel tax? The size of tax? No taxes? The ideological parts of that are quite clear in Mendocino County and it may require education, or it may require the experience of what really happens when we do cut back and follow the business model that Mr. Liberty presents. Even in this climate – bailouts to the private sector – seem to come to mind that, uh, that particular point of view somewhat. But I guess Mr. Liberty remains firm in his perspective. I admire that. I respect it. But I think right at the moment going forward with a poll is a waste of money. We know that there is going to be hostility. We know that there is going to be opposition. And we know that it may very well be justified. And in that regard, I would say that we should be spending our time here talking about revenue enhancements; I do not think we should even begin to think of doing a poll, even though in the last 30 years I've conducted probably 200 polls. But I also knew when to advise a client or a potential client not to waste his or her money. In this particular case I am saying, Don't waste your money, County…"

When it came time to vote on the poll, the Board voted 4-1 against polling Mendocino County's distracted population. Only Supervisor Smith thought a poll would help define what kind of tax should be proposed.

Most of the rest of the afternoon was spent on a proposal from the County’s Fish and Game Advisory Commission on how the County’s portion of Fish and Game fine money should be allocated.

Commission Chair Craig Bell told the board that their recommendations for how to spend almost $90k of the $140k they’ve accumulated in recent years were developed with the broadest range of representation in Commission history.

The recommendations included money to allow County reps to participate in the designation process for Marine Life Protection Act restriction areas; money to cover some legal costs for taking the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to court over their arbitrary licensing and permitting process (two local lawyers are donating their time, but the County must cover their modest expenses); a second pair of night-vision goggles for the Coastal Fish and Game wardens, a deer decoy (to help catch deer poachers) and a few other fish-friendly smaller projects.

Bell pointed out that the goggles and the deer decoy will lead to additional arrests and fines, which will more than pay for their cost in upcoming years.

When asked about why the Commission had not funded the recently organized Mendocino Coast Ab Watch project, Bell replied that the Commission was already providing $25k to game wardens (for the night vision goggles and associated gear) and that the Commission did not want to spend all their money on abalone alone.

Supervisor Pinches urged that some of the money go to the County’s trapper program because controlling bears and mountain lions helps fish and game.

Bell told Pinches that the trapper program had been thoroughly hashed out in the past. Using Commission money for trappers is only legal for operations on public lands, said Bell.

“If they operate on private lands that's an illegal use of our funds. There has to be direct public benefit. You can't even benefit deer habitat projects on private ranches unless the public does a lot of hunting there. Otherwise you're benefiting a private hunt club. Controlling coyotes on sheep ranches may benefit the ag community but technically it doesn't benefit public hunting and fishing. And we are bound by that, legally.”

Pinches wasn’t satisfied. “Trappers respond to lots of calls,” said Pinches. “Whether it's mountain lions or bears breaking into people's houses. Can we bill Fish and Game for that? It’s to no avail. Trappers respond to Fish and Game problems. Trapping benefits deer herds. Bear and mountain lions are a general public problem. Fish and Game refers people to trappers for lion and bear problems. We all know that when somebody has a bear break into their house somebody has to go to the call. Without trappers it would be law enforcement at four or five times the cost. Consider helping the trapper program. Wardens are not equipped to handle bear problems.”

Bell repeated that such efforts are legal only if the efforts are on public property.

Mendocino Coast Ab Watch organizer Rod Jones of Mendocino has gone on record with complaints about how Bell’s Commission disburses their funds. He took the podium to explain.

“There’s trouble in River City,” said Jones. “There’s a process problem, and it’s very bad. We are seeing these grant proposals for the first time here today. Some very vague proposals get funding. Some involve interested commissioners. There’s nothing for federal programs. And the commission is holding back $57k without explanation. Why use these funds as advocacy against MLPA which is a state program? End cronyism and end using public money to punish people if you don't like what they're doing. Especially in respect to various members of our group involved in the MLPA process.”

Jones asked that the Board of Supervisors to:

1. Reject all the recommendations and send them back to the Commission and have them re-do them. "They say they have rating sheets and evaluation criteria. Have you ever seen those? I have not seen those. You're entitled, we're entitled to see them.”

2. "Turn over the rating sheets to the public and see how they do it.”

3. Publish the criteria so people know what they are countywide.

Bell said that their methods and forms are available on request.

Coastal Game Warden Don Powers told the Board that the first set of night goggles did, indeed do some good. But they need a second pair.

“You can't just sneak up on these guys,” said Powers. “Night vision makes cases a lot easier. My colleagues don't have these goggles. It’s also a question of officer safety.” Powers agreed that Rod Jones’ Ab Watch program did help and he expected it would continue to help.

The lovely young Dr. Jeanine Pfeiffer stood to say she was a professional ethno-ecologist who was working with other Coastal residents to determine the socio-economic impact of the proposed Marine Life Protection Act ocean closures. Ms. Pfeiffer bemoaned the “divisiveness” that she saw among various groups whose lives and livelihoods would be negatively affected by ocean restrictions. “So far, the MLPA charter only goes to the dock,” said Dr. Pfeiffer, meaning that the effects on the coastal economy need to be factored in.

Supervisor Colfax launched into another windy monologue on socio-economic considerations and so on and on and on as Dr. Pfeiffer cheerfully “mm-hmm'd” like a one-woman doo-wop chorus after nearly every sentence.

When Colfax finally wound down, Dr. Pfeiffer, the very picture of propriety, noticed that Chair Carre Brown was getting antsy. “Madam Chairman did you want to say something?”

“No,” laughed Ms. Brown. “I'm trying to limit the supervisor’s statements.”

After a few more minutes of techno-speak from Dr. Pfeiffer, who droned on herself for several more minutes, Ms. Brown saw to her probable dismay that her fellow board members wanted to continue the wildlife protection discussion, if that's what it was. “I'll go to ... and ... for just a short comment because Supervisors have used up their time.”

Supervisor Pinches said, “Don't be too concerned about our time. We'll put a $1 million item on the consent calendar and speak all afternoon about a $5,000 item.”

The board then voted to approve Bell’s Commission recommendations with the addition of $2500 for binoculars and cameras for Rod Jones’ Ab Watch. Colfax and Pinches objected to parts of it to no avail.

This week the Board will hold its long-delayed budget workshop. No doubt Supervisor Pinches' observation will be on full display as the Board nitpicks its way through the budgets for important services while continuing to make sure that the budget ax stays well clear of those who wield it.

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