The Measure U Forum

by Malcolm Macdonald, April 27, 2016

In Fort Bragg, California, where the name of its earliest entrepreneur, Alexander Macpherson, is misspelled on street signs, things often get screwed up. The April 22nd League of Women Voters (LWV) forum on Measure U provides an ongoing case in point. Measure U would add the following sentence to Fort Bragg's Municipal Code, “A social service organization is not a permitted use under any circumstances unless such organization was established and existing at a location within within the CBD [Central Business District] zoning district prior to January 1, 2015.”

According to one of the moderators, proponents of Measure U had contacted the LWV just a day or two before the forum, stating they would not appear. However, come forum night the Measure U proponents had lined up Jim Britt (brother of attorney Ron Britt) to speak on their behalf. He was joined at the proponents table by Jeanne Stubenrauch, co-owner of Mendo Litho, which is located directly across Franklin Street from the new Mendocino Coast Hospitality Center (former site of the Old Coast Hotel). That Hospitality Center, which provides mental health services and is scheduled to eventually have five rooms (ten beds) of housing upstairs for those transitioning out of homelessness, is essentially the target of Measure U.

Jim Britt spent much time apologizing for his lack of preparation. Ms. Stubenrauch sat nearly silent until offering a brief statement during closing remarks at the hour and a half forum. That left the ball primarily in the hands of the three folks who spoke against Measure U, Scott Menzies (proprietor of Perfect Circle Tai Chi), Fort Bragg resident Nancy Severy, and Mara Thomas (President of the Board of Art Explorers, a non-profit).

Early on Ms. Thomas pointed to the case of Pathway Psychosocial Support Center v. Leonardtown, Maryland. Even a cursory look at that case from the late 1990s — early 2000s displays eerie similarities to what is going on in Fort Bragg. Ms. Thomas claimed that the ruling in the Pathway case cost Leonardtown well over a half million dollars in damages, let alone the legal costs of mounting a several years long defense. The Leonardtown case involved the Pathways organization attempting to move into a vacant downtown building in which Pathways would provide counseling services to clients with mental health issues; much the same as the Hospitality Center at the Old Coast Hotel site. When Pathways was denied their move, lawsuits going up to the federal district court level ensued. The one major difference in the Pathways case: Leonardtown's city government caved in to public pressure after petitions from townspeople demanded Pathways be denied zoning permits. Fort Bragg's City Council has come out publicly against Measure U, at least in part because of the threat of lawsuits like Pathways.

On the surface, watching the April 22nd forum, it was clear that the opponents of Measure U won the debate hands down. It's equally clear that if the measure should happen to pass when all ballots are cast, lawsuits would inevitably follow, lawsuits based on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), 14th Amendment rights of equal protection under the law, and other legal sticking points, but there are some bigger things going on in Fort Bragg and the defeat of Measure U will not make those issues go away.

Measure U is at its core a reactionary item. There is reactionary frustration in Fort Bragg because a sizable portion of its population is still reeling from the closure of the Georgia-Pacific mill more than a dozen years ago and the loss of almost all of its fishing industry in roughly the same time frame. Those hardworking, middle class jobs are gone. Some if not many of the good folks who had those jobs (or their friends or relatives who held those kinds of jobs) see the City of Fort Bragg as too reliant on outside state and/or federal grant money, they perceive the city manager and members of the city council as giving up on them, not helping to provide jobs for the working middle class and only spending money on prettying up the streets as well as grants for non-profits and social services.

Much of that thinking is shortsighted, but it is a real palpable frustration among a significant part of Fort Bragg's populace. Throw in what looks like a sweetheart deal for Dr. Carine in selling the long empty Old Coast Hotel for well over a million bucks as part of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) deal that set up the Hospitality Center in the premises of said Old Coast Hotel and you've got trouble brewing.

From that same point of view, light the match with what appeared to be only four days public notice before the City Council voted to approve the Old Coast Hotel deal and you've got Trouble with a capital T burning dang close to out of control.

There are all sorts of realities that disprove any number of conspiracy theories regarding the Old Coast Hotel deal and the proponents of the Hospitality Center/opponents of Measure U are perhaps equally frustrated with those who can't see matters their way. Anybody watching the April 22nd forum can tell you about the number of times the Measure U opponents' faces turned red, voices rose practically to a shout, or heard rebuttal arguments rambling into frustrating rants. Most of those rebuttals, if merely transcribed without sight or sound, were probably right on point, accurate. However, the demeanor in which they were offered displayed nothing more than frustration.

The frustration is not going to end with an up or down vote on Measure U. There is no absolute right or wrong side in Fort Bragg right now, just a lot of folks on all sides wearing blinders to avoid anything beyond their own particular point of view.

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