The Trouble With Fort Bragg
by David Gurney, August 17, 2016
The trouble with the City of Fort Bragg, apart from its unfortunate name, can be summed up in three words: location, location, location. From putting a mental health facility downtown at the Old Coast Hotel, to placing it's vaunted Noyo Center for Marine Science next door to a rickety sewage plant, to proposing a strip mall at the southern gates to the city, Fort Bragg's civic leaders are showing all the signs of early onset dementia, by putting things in the wrong place, like someone putting their keys in the refrigerator.
Unfortunately, Fort Bragg's problems are far more serious than that. The most obvious problem is the western half of the city, from Main Street to the Pacific Ocean, close to 350 acres of prime but polluted oceanfront acres, is owned by the notorious Koch brothers, Charles and David. Most people know these two plutocrats as the Koch Brothers, owners of the second largest privately held company in the United States. The brothers are at the top thousandth of the top one percent, among the richest oligarchs on the planet, worth over 42 billion dollars apiece. They make no secret of buying off national elections, from presidents to congress members, so directly influencing the government of a small town they own the better part of, can certainly be expected. The old Georgia Pacific mill occupies nearly all the land west of Highway One, spanning the entire stretch of Main Street. Once home to the biggest employer in the region, the mill site is now fenced off and abandoned, because the land was contaminated by industrial toxic waste, dumped there by the rapacious GP lumber company, also owned by the Kochs. If our civic leaders had an impeccable record that made them immune from corruption and influence by people like the Kochs, residents of the North Coast could rest easy knowing the future of their town was in good hands. But the town has a sordid history of mob influence, shady loans, unprosecuted arson, cronyism and back-room deals, with similar trends following to this day.
Fort Bragg's city government uses an aggressive corporate model to carry out its business. The City Manager is Fort Bragg, Inc.'s CEO. She pulls down the city's biggest salary at $141,000 a year, with benefits, well over $200k. The mayor and city council, Fort Bragg Inc's Board of Directors, make a salary of $3,600 dollars apiece. With 25k benefit packages, they each make around thirty thousand dollars yearly. The public are the shareholders, and he who has the most shares, in the form of money and behind the scenes connections, has the most influence. City Manager Linda Ruffing was appointed by a City Council long since gone, except for their pictures on the wall, and she has run the city for over a decade. For six years before that she was the so-called Community Development Director, a deceptive title for someone who does not develop community, but instead greases the skids for developers. During her decade and a half of power, she has tweaked the system to minimize public interference for plans that are frequently hatched secretly in behind-closed-door meetings. With a lengthy track record of extremely bad judgement, compounded by an unrelenting propensity for these secret meetings, along with an unnerving smirk that resembles George W. Bush on steroids, Ruffing has made herself very unpopular among many of her Fort Bragg constituents who never elected her in the first place. The rapid turnover of employees at City Hall, along with an underpaid and obsequious City Council that can't come up with a good idea on their own, has made Ruffing the captain of a rudderless ship.
In 2007, mayor Dave Turner and council member Doug Hammerstrom went to a conference in the Pacific Northwest, and came back with a ludicrous wave energy proposal that cost the city well over a year of exhaustive public meetings and thousands of dollars in funds. The scheme was finally abandoned for the obvious lack of maritime infrastructure, something the public warned proponents about from the outset. In secret meetings, the trio of Ruffing, Turner and Hammerstrom also hatched the controversial scheme to provide cush office space for privatized mental health services at the historic landmark Old Coast Hotel, in Fort Bragg's commercial district, with bed space for a mere five mental health patients. This despite the fact that a huge Social Services building, perfect for the purposes intended, sits abandoned just across town. They ignored massive public outcry protesting their secret policy decision, which led to recall efforts against the mayor and a ballot initiative to have the new mental health facility nixed. Both failed.
This same trio has decided that the display of a blue whale skeleton will be the future vision for the city. The real story of the whale, struck by a ship that was mapping for marine protected areas, ostensibly to save the type of animal that the ship in fact killed, has been neatly suppressed in the push to have the remains displayed in a glass case on the GP headlands by the so-called Noyo Center for Marine Science. According to this vision, the display will be the centerpiece for Fort Bragg's renewal, its main tourist attraction, and with an elaborate campus, provide jobs for out-of-work Ph.D.'s. Those who don't share this glorious vision are accused by Ruffing's clique of being "negative."
The executive director for the Noyo Center, Sheila Semans, had an interesting role in the saga of the whale skeleton, to say the least. At the time the whale was killed, Semans was Program Manager for the California Seafloor Mapping Program (CSMP), the lead agency for an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies who, beginning in 2007, launched an extensive program to map the underwater features of the California Coast. When the oil exploration vessel 'Pacific Star' hit the 72-foot blue whale while using side-scan mapping sonar on October 19th, 2009 just off Fort Bragg, shock waves hit the coast. Details of the accident became a closely guarded secret, and only through persistent investigation was it found to have been operating illegally, without the required marine mammal observer that would have spotted the whale, and without proper documentation including the required offshore geophysical survey permit. The operation was hired through Ms. Semans agency, the CSMP, for sonar surveys just before the infamous MLPA Initiative made its debut on the North Coast. The corrupt MLPA was ostensibly protecting animals such as blue whales with Marine Protected Areas, so the killing of the animal by a vessel working for that effort was a major public relations nightmare for a number of high-powered state and federal agencies. Semans, along with her cohort Ron Levalley, came to the rescue. LeValley acted as point man, and funds appeared out of nowhere for caterpillars, and innocent volunteers were recruited for the gargantuan task of hauling the smelly carcass up the 40-foot cliffs. The skeleton was buried for several years at a secret location, and in the time it took for microbes to eat the flesh off the bones, plans were hatched to make the whale skeleton the centerpiece for Fort Bragg's renewal, to be enshrined on the Koch brothers headlands at the old mill site, in a Snow White like glass case. LeValley was rewarded for his efforts with the position of head of the so-called "Science Advisory Team" for the MLPA. At the same time, in 2010, he was secretly stealing over $850,000 from the Yurok Tribe, billing them and other agencies for spotted owl surveys that he never conducted, through his "non-profit" enterprise Mad River Biologists (MRB). To add insult to injury, during the MLPA "Initiative" LeValley forbade Yurok tribal scientists from participating in the process of taking away their own ancient fishing and gathering rights. LeValley is currently listed on the Noyo Center's web site as an "advisor." Sheila Semans, the wearer of many hats, in 2010 was "Director" at Mad River Biologists, during this same time period that the outfit was conducting its criminal embezzlement of Yurok Tribal funds.
If morphing the Program Manager of the CSMP (the agency that killed the whale) and Director of the criminal Mad River Biologists, into the Executive Director of the Noyo Center for Marine Science (the agency that will display the whale's remains) seems like an odd career trajectory, remember, this is Fort Bragg, where common sense, reality and legality are routinely turned upside down. Last spring, our clueless House Representative Jared Huffman gave Ms. Semans an "Environmentalist of the Year Award," and Linda Ruffing has hired Sheila Semans to lead the Noyo Center - no, not in Noyo, but in Fort Bragg. So far, the results of this tragic farce have been predictably absurd. An A-frame visitor center that once sat high on the mill site next to Highway One, has been transported to the lowest elevation point in town, and dubbed "The Crow's Nest" by Semans, despite the fact that a crow's nest is traditionally the highest observation point on any ship. Worse, and beyond absurd, is the fact that the marine science center, with it's whale skeleton mausoleum, has been sited by Ms. Semans on 11.5 acres directly adjacent to, and downwind of, Fort Bragg's decrepit sewer plant on property that by Fort Bragg's own documented reports, is required to have a buffer zone for olfactory and toxic chemical safety concerns. Most municipalities require a minimum of at least 100 meters of buffer zone around such a wastewater treatment plant.
Fort Bragg is not known to hide its skeletons in the closet, and instead has gone full steam ahead into the macabre business of reconstructing and displaying sea mammal skeletons in and around the city for public view. This includes a sea lion skeleton strangely hanging in the city's Town Hall. Another sea lion skeleton, with its human remains counterpart, adorns the "Crows Nest" visitor center next to the sewage plant. There are plans for more whale skeletons, and sea lion skeletons, and others, as animals continue to wash ashore on the North Coast at an alarming rate, to be stripped of their flesh and displayed by these bone collectors. Fort Bragg is on course to be known as the 'Sea World' for dead whales, and the greenwashed Noyo Center is already cashing in.
Meanwhile the Pattons, the "Group II" developers who already own two shopping centers in Fort Bragg, are plying for a third, and are railroading their project through the town's good ol' boy network with plans to develop the last bit of unspoiled open space left in the city, by installing an extremely unpopular mall at the southern gates just west of the intersection of Highway 1 and 20. The property is a wildlife corridor, drains into a Class 1 salmon stream, and is adjacent to the newly burgeoning Mendocino College. Locals and visitors alike will be welcomed to Fort Bragg by a cheap "dented-can" mega-store, a 'Grocery Outlet,' along with 99 parking spaces and two other unneeded storefronts.
What can be done to prevent Fort Bragg's ship of state from going onto the rocks at Soldier's Bay, just below the mill site? The Fort Bragg city government needs a major turnaround, starting with the firing of Linda Ruffing and Sheila Semans, and the ouster of Dave Turner as mayor. Thankfully, the bizarrely incompetent Doug Hammerstrom is not seeking re-election and will be gone within a year. The corporate model of a City Manager running the show needs to be abandoned, and council members need to receive a salary more in line with their actual work and responsibilities. The Noyo Center for Marine Science needs to be relocated, from the eleven acres adjacent to the city's sewer ponds, to a more compatible place somewhere else on the mill site. The Pattons need to abandon their plans for a strip mall at the gates to the city, in a land swap deal to a more appropriate area on the 350 acres of already developed land, nearer to the central part of town. The last piece of unspoiled open space at the gates to the city, next to the burgeoning Mendocino College, needs to be preserved, and developed only for worthy cultural or educational purposes. Will any of this ever happen? Time will tell whether or not the citizens of Fort Bragg will allow billion dollar players like the Kochs and their minions to secretly pull the the strings of power and completely ruin their unique coastal town, or finally take the city's destiny into their own hands.