The Epstein Episode: Fort Bragg Fights Back
by Rex Gressett, September 13, 2017
When the temp lawyer Robert The Epstein of Marin County, dived headlong into Fort Bragg city politics to defend Hostility House against a community uprising that included the homeless, almost every merchant in the city and the reformed city council, he hit the bottom of a swimming pool that had already been drained. Ouch. The Marin County hot shot temp attorney was hired by Linda Ruffing through city attorney Samantha Zutler to save the skin of the tottering monument to dependency and misery that the community has shamefully allowed to exist on Franklin Street. Locally we call it Hostility House.
Robert The Epstein arrived to represent the Fort Bragg Planning Commission, or the city management or to defend Hostility House or something. He said he was representing the Planning Commission but he covered every base. His real client, though, was Hostility House.
He temporarily got what he wanted. Hostility House faced imminent dissolution and instead got a hand slap.
But it came at a cost. Epstein’s hardball courtroom tactics massively disrespected the Planning Commission and prevented them from considered discussion. The Epstein blindsided them with complex decisions that they had to make instantly. He bullied them, threatened them, scorned our city and stole the show. The stunned Planning Commission, with its tail between its collective legs, reluctantly voted for the deal that Epstein worked out in secret with City Development Director Marie Jones. It saved Hostility House's bacon and left the social worker elite laughing at the city. The Planning Commission saw the 40-page deal for the first time at the public meeting with the rest of us. They had no time to read it, so Marie Jones read it out loud to them. Just like kindergarden. Epstein rushed it all past in a frenzy of presentations, ultimatums and challenges to his own bewildered client, the Planning Commission and us. He did his best to preclude or minimize discussion and mostly he succeeded, although in truth Commissioners Nancy Swithenbank and Curtis Bruchler tried to swim around a little in the mass of data that had been tossed to them at the last possible second, and even Commissioner Stan Miklose made a focused effort.
In the end it was over their heads. I guess they thought that they had to vote for it because it was there.
The Epstein runs city councils like dogsleds. It is a second income for a lawyer who specializes in wills and trusts. In tiny Fort Bragg, unaccustomed to the brutal political manipulations of Marin County legal eagles, our local planning commission really did not stand a chance. They are still shaking it off. Some of them are going to the press to try and get their side of it out. Read it in the AVA.
The morning after the morning after the Planning Commission debacle the cavalry showed up to save the city. This occurred in the form of an appeal to the City Council to reconsider Epstein's quickly cobbled get out of jail free proposal. The Planning Commission might have been railroaded but community activists who have fought for community values and stood up for human decency in the long struggle with MCHC (Mendocino Coast Hospitality House) and their grim little homeless shelter were not overawed. They know the score at the homeless shelter in depth and they were not amused by the phony deal put together by The Epstein. They made and sent an appeal to the City Council. If it wishes The City Council can reject the back-room deal and they probably will. Technically the appeal is an excellent document. An appeal to the City Council is not child's play; it must be carefully written and highly structured. It is not easy, and not cheap. Ethically, morally and politically it is dynamite.
As a legal document the appeal was immaculate, meticulously focused and smart. The Fort Bragg activists that gave us Measure U (the zoning restriction that would prevent future Hospitality House like projects in the downtown area), and heavily impacted two city council election cycles and effected by their grass roots insistence the removal of Linda Ruffing, have grown not only strong in numbers but have learned to be admirably organized. Their skills and their sophistication are real and have been honed and polished in combat.
The appeal quietly addresses the arrogance of the presumption that the Planning Commission must abandon their own judgment and abdicate their legal authority in order to swallow a back-room deal they had nothing to do with. The appeal notes that the deal changed absolutely nothing of relevance at Hospitality House, offered no solution and made no meaningful attempt to address to the community’s long list of complaints. In the eighteen point back-room bargain the social workers are required to post a sign prohibiting drinking or drugs. However, a client is still permitted to be drunk. They carefully figured out how many beds they have. Wow.
The appeal to bring the railroaded planning commission “decision” before the city council of course got The Epstein’s full attention. Was all that brilliance for naught? The temp attorney instantly drafted a fat email, citing half a page of case law and making some as yet unknown argument that in addition to railroading the planning commission and overawing the city management he should also be allowed to represent the City Council. This email was sent to the members of the City Council, the Development Director, and the City Manager.
This secret email is an important document. Crucial, if the bewildered citizens of Fort Bragg are to understand the imposition of what is in effect a new and overarching division of Fort Bragg city government — The Epstein.
I spent nine hours waiting for a councilman who had originally promised me a copy of that email. I was lied to by another councilman who I have trusted and like. He swore he had deleted it beyond all possibility of recovery. I had a knockdown with the Development Director, and endured a gruesome and impolite refusal by Councilman Dave Turner. I spent considerable time and political capital trying to get hold of or at least be allowed to read the e-mail so that you and I might ascertain what was Mr Epstein’s argument that he should intervene yet again in the whitewashing he has done such a great job of so far.
The city council, elected in a vivid rebuke of the former and deeply discredited former council, is not immune to the siren song of no transparency and secrecy. Their hearts are in the right place but they do not appreciate that the gas in their tank is the right of the people to know and the press to find out. They think they can do it without us.
My argument was simple: since the email was a mere proposal to the City Council, it only suggested that in The Epstein's view they basically had to hire him (lest all hell itself break loose). Since it was a proposal for employment he could not already be their lawyer. Does attorney-client privilege protect an unsolicited job application? I was told repeatedly that at least attorney-client privilege prevents the press and the people of the city from knowing what The Epstein intends for our City Council and which the City Council knows and the city administration knows and Hospitality House presumably knows.
You don’t know, and neither do I but I have not given up.
The Planning Commissioners, who almost never go to the press, are going to the press now. They have every right . At least some of them are openly declaring they were dissatisfied with the process. That means snookered. I do not think that The Epstein will be appointed to represent the council and I do not think he would be asked back to represent the Commission.
I wonder if he knows it. The Epstein despised a city naïve enough to think that it could govern itself.