by Michael Koepf, October 4, 2017
I’m beginning to know John. Not completely, of course, for who can entirely know another when we seldom wholly know ourselves? Nevertheless, when it comes to politicians, it’s best we give it a try. Like a cat that plays with a mouse, some of these people find pleasure while messing with our lives.
Who’s John? Why it’s distinguished John McCowen, Chairman of the Board of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors—those homegrown policymakers who think they control our county bureaucracy busily enforcing the myriad rules and regulations that impact so many things we do. That’s how I’ve come to know Chairman John. Why? Because Chairman John has put me (and others) out of the short-term rental business. Chairman John claimed—at last week’s board of supervisor’s meeting—that we’re the “scofflaws” of “the short-term rental game.” We’re the outlaws of AirBnB. However…we don’t sell dope or meth. We sell a comfortable bed to tourists so that they can have a peaceful sleep.
Chairman John has led the charge to make us pay our TOT; (transient occupancy tax) apply for a business license, and obtain a use permit if we want to stay in business along a private road. Others, as well as myself, have complied with the initial requests, but obtaining a use permit requires several thousand bucks, even though other types of businesses that prosper along these same roads don’t have to pay a dime. Nonetheless, Chairman John believes there’s a short-term, rental crisis, and he recently led the board to issue an emergency moratorium against what he has darkly characterizes as “the short-term rental game.” Katie-bar-the-door! Chairman John is fighting to keep the sleepy tourists away.
Chairman John’s emergency moratorium came to climatic conclusion last week.
I watched it all on You Tube. It’s the best way to observe a meeting of the county board. You can pause and get a beer to help wash the tedium from your brain. On the day I watched, Chairman John was looking good. He wore a brown suit, purple shirt with a modest, tasteless tie. I won’t question the color of his shirt, but it is the favored color of the Service Employee International Union (SEIU)— that contentious, expensive association entrenched in our county seat. (International is the clue) Clever shout-out, Chairman John; the union loves your shirt. The union’s got your back, but make sure they get that raise or there will be something else in your back. (Metaphorically)
As far as appearances go, Chairman John has an avian nose. I’ll avoid his unfortunate mustache, which, perhaps, the You Tube video distorts. However, I sent Chairman John a bottle of Grecian Formula to darken up the ends. Chairman John, anything Third Reich is verboten, or don’t you know?
Chairman John wears his glasses low. He has an ample head of hair, but when it comes to his face, somber and serious is the case. He’s often legalistic, as if he’s channeling his Dad, who, according to the campaign literature of Chairman John, was a lawyer and county judge. However, Chairman John’s not a stranger to the droll when he intends a sarcastic point if things aren’t going his way. He also repeatedly uses the phrase “if you will,” a figure of speech I do not like. It’s pretentious and condescending. If you will, what? Need more time to digest my extremely important words?
Nonetheless, as I watched Chairman John, I learned that he’s a dedicated man. He takes his job seriously. (As he should) But…too seriously? Is being Chairman John the most important thing in his life? He may be the king of the little big time, but is there anything else? Perhaps he’s a party dog at night. None of my business, of course, but politics is a dangerous, absorbing business and a blanket on the human heart.
At the meeting last week, along with Chairman John, the rest of the board was there. Present was, Bambino la face, (Baby Face for non Italian readers)—Dan Gjerde—the consigliere, instigator and assassin of the short-term rental folks. Also present was Carre Brown on her final term on the county board merry-go-round. Handsome Dan Hamburg, my supervisor, was there, as was Mrs. Croskey, recently appointed and soon to leave. Can’t blame her. Too bad, this lady has the brains.
The audience, as usual, was largely comprised of cannabis capitalists. Week in and week out, they take up most of the Supe’s meeting time, in this case half the day. Their complaints are varied, but it all boils down to this: what the hell were they thinking when they thought legalization would make the little guys rich? A drug deal is a drug deal and everyone wants a bite. When Gavin Newsom lured them down the road of legalization, do they really think he did it for mom and pop and their little patch of plants? Look what’s going on in Santa Rosa and other cities in this state. Down in Santa Rosa for a minimum buy-in of two million bucks, corporate cannabis capitalists are buying up warehouse space. Corporate, industrial dope is the future of the cannabis game, and the Democrat party is backing these rich guys to the hilt. You think the Democrats will get a cut? Adios Mendo-dopers. Even if you envision some socialist dream, you won’t be better off in Canada where the government is starting to grow dope on its own.
However, during this weekly cannabis encounter, a poignant question was raised. Supervisor Croskey asked Chairman John about requiring a use permit for cannabis growers along a private road. After all, if public safety is one of the stated goals of ridding short-term rentals, who wants to live next door to a gunfight when prowlers come around to rip your neighborhood grower off? (My words not hers.) Chairman John took umbrage. “I would not include that, frankly,” he asserted in a huffy voice. No explanation was offered. But is Chairman John leery of piling yet another onerous expense on the heads of our cannabis class? Increasing fees keep most growers hidden in the hills, where the county, and soon the state, can’t tax their crops to death. If anyone doubts this, or that there isn’t mayhem along our private roads, then they haven’t read the New York Times this week. An article by Thomas Fuller points out that in Mendocino County growers are not coming into government programs, and as full legalization approaches, the heists and murders go on.
Chairman John is a clever guy. He’s deferential to the cannabis capitalists, undoubtedly believing that they’ll soon share their profits with the county and make him a saving hero of the county budget, perpetually in the red. Come to think of it, Chairman John never calls these hidden toilers of the soil “scofflaws” like he does with the dangerous outlaws in the short-term rental crowd.
Ninety percent of our pharma growers are still hiding in the hills. Can’t blame them. They’d rather take their chances with the sheriff than throw in with Chairman John. Handsome Dan knows. During the morning session he made the obvious point that out of an estimated one thousand growers in this county, less than one hundred have come in. Bet on it, Handsome Dan is in the know.
Of course, the issue of short-term rentals and use permits for shared roads is but a penny in the county’s money bucket compared to the potential dope deal as stated above. However, short-term rentals finally came up in the afternoon session. Short-term renter “scofflaws” had three minutes to have their say. With one exception: Norman Duvall, former, long-time supervisor and once upon a time Chairman Norman of the board.
At the core of the war against short-term renters is the false assumption (minus any hard data) that short-term rentals make rental housing scarce. A savvy young realtor testified to the salient point that lack of rental units is, in fact, a statewide problem, not just Mendocino’s. She’s right. For contractors and builders—given government and environmental regulations as well as zoning laws and strict codes against development—its expensive, time consuming and difficult to obtain building permits in this state. There’s also the fact that over the past twenty years, California has been inundated by a vast, inward immigration. Legal or illegal, everybody needs a place to sleep. Mendocino’s no different. Another noticeable reason for diminished rentals in Mendocino County is the influx of people hoping to cash in on the imagined, cannabis utopia. I know of landlords who have checked up on their rentals to find marijuana growing in the backyard, or lit up like Christmas trees growing in their garage. It puts their property in jeopardy by way of confiscation with the Feds and with the State. It’s safer with AirB&B. One speaker pointed out that use permits on shared roads are not required for day care centers; home care centers; repair shops of any kind; private schools; animal husbandry sites; sawmills and beauticians.
Beauticians? What’s going on in the woods? Are growers styling their hair? More people traverse a private road to use these facilities on any given day than an AirB&B couple driving down a lane to catch up on their sleep. Logically, nobody—unless they’re assembling an atomic bomb— should be required to purchase a use permit to conduct a small business on their property. This includes the pharma-farmers. If there’s a problem with a neighbor, there’s always shared cups of coffee or a remedy in the civil courts. Call me a Thomas Jefferson, but do we need permits to live?
The testimony against the emergency moratorium and high hurdle of a use permit continued, until Chairman John called the star witness in his defense—the aforementioned, former Chairman Norman Duvall. (Suspiciously prearranged?) Speaking rosy petals of praise, Chairman John smiled effusively as Chairman Norman walked to the podium to back up Chairman John’s contention that short-term rentals were depriving people of places to rent. Former Chairman Norman made these hugely, salient points. Firstly, Chairman Norman said that he had recently spoken to a friend who owned an established Bed and Breakfast over on the coast. The owner told him that they had “smoke alarms in their rooms.” Norman’s implication was that short-term rentals do not. They do. In fact, AirB&B hands them out for free as well as first aids kits. Secondly, Chairman Norman, looking anguished, informed Chairman John and the board that somebody told him that on any given night in Mendocino County there were “six to eleven people sleeping in their cars.”
That’s all? Obviously, Chairman Norman doesn’t realize that trimming season is here. Do people sleeping in cars—often transients, drunks and tweekers—have money to rent a place? With that I rest my case, and allow Chairman Norman to return to his haze. But he didn’t. Chairman Norman went on too long. His three minutes were up. Chairman John told Chairman Norman that his time “was on the yellow line, but I might even extend it,” he said in a very pleasant voice. And Chairman John did. Norman took advantage and continued raking his irrelevant evidence about. I couldn’t help thinking of that young lady two weeks before, testifying in favor of short-term rentals, that young lady who Chairman John so rudely dismissed when her three minutes were up. There are rules for politicians and there are rules for the rest of us.
And so it went. Until the end—the exciting, concluding vote of whether or not the emergency ordinance against short-term rentals should remain in place and be extended for several months or possibly for a year, as Deputy County Counsel Kiedrowski advised, a guy with comb-over hair streaming sections and codes from his mouth. However, Chairman John had hit a snag. First, Supervisor Gjerde—the originator of this mindless scheme—put himself on hold. Gjerde clammed up. Baby Face said little to back up Chairman John. Additionally, Croskey, Handsome Dan, and Carre Brown, citing letters, phone calls and input from constituents, said they were no longer convinced that the emergency moratorium should remain in place. Now critical of the ban for which he voted on before, Handsome Dan took the lead against continuing the emergency ban. There followed a testy exchange between Chairman John and Handsome Dan. At one point, Chairman John, apropos of something, huffed “either you have integrity or you don’t…oh well.” There may be something between these guys that only insiders are privy to know.
But the die was cast. The issue went to a vote. Chairman John and Baby Face went down on a vote of three to two. Victory! Whoever you are, if you want to apply for a business license, and pay the TOT; you’re free to start a short-term rental…unless you live along a dusty road. So, it’s back to the use permit, and really no victory at all. Chairman John has lost and won again, but that’s how this county works, but does it truly work for us?