We Do Not Rejoice
by Rex Gressett, October 18, 2017
The City of Fort Bragg and the world were memorializing genocide on the Monday (Columbus Day) normally set appointed for the bi-weekly meeting. So the City Council met Tuesday. There were seven (7) people in attendance. By the time the Humane Society Director Chuck Tourtillott finished up his annual report on the animal shelter, attendance was down to four… Then three. It was nostalgic to observe the empty room. In the not so long ago old days of City Manager Linda Ruffing and her cabal with Councilmen Dave Turner and Doug Hammerstrom this was the way all Fort Bragg City Council meetings looked. It was like being transported back in time. The council rejoiced greatly. Everybody was in a festive mood. The empty chairs were reassuring to the officials on hand. Release from the pressure of months of intense public scrutiny and low grade scandal over the Hostility (aka Hospitality) House controversy hit the council like recess impacts a restless third grader.
Mayor Lindy Peters had a slide show of his trip to Japan (Fort Bragg’s sister city is Otschuci, Japan), musing that it would have been interesting to actually understand the language. There was gladness in the presentation of the Mayor’s recognition awards and joy in the return of the city council to its accustomed role as city boosters.
The city added two more employees to the payroll. Laura Bianchi Limbird, a finance technician, and Diane O’Conner who will work in city engineering.
It has been pointed out with gravitas and fierceness that the subtraction of two existing employees at Town Hall would solve the budget deficit. Instead they added two more. Back when the deficit was a surprise to the council making a tough call like reducing Town Hall staffing sounded like a responsible choice and was batted around behind the scenes by various council members. But actual budget reduction ended up being on nobody’s particular agenda. The addition of two more public servants was greeted with supportive smiles by everyone including a harmonious City Council. Deficit financing to increase what they see as the inevitable and highly necessary growth of personnel at City Hall is no problem for city administration. Just hire them and the electorate will pay for it.
They puttered around with a $43,000 chunk of money that had fallen on us unexpectedly from the state sales tax increase approved in SB-1. It was painfully obvious that the $43,000 that trickled down to our little berg was a bit of surprise and they had no preconceived idea what to do with it. It was not enough to do anything big with and the criteria for receiving the money included the proviso that the recipients be able to identify specifically what projects it would be spent on. They decided to use the little windfall to fix cracks in the sidewalks.
A participant from among the attendees (me) took a moment during public comment to ask about the progress on the Mayor’s six month Homeless Study period. A comprehensive roster of 15 county agencies had been summoned to Fort Bragg by the mayor three months ago to participate in a six month study of homelessness. This study was intended, they told us, for critical evaluation of homelessness and to be a search for innovation. They wanted to consider the basic issues of homelessness and review city and county programs for dealing with it all. Since that seminal meeting there has not been one single letter, report, conference, discussion or proposal. The lame duck city manager, Ms Ruffing, jumped into the embarrassing silence and declared that she had intended to handle the Homelessness study, conference and discussion for the Mayor but her imminent departure made her participation in that kind of long-range planning impractical.
The city now has a homeless study period (half expired) underway with no results and no meetings, no policy, and no proposals declaring its failure to launch in advance. If there was ever a moment in which the supine dependence of the council on the City Manager was evident, this was it.
Fort Bragg also has a brand new ad hoc committee of the City Council for our only homeless shelter Hostility House. Although it is early, this committee has also not had a meeting or even proposed one. We are assured that the theatrical gesturing will continue.
Then the council moved on to the main order of business, Hiring and paying the executive management consulting firm who for $27,000 will send us our next top technocrat. What we know so far is that the next City Manager will be from out of town. We will pay for them to move here. They will not know our city or anything about it. They will not be responsible to the electorate except through the City Council. They will understand nothing of our history or our sensibilities, but they will know how they did it somewhere else. They will be paid at the very top end of the payscale for City Managers in California.
Peckham and McKenney Inc. of Roseville California, will be referring candidates to us. The city council agreed to include five grand for travel expenses so certain elite candidates can drop by on our dime.
The gradual accretion of power by the inner sanctums of City Hall that occurred under Linda Ruffing at the expense of the legitimate power of the City Council occasioned massive grumbling dissatisfaction over the better part of two decades. It gradually became clear to the electorate that whatever the myth of self government in America, in our town the elected City Council was as much the slave of the top technocrat as the people of the city. For years voters in the city demanded that the council act, but two election cycles and a half were required to find the will in the City Council to restrain the power of what had become our own home grown autocrat.
The new City Council is charting its own way but it is very weak. Their opportunity in the termination of City Manager Linda Ruffing to direct and resolve and to discuss has now born what will probably be its final fruit. They have done their jobs as they see them. Now they will be waiting for the new city manager to arrive so that the council can once again be told what they responsibly can or can’t do.
We are done with one City Manager, but it is very certain that we have not replaced her with an activist council chastened by the experience of disempowerment. The long habit of unknowing obedience and ineffective pretense has left our City Council utterly dependent on City Hall administration and addicted to the falsities that the putative employees of the council spin. The Fort Bragg City Council does not, and apparently cannot lead. At least they have shown no evidence of it. The myth that they provide restraint and direction to the city manager is a fig leaf for their own incapacity. We rejoiced when they fired an autocrat. We can reasonably expect that they will hire another one. We don’t expect to rejoice.