by Christina Aanestad, July 21, 2010
The city of Fort Bragg was founded as a prison to hold local Native Americans. Though more than 150 years have passed, the city remains a prison, as elected leaders hold a lock and key to city to traditional power structures over local movers and shakers. One of those movers and shakers is Nicole Kench, event promoter and founder of EcoMotion.
“The event consists of music, local and non local, sustainable education booths, schools that are raising money for nutritional programs, craft vendors, carnival games to teach kids how to compost and recycle, just a real good time,” said Kench.
According to Kench she was working to raise money for groups like the Noyo Food Forest, the nutritional programs in Mendocino and schools in Fort Bragg.
“In this county there's a lot of schools K-12 that are organizing their own gardens. Fort Bragg has a program that uses the food the kids grow in their lunches and provides lunches at a low cost,” said Kench.
Since schools are facing severe budget cuts around nutritional programs, Kench said EcoMotion would have helped alleviate the fiscal shortfall. But, the block party fund-raiser has hit roadblock after roadblock at the city level.
“It was too big,” said city council member Meg Courtney, “We just wanted something smaller, more community oriented.”
Kench estimates the block party would have attracted an estimated 10,000 people, with headliners like Michel Franti and Miss Elliot.
“The word she used was 'Fort Braggy',” recalls Kench, who points to the contradictions of the city, which spends thousand of dollars to bring in tourists every year.
Only Fort Bragg City Council Member Jere Melo saw the event as an economic benefit. “It appears to me that if you attract people into town, all the businesses benefit. so that was the reason for the support,” he said.
But some businesses weren't so sure that that kind of event would benefit them. City Council member Dave Turner said local businesses were getting nervous about an event that would close off street access in downtown.
“All these fans of this kind of event with 10,000 people here… maybe you’re selling something that doesn't appeal to them at all,” he explained.
Then according to Turner there were concerns about public safety as well. Ultimately, City Manager Linda Ruffing canceled the event.
Kench is appealing the decision with the Fort Bragg City Council and she has hired an attorney to represent her.
According to Kench, the city billed her more than $20,000 for the event. She paid a $6,500 down payment and then issued a check for $15,000 — which bounced. After the check bounced Ruffing canceled the event.
Ruffing declined to comment for this story.
“She had the green light, but was unable to come up with the funds,” said Turner. “There’s a lot of expense that goes into this kind of thing and she wasn't able to do it.”
When Kench later appeared with a cashier’s check for $15,000 the city refused it. Ruffing also kept Kench's $5,000 deposit to pay for police and city time. Now Kench wants her money back.
“The deposit was for police services during the event — that's the bottom line,” said Kench, referring to services that were not provided.
But on a policy level, the costs are clear. “She's paying certain costs involved in the event — that's the agreement when you have police chief and fire people meeting and planning and coordinating it costs money,” explained Turner.
Kench requested an itemized list of the costs including the police time that claims most of her deposit. The city replied with a short list of $4,431.41 worth of city police time — at an estimated 75 hours of chief, captain and sergeant working hours. The list included no information how those hours were spent, or what police did during those hours. According to Kench she met with the Sergeant Gilchrist once, “for about 15 minutes in his office and we talked about his father for pretty much the whole meeting.”
To Kench that's besides the point. “They told me the money was a deposit for police services during the event, then the city manger said they needed to keep it for costs the city incurred. There's a lot of inconsistent rationalization about how keeping the money is being justified,” she said.
In fact, according to documents from the city, Fort Bragg has a policy that waives the costs for police services and permit licensing of non profit events. Resolution No. 146-2008 states “The City does not charge a fee for City staff participation in event coordination (i.e., preparation of Police Department operations plans, etc.) for special events held by non-profit organizations.” The unanimous resolution was signed into city policy January 28th, 2008.
It's a policy the city carefully follows for other events, like the Paul Bunyan Days.
City Council member Turner is chair of the Paul Bunyan Days Committee. In a June 24, 2010 memo from the city, the only cost incurred to Paul Bunyan Days was an insurance policy. Several permits were given at no cost.
“It's the same thing we've been doing for 70 years… So it doesn't' take as much city time to figure out if it’s gonna work or not,” Turner explains.
According to a city staff report there are roughly 20 other “special events” that fall under the policy, “special events” like the Lions Club 4th of July Fireworks, the Water Festival, and the Holiday Lights Parade.
If the city covers costs and waives fees for other events, why are they billing Kench some $6,000 for hours of city time?
“I think [Paul Bunyan Days] is a different kind of deal,” said City Council member Meg Courtney, “If there are allowances and waivers, that’s probably why. But fair? I don't know,” she said.
Kench claims the city's treatment towards her is discriminatory and a “good ol' boy” attitude. “At one time I was told it had to be in a field outside of Fort Bragg and they wanted me to bring in Neil Young instead,” said Kench who thinks the size of her event was not the primary issue.
When comparing EcoMotion with the city's 4th of July event, which Turner describes as the city's largest attraction, he said 4th of July is much smaller in comparison, and it's… well, Fort Braggy “Combined with salmon barbecue [the 4th of July] is a great weekend, of course all the locals like to enjoy the fireworks,” said Turner.
Kench disagreed. “They only want a certain kind of people. If you go to the board meetings it’s the same people they've been doing the same thing every single year and if it’s not them it’s their sons or their daughters. They're running this whole town and I think they feel threatened when someone else comes in, especially when a younger person comes in and says, Hey why don't we try this?”
EcoMotion would be the city's first large scale event, and the thought of a large scale attraction intimidates some city officials who have little experience planning such a large event. “I guess it was frightening to some people,” reflects Courtney.
Officials also questioned Kench's ability to pull off something like EcoMotion. “It was a big undertaking and, yes, there were people who worried she couldn't do what she said she was going to do, and businesses would be hurt, locals may be in danger. All those things were concerns,” said Turner.
The EcoMotion saga may not just be shrouded in nepotism; it may also be a matter of trust and competency within the city of Fort Bragg. According to Kench, she just wants a refund of her money that “the city unlawfully took.”
“I think they thought they could take advantage and they tried to… I'm glad they did it to me because I’m someone who will speak up,” said Kench.
But city officials like Courtney see it a different way. “I know Nicole and I like her a lot; she's got a lot of good energy. But it did seem like a rather overwhelming project to take on… We wish her well. It's not like she's created enemies. That's not where we're at,” Courtney said.
Meanwhile, Kench has since organized two events on the Mendocino coast: a benefit for the new CV Starr Aquatic Center in Fort Bragg and the Mendopendence 4th of July party in Mendocino. Courtney attended the CV Starr benefit which included a youth workshop with Radio Active from Spearhead, featuring break dancing and hip hop music.
“It seemed more Fort Braggish and she did a great job. That is more the thing we'd like to see — a smaller venue, maybe make it a trial run instead of bringing in thousands of people from out of town, make it smaller more community oriented at least for starters,” said Courtney.
Kench said it was the first hip-hop show in Fort Bragg since she's lived in the area for the past six years. “There is a culture shift happening here whether they like it or not, and if they don't get with it, they'll be the ones who lose. There's a lot of creative people coming here wanting to contribute and if the people on the city council don't recognize that, don't take it seriously, and don't open themselves to these new ideas then it’s the community that suffers. Hopefully it's a little bit of a wake up call,” reflects Kench.
According to Kench, the Mendopendence event raised roughly $12,000, with revenue going towards the Mendocino Coast Recreational District. She estimates thousands attended the party. As for the city of Fort Bragg, nothing changes if nothing changes.
Kench and her attorney, Ukiah-based Cliff Paulin, will argue their case before the Fort Bragg City Council Monday, July 26th at its regular scheduled meeting.