Tempers Flare, Priorities Flee

by Mark Scaramella, July 29, 2009

On July 14 the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors came back from a wholly unearned three week vacation to take care of such crucial business as whether or not the Ukiah Valley Sanitation District could use the board chambers for their meetings.

One would have thought the Queen of England had been asked to share the palace with the Willits Bingo Club. “You dare request to sit up here in our big leather swivel chairs!”

The crucial matter of shared space took almost 30 minutes, achieving nothing.

It was as if the Supes hadn't been away for nearly a month.

Concerns were expressed about control of the building, the Board’s lack of a share-sies policy, security, other places the upstart Sanitation board might meet, whether the Sanitation District was part of the Ukiah city bureaucracy, what size room they needed for their deliberations, and so on in a micro-managing extravaganza of sorts.

They discuss this stuff with straight faces.

Except for Supervisor David Colfax on this one.

Colfax said he frequently didn’t recognize people in the admin center’s hallways.

“I’m concerned about security,” said Colfax. “Sometimes I’m reluctant to ask people, 'What are you doing here? Who are you?' And they'd probably say, ‘Well, I'm the assistant county counsel’ or something.”

After a half hour the Board voted 3-2 to send the matter to some committee or other. (The Big Leather Swivel Chair Sub-Committee?)

The Sanitation Board can continue to meet in the Big Chairs for now.

Financial crisis? What financial crisis?

Another hour or so was spent on whether to put a measure on the November ballot to apply the County’s bed tax to local campgrounds. The Board had unanimously voted last month to ask staff to assemble a recommendation.

CEO Tom Mitchell, his ear always to the ground for the latest in public opinion, opened the discussion by reporting that he’d heard that the campground homeless couldn’t afford a bed tax.

A staffer from Mitchell's office, Steve Dunicliff, told the Board that the County didn’t have an “accurate list” of campgrounds and that it would cost $10k just to put the measure on the ballot , and even then there was no guarantee it would pass. “It’s hard to define ‘campground’ or ‘camping’,” said Dunnicliff. “Should it apply to non-profits?” (Boy Scout camps? Church property? Bo Peep sleepovers?)

Several members of the public said that a campground bed tax would have “unanticipated impacts” on the poor.

“Poor residents are forced to live in campgrounds,” said Legal Services attorney Lisa Hillegas. “We have at least 1400 homeless people in Mendocino County,” continued Hillegas. “And we have beds for 147 of them. So there are over 1200 people without shelter in Mendocino County. In addition, 15% of our residents are below the federal poverty line, which is insanely low for this area. 1700 people are at risk of losing what little housing they have. For many people, campgrounds are their only option. The State campgrounds may be lost. You must consider the impact of this on the homeless.”

Dayle Reed, Director of the Ukiah Food Bank, asked the Board, “If you do this, they’ll need an alternative place to sleep. Will it be my backyard? Yours?”

Janet Carter, proprietor of a private campground in Fort Bragg, pointed out that lots of jobs have been lost in the County and “marijuana growers are taking over. Workers are moving on. … How much can we pay? Camping is the only thing many families can afford! Tourism is down. Why make it worse? Bed tax revenues are declining. More and more people show up in commercial parking lots where there's no fee.” Ms. Carter also noted that “fishermen use the campgrounds on the Coast and so do abalone divers. You will chase them away. Retail will be affected. All we rent is a small piece of ground. Why not charge Wal-mart for camping?”

Scott Schneider, vice president of the Lodging Association said that his association had taken no official position on the matter, adding that the Board might consider exempting bed taxes on people staying more than 30 days, typically the homeless.

“Campground people use just as many services,” said Schneider. “And camping is up in counties that charge a bed tax on it. It doesn't seem to deter camping. We could pull campgrounds into the promotional alliance and promote them too.”

Supervisor Colfax, garrulously more incoherent by the meeting, with Supervisor Smith making no sense whatsoever running just ahead of Colfax in the local lucidity sweepstakes, launched one of his patented Casey Stengal's: “We’re doing a lousy job in one area, so we have to do a lousier job in another. We have no housing for the poor, so we can't do anything so we have fees for camping. … Somebody said crap moves downhill. The Lodging Association says you can't tax our esteemed tourists who come through – the valued tourists. You can't increase their tax by 1% for parity with adjoining counties. The word was out that there was no support for increasing the bed tax. But by whom? And we immediately folded, or those who bring things forward folded. They don't want it. [The bed tax] taxes outsiders, not Mendocino poeple. It pays for police protection, emergency services, fire proteciton and for when we scape them up off the highway. The cost is enormous and there’s no reimbursement. Why did we abandon the 1% [bed tax] increase? A few bucks for people staying in high end places in Mendocino? A $400 bill would go up $4 for your night of fun and relaxation in Mendocino. $404! No sirree! I will not come to Mendocino again! So they reduce it to $400! That's a compelling argument – if you don't pay attention to common sense and numbers.”

Colfax was on a roll!

“Did the estimates take into account the cost of admininstration? Staff work? Will the money come in? We had two big high end destinations go bankrupt on us without paying the bed tax over a long period of time. We know where they are. They had big buildings. We asked the manager, why do you owe us, how much was it? $250k? It's obscene that we could not get them to pay in a timely fashion so we didn't get that money! In the other case we had to use high cost staff time to get part of the money back. If we can't go after the high class destinations in the county and properly collect the [bed tax], how in the devil will we get the little campground operator, the trailer park, to take care of the campers? I'll tell you. We'll have to hire somebody and we'll quickly use up whatever funding is generated because we went to the bottom of the food chain, the campers. If we'd been more effective on the high end places, more efficient…”

Colfax sputtered into silence.

“I will not support anything that goes after camping until we address the housing problem in Mendocino more effectively and until we increase the [bed tax] to get within spitting distance of every other county around us with perhaps one exception. We have the lowest generally. It needs to be increased. I will not support the camping option. It’s inappropriate that we're discussing this. It's disgusting.”

The affordable housing deficit in this county, nay this country, has been discussed since the first term of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and in Mendocino County since at least 1970. It's a much larger problem than local jurisdictions can handle, but it's a great subject for libs to lament without taking a single practical step towards remediating.

Board chair John Pinches more or less agreed.

“I want to kill this right here,” Pinches declared. “Upper income people don't camp out. Low income people go to campgrounds as vacation. Look at the campgrounds. Mostly that’s where little kids are. Families. Retired people. I don't think we need to go there.”

The board voted 4-1 to refer the whole bed tax question to a committee. Pinches dissented. The bed tax extension to campgrounds will not be on the ballot any time soon.

* * *

Things really heated up at the meeting of 21st July when DA Meredith Lintott accused CEO Tom Mitchell of “blackmailing” her department. (No charges were filed.)

The Board has instituted a strict hiring freeze and DA Lintott wanted to hire four or five more staffers.

Lintott told the Board that she'd kept the DA’s office under budget two years running. “And not without pain,” she noted, apparently referring to her staff’s increased workload. Referring to the office she inherited, Lintott said, “It was hideous! We had just had a strike. We lost some top attorneys to Sonoma County – and we still did a good job. Judges say they're impressed. It's a challenge just to get attorneys in the courtroom.”

Getting lawyers to show up on time is impressive?

It is in Mendocino County.

When a mere two judges handled all Mendo cases not that long ago (and with about the same number of deputies as today), an unprepared attorney, especially one employed by the taxpayers, arrived unprepared *once*. Now, with eight or so judges, well, stop in for a looksee yourself some time.

Lintott added another administrative triumph.

“Every meeting agenda [in the DA’s office] says on top of it ‘excellence in prosecution.’ That's my goal. That's my vision. Who could possibly say that with the state of affairs I walked into that I've been working in. We've come a long way.”

The DA said she’d received an unspecified number of complaints since her internal memo was leaked saying the DA wouldn’t prosecute pot cultivation cases with fewer than 200 plants, a policy based entirely on reality; if the courts ran round the clock all the people popped for pot could not be prosecuted. It's been de facto policy for years in Mendocino County to only prosecute the big boys. When and if they're caught. A lot of pot prosecutions are of neighborhood folks, not criminals.

Lintott also said she told a Fort Bragg city council member, “Maybe I'll stop prosecuting misdeameanors. If you want them prosecuted you can come up with the money yourself,” adding (because she knows she operates in a context of literalists and media remedial readers),“I said that in jest.”

Ms. Lintott also told the Board, “I could put my whole staff on nothing but marijuana cultivation cases,” adding a nice little tautology, “Criminals are not stopping committing crimes. They're increasing. Cases are flooding in.”

In fact, that was Lintott’s mantra for the day, as she herself noted. “That's my message. Crime is up. I get lambasted from the press and people [about the less-than-200 plants memo]. Law enforcement is discouraged.”

Actually, we’re not aware of anything remotely resembling “lambasting” of the DA in the local press. As we've often noted, this county's public servants are very lucky indeed not to function in a larger media market.

Supervisor Kendall Smith, Exhibit A of a person who would not be holding public office if her district had a real media, told Lintott that she should rise above lambasting because it’s a normal part of politics. At this, Lintott got so visibly peeved that Board chair Pinches had to intervene, saying, “Let's get back to the meeting instead having a debate. We have to kind of back off here a little bit.”

Lintott was visibly seething, stepping away from the microphone to compose herself.

CEO Tom Mitchell was angry too. Slipping into his hair shirt, the County's wildly overpaid, wildly under-performing top bureaucrat, Mitchell complained:

“Unfortunately, we have many of our employees, some of them even in higher level management type positions, that absolutely refuse to cooperate and are taking the attitude, why me? They are too important or they have too heavy a workload. Well, I carry a heavy workload. So does County Counsel. We're taking up to a 10% pay cut. [This is big news, if true. Mitchell has never mentioned taking a pay cut.] I find it totally unacceptable that those employees who are working for the County of Mendocino have been unwilling to contribute toward solving the problem and are making the situation much worse than it needs to be. So we don't recommend filling any positions until we solve that problem first.”

Lintott had calmed herself.

“That’s a dangerous attitude,” replied Lintott, barely containing herself. “My job is public safety. To think that you're going to punish or blackmail a particular union into kowtowing to what you want… I don't agree to what's going on. I have to stay out of those negotiations [with the public attorneys union]. It’s a dangerous message.”

“That’s unfortunate,” blandly replied Supervisor Smith. “No one is blackmailing anyone. We’re simply trying to balance the budget with meet and confer [with the county’s various bargaining units].”

In the end, the Supes voted unanimously, but grudgingly, to allow Lintott to fill three grant-funded positions.

The Supes then went into closed session, soon emerging with a dramatic announcement of eleven additional layoffs, including five Sheriff’s deputies, one DA staffer, the Solid Waste Division’s deputy director, one Probation Department layoff, a solid waste analyst, one social worker assistant and one employee in the Public Defender’s office. These layoffs are supposed to save about $800k in the 2009/2010 budget.

CEO Mitchell explained. “We haven't cut the Sheriff much yet. He’s gone relatively unscathed so far. Everybody has to participate in the pain.”

Colfax added, “Public safety – law enforcement – uses 60% of the general fund. With the other 40% we've gone as far as we can. We have nowhere else to go.”

However, Supervisor Pinches said it wasn’t quite final.

“This is just tentative,” said Pinches. “If the bargaining units decide to give up more and help out the system, or if we get money from some unknown source, we wouldn't have to follow through.”

Not likely. The state budget is in freefall, as is the local economy.

After the cuts were announced, Sheriff Allman emphatically told the Board, “I disagree. This will take both Covelo resident deputies and half of the Anderson Valley's resident deputies. [It would also mean two fewer deputies on the Coast.] It will decimate the resident deputy program. It’s not fair that everyone will feel the pain. Rural areas will feel the pain much more. I have to sustain public safety and I can't do that with this. I don't appreciate this. Your priorities are askew. An elected board is saying to reduce police staffing in rural areas. I will fight this and do everything I can to make everybody understand that public safety must be maintained. We have to be on duty 24/7. We're the ones the public calls when everybody else is closed. Will you be comfortable with the public's safety after this?”

 Notebook

“Discussion and possible action including approval of invitation to analyze potential opportunities for privatization of County solid waste transfer facilities and outsourcing contract administration countywide.” With agenda titles like these, it’s surprising the Board of Supervisors finishes a meeting, much less gets anything done. In the last year the Board has talked about privatizing garbage collection at least eight times and got nowhere. Nevertheless, on July 21, here comes privatizing garbage collection. Again. The “discussion,” such as it was, was an entirely redundant replay of previous discussions of the subject. All five board members rehashed the same old concerns. Transportation chief Howard DeShield sighed, “We've discussed this for a long time.” Supervisor David Colfax thought what staff gave him was “not an adequate request for proposals or even a request for information. I've read hundreds of these.” Colfax told staff, “You need to anticipate our concerns,” a request for in-house mind reading that would mean decoding brains so muddled that Madam Blavatsky herself would be confused. “We need clarity,” Colfax said, apparently unaware of his own follow-the-bouncing-ball rhetoric. “We need clear declarative sentences.... We need simple, straightforward reports, or narratives, as to what will happen with each element. You need to pick up the many incoherent discussions we've had up here. Or very coherent discussions in some cases,” Colfax mumbled. He went on incoherently for another six minutes. Supervisor McCowen made a motion to direct staff to “negotiate with local operators. Define the subjects, but don’t proscribe the outcome.” Whatever that meant, it passed unanimously. Meanwhile the County's taxpayers continue to subsidize county-operated trash hauling to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars with dump rates so high that illegal roadside dumping seems to increase by the week.

The Supes also discussed who to appoint to the North Coast Railroad Authority for Mendocino County on July 21rd. Supervisor John Pinches first announced that a group of NCRA people had rafted down the Eel River canyon last year for a close up look at the forty miles of impassable track between Dos Rios and Alderpoint, dumping all their outdoor gear out of pure inexperience with river rafting as they went, all of it publicly funded. Pinches told the applicants that it’s obvious there are lots of slides along the river where the railroad tracks used to be and that there would be a “huge cost” to restore them. (Not to mention collapsed tunnels.) Yet, Pinches noted, the NCRA is still spending money on Eel River canyon studies. The supervisor wanted to know why. All four candidates seemed to understand that there’s no hope of ever running a train in the Eel River canyon again, despite the NCRA’s continued promotion of that fantasy. Instead, they all said they supported rails-AND-trails, not rails-TO-trails — although nobody knows how you could have trails in the Eel River canyon while there were still active rails. Pinches also pointed out that the land beneath and around the tracks is private property and he didn’t think the local landowners would be too thrilled about hikers wandering around. (Pinches didn’t say it out loud, but there are also huge pot patches throughout the Eel River drainage. Summer hikers would be wise to steer clear of the area.) But at least the applicants all seemed to realize that trains traversing the Eel River canyon from Marin to Eureka are a thing of the past. The NCRA and the local Democrat party hacks who promote restoration of the line for mercenary reasons of their own — they employ their pals on what's left of the north end railroad — can try to get more federal railroad money for themselves. In the end, the Board voted unanimously to appoint their old buddy, former Supervisor and former NCRA board member Hal Wagenet of Willits, and a Mendo Democrat of the active type, to the NCRA board. When asked what he thought about trains running north of Willits to Eureka, Wagenet said, “One step at a time. For now, we have to focus on the line south of Willits,” a typically weasel-lipped statement that leaves open the possibility that some day trains will chug into Eureka from Sausalito.

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