Going Nowhere Fast

by Mark Scaramella, February 10, 2011

The lowest point in last Tuesday’s slightly unhinged Board of Supervisors meeting was the slam dunk of Supervisor John McCowen’s noble attempt to address the flagrantly wasteful and spectacularly unneeded remodel of the Board of Supervisor’s backroom office area.

Well over $20,000 of scarce general fund dollars are being used to keep the public and most County staff away from a corridor that was previously used by the Board to walk from their offices to the Board chambers, the apparent idea being to spare their majesties possible contact with the public they allegedly serve.

McCowen: “Will the corridor be locked only on board meeting days?”

CEO Carmel Angelo: “No. This corridor will no longer be a corridor for public access. We have looked at the building and exits and entrances. This should not be a problem for employees or the public.”

McCowen: “I will request that that be an agenda item for discussion by the Board.”

At this point CEO Angelo turned her head away from the Board and shook her head in exaggerated shock, a contemptuous gesture that would get her fired in almost any other circumstance.

Quickly recovering herself, Ms. Angelo replied, “This is not a new idea. There have been assessments of this building that went to prior CEOs. Blocking off of this corridor has been one of those. We have started the process. I would like to continue. I believe this is in the best interest of the Board right now to go ahead and block off the corridor. So I’d like to continue with that process.” (She obviously meant she insisted.)

The age of the plan somehow justifies it being carried out years later when the County is broke?

Board Chair Kendall Smith, a personal friend of Angelo's, launched immediately into blather mode: “We’ve had other discussions on security options that were going to take place had we not done the… rearrangement of the offices. This is a substitute for the other plans had we not made that move — a modification of that overall master plan.”

Security options?

Fact is, very few County residents, and never yet a single assassin, ever visit their supervisors or attend meetings, much less care. If there is one member of the public at a meeting that meeting is heavily attended. When people do attend they are usually single-issue people, not that previous boards spared any expense on a lavish meeting room complete with a perennially empty media booth and a large dais and big leather swivel chairs from which their majesties peer royally down at the unwashed.

McCowen tried to stall Smith’s attempt to cut off discussion: “If we’re going to discuss this why don’t we wait until this is on the agenda which I have requested?”

Smith: “I’m going to let the CEO finish and Supervisor Pinches had a comment.”

CEO Angelo tried to make the unnecessary remodel look like a cost-effective measure: “Our security review showed that we needed $100k in upgrades for this building that we can’t afford. This is a very low cost upgrade that I believe could assist with the security in this building. And as CEO this is one thing I would like to move forward with.”

Security again.

Do these people feel menaced? There certainly are people who don’t like their financial decisions these days, but security?

Supervisor Pinches, who in years past had a reputation for watching the public’s nickel, agreed with Angelo: “I don’t believe putting a door in in this building should be a Board agenda item.”

The remodel is a lot more than simply putting a door in the building.

Supervisor Smith said she agreed, but she couldn't just say she agreed. She said, “I concur.”

McCowen persisted.

“This is basically closing off a hallway which serves the convenience of the public and the other staff in the County. It creates the impression that we are trying to insulate ourselves from the public. I understand it is a concern when the Board is in session. If that’s the case why close it off every day to provide the added security on board meeting days? If no other member of the Board thinks this is worthy of discussion, I’ll drop it. But I think it does create an inconvenience to the general public and to our staff and creates the impression that we’re trying to limit the ability of the public to have access to us. And I disagree with all of that.”

“I hope all the comments are taken into consideration. I have some concerns too, but this is not a topic at the Board of Supervisors level,” said Supervisor Carre Brown, also trying to avoid the subject.

The Board, except for McCowen, seemed to implicitly agree that putting the remodel on a future agenda would only make them look extravagant a second time.

As one Board watcher told us, “Board members apparently think special measures are necessary to protect them from the people they represent. They are also indifferent to the inconvenience this may create for the public and their own employees. Why! Think of what could happen! Without the remodel, a crazed gunman could burst in the front doors blazing away as an accomplice lurked in the exposed hallway to aid the get away! Please. The Board seems to be saying that they are more important than the rest of the public, and to satisfy their imaginary sense of importance it is now necessary that everyone else take the long way around to get to whichever office they may be heading to.”

Former Supervisor Jim Wattenburger startled his colleagues at his last Board meeting with the revelation that he'd attended meetings armed with a pistol. Wattenburger said he and his wife had been threatened by anonymous persons who fit the general description of Hippie Genericus. Hippie Genericus was supposedly stalking the Wattenburgers because of Wattenburger's timid stance on marijuana regulation and the Masonite rezone.

Having decided that the wholly indefensible $20k-plus remodel was not a matter for board discussion, the Board proceeded to spend well over an hour deciding that the Veterans for Peace Ukiah Chapter should pay $90 to rent the Vets Hall in Ukiah.

The odd dispute pitted some Ukiah-based veterans organizations against the local Veterans For Peace chapter. The old guard groups regard the Vets For Peace as a bunch of com-symps or, worse, closet Islamophiles. The old boys don't want the dissident vets to use the Vet's Hall — period.

Accusations about which group was “political” — obviously they all are — and whose presence in its hallowed halls would be “desecrating” it went back and forth including tedious readings from miscellaneous local and federal rulebooks.

After nearly an hour of public comment from a number of disgruntled veterans, Supervisor Pinches sighed that he was “sad” to see veterans arguing about such things. Supervisor Hamburg admitted to “leaning a bit” in favor of Vets for Peace. (If Hamburg leaned further in their favor he'd be horizontal with the floor.) Hamburg said that he appreciated everyone’s service.

Supervisors Pinches and McCowen suggested a compromise measure involving a discounted fee for the liberal vets. The effort at compromise didn’t satisfy the conservative vets who still wanted to keep the liberal vets out altogether. Finally, Vets For Peace, got the hall at $90 a day.

It was never quite clear why the issue even came before the Board of Supervisors at all. They were obviously uncomfortable playing referee for an ongoing political dispute that will probably never be resolved until that glorious day when “veteran” is defined solely as that man or woman who has been shot at in a war, undeclared or otherwise. What we have now is old guard veteran's groups heavy on what used to be called “pogues,” a pogue being a non-combatant versus Vets for Peace, a Vietnam-era group open to anyone which, in Mendocino County, means it is dominated by hippie pogues and people who have managed to elude military service. Most combat veterans in Mendocino County, especially Vietnam and Iraq veterans, do not belong to any organized group.

Incidentally, during the slobbery media celebrations of Ronald Reagan last week on that fraud's 100th birthday, Reagan's “commitment” to the military was singled out for special praise. Ronnie, of course, had made movies during WWII and, as President, used the military solely to defend the interests of empire, never democratic movements. Reagan's pal John Wayne whose bogus political contours are nearly Reagan-like in their dimensions, is also held up as some kind of American hero. A recent letter from the SF Chronicle nicely summed up Wayne:

“Regarding the rightwing icon John Wayne, I had the pleasure of serving in the US Army in 1957-58 — pleasure because it was between wars and it served as a transition into adult maleness. At that time, many of our lifers were veterans of World War II and Korea who had remained in the service because it was simply a good career move. Many sergeants first class had been brevet captains, majors and, in at least one case, a lieutenant colonel commanding a regiment in Europe, the entire command staff of that unit having been killed or severely wounded. These worthies uniformly looked upon Wayne as a draft-dodging, wife-beating phony and made sure the recruits heard that opinion. Consequently, calling a fellow serviceman 'John Wayne' constituted an insult more deadly than any of the colorful scatology that the military vocabulary is rife with.”

Next up was Round Two of a discussion of how the government can build a public slaughterhouse in Mendocino County for private ranchers. This time the question was whether to send a letter of support for a grant application for “Phase 2” of a study of whether a “multi-species” slaughterhouse in Mendocino County might be profitable.

Supervisor “Cowboy John” Pinches, a cattle rancher, admitted that, “Normally, the process would be, a private entrepreneur would say, Hey I want to put in a facility, and they would bear all this. Well, in these economic times, it's really not coming from that.”

If private money thought a slaughterhouse could make money in Mendocino County there would be a slaughterhouse in Mendocino County. We need a tax-funded consultant to tell us that?

The grant application was prepared by a new organization in Ukiah calling itself the “Meat Committee of the Economic Development and Finance Corporation (EDFC) of Mendocino County,” which is made up of government employees such as the County’s UC Ag Extension meat-man John Harper and a few meat-friendly government payroll women from Ukiah — no actual ranchers, but they are believed to know a cow when they see one.

Mr. Harper, echoing the theme of the day's meeting — Clinical-Quality Paranoia (or CQP) — declared, “With terrorist activity our food supply is at risk.”

Like, the Willits Safeway is on Al Qaeda's hit list?

Supervisor Hamburg sensibly pointed out the obvious.

“It’s not going to take terrorism to knock down our local meat supply,” said Hamburg. “All it’ll take is $7 a gallon gasoline. I’m not saying that’ll happen next year, but as prices go up it will affect economic security.”

The Meat Committee said they had done an evaluation of the idea which “indicated very promising economic benefits to Mendocino County” from a meat processing plant — but no numbers were presented to the Board.

So we ran a few numbers ourselves.

Considered in rough ballpark terms, an $18 million facility (as described by Mr. Harper last year), built on donated ranchland, financed at conventional interest rates would be something like $36 million over 30 years or $1.2 million per year. Add operations costs with, say, ten employees including payroll, and you’re talking $500k more per year — conservatively. Other overhead costs would add another $500k or so. So something like $2 million a year would be needed to operate the facility that Harper first suggested.

Selling semi-processed meat at $4 per pound wholesale (high end) would involve sales of maybe 500,000 pounds of meat per year just to cover the $2 million operating costs. Assuming the average (“multi-species”) animal generates upwards of 500 pounds of marketable meat, you’re talking in the range of 1000 animals per year, or maybe four animals per weekday; more if the animals include a large number of sheep, goats, lamb, wild pig, and turkeys — pig and turkey being Mendocino County's sole remaining renewable resources.

This certainly seems feasible, so we’re not sure why local ranchers are unwilling to pony up (sic) to study it since they’d be the primary beneficiaries of such a facility.

Another interesting aspect of last Tuesday’s discussion was the way the Board and the proponents of a government-sponsored slaughterhouse facility characterized the skeptics.

Not one person who came to the podium to speak about the slaughterhouse grant application was openly against it. A few had questions about locations, environmental impacts and economics, but that was about it.

Nevertheless, the Board referred to the few people with questions as “detractors” and “opponents.” There will undoubtedly be vegetarians who oppose slaughterhouses on principle, plus, depending on where they might build it, some local opposition from potential neighbors is inevitable. But to characterize people with ordinary questions — not to mention those who think the government should stay out of it entirely — as “opponents” and “detractors” is a transparent way to dismiss legitimate questions about the facility.

Potter Valley Supervisor Carre Brown, former lead spokesperson for the Mendocino Farm Bureau, made the proposal to send a letter of support as all four of her colleagues quickly agreed to the following letter:

“Mr. David Martin, Civil Engineer, U.S. Dept. of Commerce, EDA, Jackson Federal Building, Room 1890, 915 Second Avenue, Seattle, WA 98174. On behalf of the entire Mendocino County Board of Supervisors, I want to express to you our strong support for the Mendocino Restoring Economic Vitality (MendoREV) project. In late May 2010, the UC Cooperative Extension and the Meat Committee of the Economic Development and Finance Corporation (EDFC) of Mendocino County presented to the Board the findings from the recently completed North Coast Region Meat Industry Feasibility Study, which indicated very promising economic benefits to Mendocino County resulting from a meat harvesting/processing facility. The Board of Supervisors is acutely, perhaps painfully, aware of the importance of sustainable economic development in this tenuous economic climate. The possibility of revitalizing the ranching industry in Mendocino County and creating value-added products to feed our own residents and export outside the region will be of tremendous long-term value to our economy. It will also dovetail with other successful efforts underway here to localize our food system, raising Mendocino County’s stature as an agri-tourism destination. In addition, our County Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) as well as our County General Plan both recommend the revitalization of this industry for the long-term economic health of Mendocino County’s residents. Thank you in advance for considering this important proposal. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Sincerely, Kendall Smith, Chair, Mendocino County Board of Supervisors.”

If it turns out that there’s not enough money in a local slaughterhouse to pay for its development, the “meat committee” and meatheads generally will blame the “detractors and opponents” who “oppose every good idea that comes along.”

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