Mendocino County actually accomplished a couple of things last week, one of which came as quite a surprise to the Board of Supervisors — and us, too.
The surprise was the completion of the County's county-wide microwave communication system, which was declared up and running. Sort of. More or less. Although a few bugs remain to be worked out, the new system came in close to schedule and within budget, prompting Supervisor David Colfax to say, "This started in '07 and finished in '08? That's amazing! I've never seen any project here in all these years start in one year and finish the next. ... I exaggerate, of course."
Outgoing Board Chair Jim Wattenburger's grumbled reply to Colfax's faux exuberance was, "Not really."
Most of the credit for the project's apparent success went to General Services' on-task director, Kristin McMenomey, who told the Board that the new system would not only enhance county-wide communications it would also produce cost savings, as in efficient tele-conferencing rather than county cars driving all over our vast spaces out of Ukiah.
The new communications technology will also improve communications coverage for deputies on the South Coast, a good two hours by car from Ukiah. Other county offices are expected to be connected to the system soon.
The total cost of the new system came in near budget at just over $4 million, $2.6 million of which was borrowed, the rest coming from asset forfeiture, the city of Point Arena, Homeland Security, and the feds. Ms. McMenomey added that she thinks it may be possible to make further improvements for the Coast and Anderson Valley by linking in the Point Arena Air Force Station and Cold Springs Lookout on Signal Ridge above Philo.
The other accomplishment, if it can be called that, occurred last week on a 3-2 vote to allow the MacCallum House in Mendocino to operate four additional "visitor serving units," formerly known as hotel and motel rooms.
Supervisor Kendall Smith pointed out that from 2005 to 2008 the County had done nothing on MacCallum's application. Supervisor John Pinches said it had been eight years, and, "We went through a period of six years when basically nothing happened" on the MacCallum House application.
But according to the Planning Department's project summary the initial application was made in 1997 and has been bouncing around slo-mo since then, delayed by every office involved, including the County's planning department, the Mendocino Town Plan update (which is part of the General Plan being done by the Planning Team and consultants), multiple town plans and application drafts, multiple reviews, multiple Planning Commission hearings, the Supes themselves, the Coastal Commission and the courts.
The application is now several inches thick.
All for just four rooms in a city packed to the gills with hundreds of over-priced hot sheet cubicles designed solely to separate out-of-town suckers from their de-valued currency.
The primary issue was the number of "visitor serving units" which would be allowed in the Village of Mendocino. Would four more send it hurtling past the tipping point?
According to the County's latest chart (which is still under review as part of the endless Town Plan update), there are already 189 rooms at its inns, hotels and motels plus 30 B&Bs, and 19 "student/instructor rooms" at the Mendocino Art Center, the maximum numbers allowed.
All this jammed onto less than a square mile!
By a vote of 3-2 last Tuesday, Supervisors Jim Wattenburger, John Pinches and Mike Delbar approved giving four of the Art Center's room allocations to the MacCallum House on the grounds that the total room cap had not been exceeded. The Art Center wasn't consulted, and may sue but it's a done deal, county-wise.
The three Yes votes said that MacCallum House owner Jed Ayres had waited long enough, and waited out delays which were not his fault.
Supervisor David Colfax seemed distraught at the vote.
"The Art Center is the very heart of the Village of Mendocino!" Colfax bellowed. "Don't you [his fellow supes] understand anything about the heart of Mendocino, its history? There are people who regard this town as a sacred place! And I share that view. ... Have we just presented an amnesty opportunity for these people who have 'gone through hell'? [The long-drawn-out permit process.] People have been concerned about keeping Mendocino Village from being turned into Disneyland, into Trinket-town so that people can afford to live there! And not be overrun by people who would rent out their basement if they had an opportunity to rent to anybody who has $400 to spare over any given weekend."
Mendocino went over into Trinket-town 30 years ago. One wonders where their supervisor, Rip Van Colfax has been. The place is awash in rooms for rent. Four more make no diff whatsoever. The historic preserved city of Quebec allows no changes to the facades of its ancient structures; merchants and madams can do whatever they damn well please inside, no city nit-picking. Mendocino could learn a few things from our neighbors to the north. Mendocino once tried to incorporate. Unfortunately, the pompous old hippies who dominate the place couldn't bring it off, and ever since endless hours of public time in Ukiah have been devoted to painfully long, insane arguments about how best to preserve a town long gone over to a grotesque commercialism.
The 3-2 vote for the MacCallum House was also opposed by County Counsel Jeanine Nadel who told the board, "You must allow the planning team sufficient time to complete the review, otherwise there will be a lawsuit, possibly involving the Coastal Commission."
Chief Planner Frank Lynch added that an eight-year old letter in the file from the Coastal Commission "documents that approval today is premature."
CEO Tom Mitchell, always keen to add to the muddle, advised the board that they should first engage in a "philosophical discussion" about what to do with the "illegal units" in the town. There are, you see, an unknown number of rooms being rented out over the theoretical cap and nobody knows what to do about them. Or exactly where they are or who's renting them, if anyone is.
Supe Wattenburger to the fore.
"This entire situation ... is an absolute embarrassment to the County of Mendocino. I want to know who is legal, not who is illegal. The three-year delay is part of my embarrassment. ...
"It is embarrassing that this board was put in this position because of work not done" (by the County).
Then Wattenburger spoke to MacCallum House attorney Jared Carter who had, of course, inserted himself with multiple "points of order" during the Supes earlier deliberations when he should have been removed from the room when he first tried to elbow his way into the discussion.
"Mr. Carter, you were out of order and I should have said so. I guess I'm just not a mean son of a bitch to make you shut up and sit down. I apologize to my fellow supervisors for not having done that. But this job will make you a mean son of a bitch if you allow it. I'm not going to allow it to make me that mean SOB."
After a short reflection, Wattenburger added, "I have not conducted myself in a respectful manner as my own guidelines require so I apologize to the general public in that I just swore."
No fucking problem, Jimbo. We all fucking understand. Fucking Carter could piss off the Pope.
Supervisor Delbar explained that he was not worried about being sued — they'd probably be sued whichever way they voted.
"This is ludicrous," complained Delbar, then, with a martyred whinny, "It's unfortunate we get beat up for doing our job, but so be it."
In the last couple of weeks there's been a lot of confusing banter about holiday office closures, voluntary time off, mandatory time off, and who said what to whom about what under what heading in a helter-skelter last-minute attempt to trim down the County's current $1 million (and growing) budget deficit.
Last Tuesday morning while the Board was discussing an extensive wish list they were going to send to President Obama for inclusion in the "economic stimulus package," freshly elected County employee union president James Marmon, a senior County Social Worker, took the podium during public expression to bluntly tell the Board that what the CEO had told them about discussions with the union was incorrect.
"The CEO said that he had requested a meet and confer," said Marmon. "But we've had no meet and confer request. We have had discussions, but we are not meeting as meet and confer. Management is misleading you if they say they have met and conferred."
Marmon also said that contrary to Mitchell's report, management has not asked for worker input, has not taken any input, and management has discouraged use of voluntary time off.
"The only proposal was to close county offices over the holidays," said Marmon. "Some people can't afford it. We understand the gravity of the [budget] situation. We are ready to step up to get through these difficult times. But we are not willing to be manipulated by unilateral decisions by administration."
Marmon said that the union won't meet and confer until several pending requests for information are resolved, and until the union has had time to prepare proposals. He suggested that an ad hoc committee be set up to review county worker suggestions for cost savings and time off scheduling and bring proposals back to board.
Marmon also said that employees were reluctant to take voluntary time off unless they got credit for it when mandatory time off came around.
"There are hundreds if not thousands of hours of voluntary time off requests out there," said Marmon, "but the CEO's office has not been responsive."
Even though this was his last meeting, Supervisor and Board Chair Wattenburger, probably reflecting common management irritation, didn't want to be bothered with what his defective perceptive apparatus undoubtedly perceives as union quibbling: "You realize we're talking about the stimulus package right now."
Marmon shot back, "Yes. People depend on these paychecks."
Wattenburger dug himself in deeper:
"The longer these discussions take, the more you're going to force layoffs instead of mandatory time off. You do understand that?"
"We're not forcing you to do anything," replied Marmon, and he turned and walked off, and good for him.
The Supes can put off talking to the employees for years, but when the Union dares suggest a little time to prepare and meet, at this late date, Wattenburger wants to blame them for the Supes' own foot-dragging.
As of this week, however, it appears that the County is going to allow voluntary time off to apply to future mandatory time off. Department heads are trying to figure out a way to close down their offices for the holidays with "voluntary" time off — not an easy task. Exactly how much money this may save remains unknown.
Toward the end of last Tuesday's meeting it was time to bid farewell to Supervisors Wattenburger and Delbar. Wattenburger chose not to run again and Delbar was defeated by fellow Farm Bureau stalwart, Carre Brown.
The meeting quickly descended into a low-grade group therapy session for the two departing conservatives, both of whom broke down in tears.
Before he dissolved into sobs, Wattenburger gushed about Delbar's invisible achievements.
"Michael has accomplished things through contacts, and visits," said Wattenburger, without naming any. "His non-re-election [i.e., lop-sided slam dunk loss to Brown] was caused by the passion in the way he presented things."
Actually, it was at least partly caused by Delbar himself who had become an embarrassment even to his supporters when steamy e-mails between him (a married man) and a female staffer were made public. His fellow supes went 3-1 for a "vote of no confidence" in the Potter Valley cowboy at the time.
"His heart was always there for the citizens," Wattenburger continued, dauntless in the face of the non-reality because Delbar, like Wattenburger himself, is only there for certain constituents. Pinches is the only supervisor who makes a real effort to talk to everyone regardless of whether or not they support him or agree with him.
But Pinches, apparently overcome by the finger-food and party balloons, jumped on the I-Love-Mike bandwagon with, "I served with Michael from 1997-2000. He's the same guy as ten years ago. Outside of marijuana we've had damn few disagreements. [Laughter.] In his dealings with state and federal representatives he did better than our paid legislative advocate. A prime example is the microwave system. He has a lot to be proud of and he has a bright political future."
Supervisor Colfax read a resolution recognizing Wattenburger for his years of service. Colfax rattled off a routine list of the various boards, councils, commissions, districts and agencies Wattenburger was on, concluding that Wattenburger had somehow demonstrated "leadership" by showing up for meetings. Colfax chuckled as he congratulated Wattenburger for bringing "levity and a sense of humor — Jimisms, the creative use of the English language" to the boardroom.
Wattenburger certainly did that, however unintentionally.
Colfax then joked that it came as a "great relief" that Wattenburger had not chained himself to the Mill Creek Dam to keep the state from taking it out for the sake of the fish a couple of years ago.
"This short, fat, bald guy made a lasting impression," Colfax joked, referring to Wattenburger's self-description at a meeting last year.
Delbar piled on.
"It's been an honor to work with Jim Wattenburger for these four years, a joy working with somebody of Jim's caliber. His heart is with the County of Mendocino. He always had fatherly advice for me and he made the last four years enjoyable. Thanks for your service. It was remarkable."
All of this saccharine bonhomie is entirely self-referential, bearing no relation to county business.
Delbar used his own farewell address to whimper about his critics.
"It's unfortunate that the public doesn't have a chance to see or hear all the great things county folks are doing with fewer and fewer resources. Much of the press doesn't report on the good things. But they don't hesitate to blast us. Getting positive things out is a tremendous challenge. If it bleeds it leads. If it's not bleeding, it will be when press gets done."
The officials of this county should thank the goddess they get a free ride from local media except this one. An urban media would whip them like dogs, like dogs, I tell you!
Delbar then gave a shout out to Willits News reporter Mike A'Dair. "I'd like to thank Mike A'Dair who reports in a fair and accurate manner," said Delbar. "That's a rarity in the press. Thanks."
(Certainly out of pure coincidence, the next day an article by A'Dair appeared in the Willits News entitled, "Delbar keeps fighting for district," in which A'Dair wrote, "Although voted out of office, First District Supervisor Michael Delbar continued to scrap and scrape for his constituents at Tuesday's board meeting. Delbar wanted at least a portion of a $404,000 state payment to the county's Department of Transportation be used to fund the long-postponed repaving and realignment of East Side Potter Valley Road.")
Delbar started to break up as he reached for a tissue and commended his children for being "politically astute." He complained about "the seemingly endless delays in getting necessary work done," which is of course true, but Delbar was probably being somewhat selective in what he considers to be "necessary work."
Then, starting to completely break down, Delbar commended former Board Clerk Joyce Beard who departed amid scandal we don't have room to explicate here.
"She will never be able to be replaced. The board staff is the best we could hope for."
Delbar thanked his family and his wife, former Supervisor Jim Eddie's daughter, adding without relevance, "We have lost family and friends."
Then it was Wattenburger's turn to crack up.
Wattenburger declared he had "hope for the future," that he was passionate about County business, and that he had initially run because he wanted to "bring back government efficiency."
When Wattenburger mentioned his wife he paused, sighed, and choked back tears between sputters, sentence fragments and occasional eye-daubings. He referred to "after-meeting regrets, ranting, and the crap that comes with the job," then shook his head saying, "Wait a minute. ... This is the passion I talked about. My wife got several death threats because of my actions," Wattenburger claimed, daubing his eyes some more. "I thank her."
Last year Wattenburger said that he had received death threats aimed at his wife which were supposedly related to his positions on marijuana enforcement and/or the Masonite re-zone, saying that the threats, however they were expressed, included a description of his wife's daily itinerary, causing him to carry an unpermitted concealed weapon.
After several more pauses and whimpering false starts, Wattenburger changed subjects:
"I didn't think I was worthy to be the chair," he gurgled — more tears, more eye-daubing. "I apologize." He handed out copies of his "principles of board conduct."
And then read them.
"Hope, not fear. Solutions, not conflict. Education, not litigation. Science instead of emotion. I failed that one..."
"I'll leave you with one quote which is why I did not run for re-election," said Wattenburger. "Lead, follow, or get the hell out of the way. I decided to get the hell out of the way."
Wattenburger is a former Calfire firefighter. He's gone back to work for Calfire while also drawing Supervisor pay at $65k a year plus bennies.
After Colfax read a proclamation commending Wattenburger for his four years of service, the other four Supervisors perfunctorily voted, "Aye."
Wattenburger, through his tears, voted "No. I don't think I deserve it," adding, "I apologize for that show of emotion but that is my passion."
(Next week: Solid waste transfer station privatization, another self-congratulatory love-fest known as Mendo's Strategic Plan for 2009, and the latest huge losses reported by the county's troubled retirement system.)