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Off The Record

THAT OVERWROUGHT demonstration last week over a road widening project at Richardson Grove on 101, reported on in this week's paper by the always excellent Daniel Mintz, not only seemed disproportionately wacky it was disproportionately wacky. Having become America's last refuge for throwback hippies, Southern Humboldt's dingbat brigade, led by a person calling herself Verbena, which is ordinarily either a condiment or a flower, I can never remember which, descended on Caltrans' Eureka office where they commenced a violently non-violent assault on the cops to protest what Verbena claims is Big Orange's plan to expedite “massive development” and the “further militarization” of Humboldt County. Meanwhile, in the reality most of us live in, massive development anywhere in the country is highly unlikely while the further militarization of HumCo assumes there is some militarization already established there. Which there isn't, unless one considers the Coast Guard a tentacle of the fascist insect that preys on the life of, uh, cannabis consumers. If Caltrans planned to take down some of those magnificent old redwoods at Richardson Grove, Verbena's commandos might have a beef. But road widening?

SUPERVISOR John Pinches called last week to dispute our take on the big remodeling project at the Supervisors offices on Low Gap Road. Pinches pointed out that the remodel is part of the consolidation of the Clerk of the Board’s office with the CEO’s office, not just one door off a back hallway — and that the consolidation has saved money by eliminating two office staff positions. The remodel, Pinches says, mostly involves moving movable partitions, not actual walls. Pinches insists that the $20k-plus number includes all the remodeling being done, not just the “security” upgrades, and that most of the work is being done by County staff, not outside contractors.

FAIR ENOUGH. But if it’s as simple and logical as that, 1. Why did Supervisor McCowen even bring it up? (McCowen said it made it appear as if they were trying to keep the public at bay) And 2. Why did CEO Angelo seem so defensive about it, and why not discuss it in public?

CONTRACT NEGOTIATIONS with the County’s biggest union — Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — are obviously not going well. As we understand it, the Board is standing firm on a 20% pay cut while refusing to consider another round of Mandatory Time Off (MTO), which saved several million last year. Also under consideration is a shorter workweek. This week’s budget workshop agenda mentions a 36-hour workweek and others have mentioned a 32-hour workweek — both of which would be more acceptable to many union members than an across the board 20% pay cut. The slow pace of negotiations makes it likely that an “impasse” may be declared and resolution, if any, is at least two more months away.

NEGOTIATIONS between the County and the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association began in March, 2010. After “many meet and confer sessions” failed to produce an agreement, impasse was declared. According to CEO Angelo at the time, “The parties agreed to utilize mediation with a Mediator from the California State Mediation and Conciliation Service. Mediation was conducted on June 28, 2010 and both parties made a good faith attempt to resolve differences between them, but ultimately mediation was not successful. On July 1, 2010, the County sent its Last, Best and Final Offer to the Mendocino County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association. On July 8, 2010, the membership of the Association rejected said Offer.”

NOTE: state mediators charge counties $115 per hour for their services, successful or not.

SEIU employees insist that the County fails to understand which jobs are general-fund funded and which are not, so the County is imposing pay cuts on everybody so that the County doesn’t look like it’s picking and choosing whose pay is cut.

IT SEEMS TO US that the path of least resistance is a 32-hour workweek. A number of County employees have told us they’d grudgingly agree to an abbreviated work week so they can keep their same pay rate for pension purposes and they might also be able to work another job.

DR. GRAY BRECHIN, founder of California's New Deal Project and a smart, lively speaker, will be in Caspar this Friday night (February 18th) to speak on the subject of “Another World was Possible: What Enlightened Government Can Do. The New Deal's Lasting Contributions to California.” Caspar Community Center, 7:30, no admission charge.

THE VERY NEXT night, Raj Patel, another lively and engaging speaker, will present “Food Sovereignty in Northern California?” Patel's first book, “Stuffed and Starved,” was a best seller.

HARRY MERLO (remember him?) was named Oregon's Tree Farmer of the year, 2010 by, ta-da, by the World Forestry Center, founded by Merlo in 1989 about the time ol' Har was mopping up in Mendoland. The former CEO of timber goliath Louisiana-Pacific whose cut and run practices in Mendocino County put an end to the local timber industry twenty years ago, Merlo famously said of L-P's local forests, “It always annoys me to leave anything on the ground when we log our own land. We don't log to a 10-inch top, we don't log to an 8-inch top or a 6-inch top. We log to infinity. It's out there, it's ours, and we want it all. Now.” these days Merlo owns and manages 12,000 acres near LaGrange, Oregon. No clearcuts on Har's ranch, I bet.

ACCORDING TO a circumspect, not to say gingerly article by the Press Democrat’s Brett Wilkison last week, even the church mousey frost protection proposals Sonoma County was considering were torpedoed by one very wealthy wine guy — John Dyson of Williams-Selyem Winery in Healdsburg.

SONOMA COUNTY'S wine juggernaut, for which the Press Democrat faithfully provides a daily deluge of supportive propaganda, has been trying to come up with a way to keep the state from imposing meaningful restrictions on the wine business's present unlimited draw on Sonoma County's battered and already overdrawn rivers and streams. The wine people want carte blanche to pump directly out of these rivers and streams for “frost protection.” They claim they’ve built lots of storage ponds for frost protection reserves which, they claim, are filled strictly from winter run-off. Not that anyone's checking. Water resources are only haphazardly monitored. The wine people also claim they are self-regulating and certainly wouldn't harm fish habitat or the general well-being of rivers and streams, a claim only a wine person would dare make.

SONOMA COUNTY’S Board of Supervisors realizes that the No-Rules-At-All approach to that county's finite water resources simply won’t fly with the State Water Resources Control Board, which is itself trying to mollify the National Marine Fisheries Service as that federal agency tries to prevent salmon from being wiped out altogether. True water conservation will require gages on winery pumps, and gaging is the last thing the wineries want.

AND THAT’S where John Dyson put on the brakes. “In contract talks that stalled last week, a group representing [grape] growers would not agree to that work because they did not want it to identify individual property owners and their water usage,” went the careful report of the PD’s Wilkison. The SoCo board seemed surprised. They seemed to think that their no-rules-monitoring scheme would satisfy even the insatiable. Wrong. “John Dyson, the New York-based owner of Williams Selyem winery in Healdsburg, has funded a private study critical of frost water rules,” Wilkison continued. “Dyson is said to be the leader of that faction. Opatz, the grower representative, all but acknowledged Dyson's strong-arm role among growers Tuesday. He told supervisors he had called ‘a gentleman’ and asked him, “Are you going to torpedo this program if it goes forward?’ ‘He said no,’ Opatz said, without revealing the man's name. Other growers on hand said he was referring to Dyson.”

SO READING between the wine glasses it’s obvious that the influential Dyson has his own “faction” within the “grower community” that doesn’t want anything to do with water gages. And by using the word “torpedo” Dyson is making a thinly veiled threat to sue the County if they try to monitor his water usage, which would cost multi-bucks Dyson a relative pittance but would cost Sonoma County scarce tax dollars in legal fees. The SoCo Board of Supervisors has gone back to the drawing board because if Dyson and his Faction won’t go along, Sonoma County is probably not going to fight him.

WHO IS JOHN DYSON? In February of 1998 Mssrs. Williams and Selyem sold their modest enterprise for the immodest sum of almost $10 million to Dyson. Dyson functioned as deputy mayor for finance and economic development for the mayor of New York, Rudolph Giuliani and, when he wasn't managing New York's money, Dyson has plenty of his own to keep his acquisitive eye on. The wine-related part of the Dyson fortune consists of Millbrook Vineyards and Winery in New York's Hudson Valley; in California Dyson owns vineyards in the Central Valley near Gilroy and Hollister, collectively known as Pebble Ridge Vineyards. Dyson also owns a vineyard and winery in Tuscany, a prize acquisition envied by all the heavy hitters in an industry teeming with parvenus. Dyson is also somewhat famous as the man who created the famous I (heart) New York logo at a time Gotham was particularly unlovable.

WE DON'T care much for Dyson for other reasons. The tragic death of a 20-year old Williams-Selyem employee named Taylor Atkins back in 2004 was fully preventable if Dyson had instituted commonsense plant safety rules. (“When a Winery Kills,” AVA, April 19, 2004). According to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office report on the case: “On January 7, 1999, the victim, Taylor J. Atkins, an employee for seven months of the Williams Selyem Winery located at 6575 Westside Road, Healdsburg, was asphyxiated when he climbed into a 1500 gallon wine tank, a confined permit space, that had been devoid of oxygen by placing nitrogen gas into the tank during the bottling process. Williams Selyem Winery failed to provide adequate training to any exposed employees regarding the presence, location, and health hazards associated with any confined spaces or permit-required confined spaces; and the 1500-gallon wine tank which was inerted with nitrogen gas during the bottling process was not posted with danger signs to alert any exposed employee of the existence, location, and danger posed by the permit confined space.” Nobody could say for a fact exactly what happened, but everybody can say for a fact that it should not have happened.

CHRISTINE ATKINS, mother of Taylor Atkins, told us at the time, “Mr. Dyson called to say he was sorry, but then he said things like this happen all the time, and he talked about how some workers at a flour mill back east had died. Talk about not getting it! Taylor would not have died if Dyson had invested just a few dollars in safety equipment at his winery.”

NOW that same John Dyson is refusing to even let the wine friendly supervisors in Sonoma County know how much water he’s pumping out of the Russian River. Verdict: Guilty as charged. This guy's got to be stopped, but try stopping anybody with his money these days. Sonoma County's craven supervisors won't even try.

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