In 1988, gas was 90¢ a gallon, Ronald Reagan was president, a prototype of the B-2 stealth bomber was revealed, Democrats nominated Michael Dukakis as their party’s presidential candidate, Republicans nominated Vice President George H.W. Bush as their party’s presidential candidate, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry was born, and drag queen Divine died…
And Mendocino County Observer publisher and Laytonville Water District manager Jim Shields moved to Laytonville.
“I’m a farm boy,” Shields said recently from Laytonville’s cavernous community auditorium, where fanciful white sails hanging from the high ceiling made it look a little bit like the roof line of the Denver airport. “When we moved here I got back into agriculture, bought some cows and sheep. You couldn’t drive either north or south along this corridor without seeing cattle and sheep all along 101. Timber was still king. There was no unemployment in the area.”
“I tell people all the time there was a period of time when we seemed to have all the answers,” Shields said. “It’s criminal what’s happened now.” His political awakening began with his early work in the labor movement. “I got involved in the mid-70s [and] our primary objective was to move working people into the middle class,” he said. “If you actually listen to working people, that’s what they wanted to do. That dream was attainable, and we did a pretty good job of it.” Shields was an officer with the airline clerks’ union, which he said was the largest airline union in the country at the time. He said however, that he ultimately became disillusioned with its politics. “After years with them, because of political differences, I made the decision to leave the Brotherhood,” he said. “We ended up spending most of our time fighting the organization that was ostensibly supposed to be standing for things.”
Shields’s split with the greater labor movement did, however, indirectly steer him to communications and the power of the press. “I’m not a journalist, but the labor movement in general was doing a lousy job communicating with its members,” he said. “They were afraid of what workers and union people would do if they had too much access to information.” As an example, he said that during contract negotiations status and progress updates to the membership were general and did not include litigation and issues like corruption.” He added that unions were also illegally spending members’ dues for political activities, a prohibition that was largely swept away with the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Communications decision, which in part ruled that corporations and unions had the right to free speech and could spend as much money as they wanted to on political campaigns without creating a PAC. The flood gates opened and unlimited cash has swamped political campaigns ever since.
Shields said that for the past 40 years his motivation and purpose have never changed, whether in his work with the labor movement, his work in the community, or in the tone and content of his paper: to fight political and economic injustice.
And he lays the blame for its current absence squarely at the feet of elected and appointed officialdom tasked with building and maintaining the basic systems that make communities possible. “Mendocino County is really an aberration when it comes to government – government here has always been dysfunctional,” he said. “It’s embarrassing to admit we have such jackasses running things. They [the board of supervisors] can’t handle simple things like transportation. Marijuana is a chaotic mess.”
A hot button with him is that supervisors don’t understand the importance of marijuana to the local economy, and that when Big Timber decamped and moved offshore the reason the economy didn’t tank was because of marijuana cultivation.
“It was sociologically and politically fascinating,” Shields said, of the truce between loggers and growers. “They hated each other – hippie dope growers, loggers are clear cutting, fucking things up... Two years later they got their arms around each other.” He said, “This is why I love working people. They saw the industry was in its death throes, and while they were still employed they started cultivating marijuana at night when they got off work.” Shields said that timber workers and hippie growers began to settle a lot of their differences in the schools. “You had loggers’ kids and growers’ kids on the same teams. They were able to come together because of what their kids were doing.” He said that’s how loggers began to cultivate marijuana. “They were taught by some of the growers who used to be their enemies.”
Shields says that the county’s overly complex, time-consuming and inefficient marijuana cultivation certification process is a particularly bitter pill for the county’s small growers, who are squeezed by high taxes and fees on one end while losing money as prices fall on the other end as corporate agri-business takes up the charge and buys up huge tracts of land throughout the state for commercial mega-grows. Of the small growers, he said, “They’re the ones who are getting sucked up into unemployment, losing their homes, losing their lifestyles. There’s not much anybody can do about that,” he said. “It’s too late to save local legalization here. Small growers will end up as employees for the big guys.” He added that, unsurprisingly, the black market is making a comeback.
A quick look at the online list of what growers have to go through in Mendo to certify their grows is daunting to say the least. There are 18 overall steps requiring19 detailed applications, photographs, lists, plans (no hand-drawn site plans allowed), forms, business documents, permits, agreements and several other kinds of reports. Oh, and it all has to be submitted in an 8 ½ by 11 inch manila envelope labeled with the date of submission, applicant name, phone number, mailing address and cultivation address. And the documents have to be lined up in the order listed. In a few short years marijuana has moved from the least regulated to the most regulated crop in the county – with no other industry waiting in the wings to jump in to save jobs like marijuana cultivation did for loggers.
Over the next few years the realities of water availability for small growers will put even more pressure on the local market. As manager of Laytonville’s water district, Shields has a front-row seat on what’s coming.
“A lot of people who own property think they have water rights when they don’t just because they have a deed to the land,” he said. “There’s never been any cohesive public policy on water, it’s always been a catch-as-catch-can system. It’s always been broken.” He said that while squabbling and inaction over water use continue to reign on the county level, the state is quietly moving forward with its 10-year water plan. “The adults in the room are the State,” he said. “They’re collecting data from the watersheds and …setting up funding accounts. They’re gonna get this really down to a science and they’re gonna come up with a number.” As a theoretical example, he said that there could be 3,000 plants on a watershed that can only sustain a third of that number. “They’re locking the system down,” he explained, “but it will take another 6 or 7 years.”
On another topic entirely, how big an issue is crime in Laytonville? “You have people making their livings by doing rip-offs,” Shields said. Otherwise, “…depending upon the nature of the crime, people do what they have to do to protect themselves and their families. That hasn’t changed much.” He sees the root of Laytonville’s problems, much as he sees the country’s problems, as political and economic.
Lieutenant Kirk Mason of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department’s Northern Operations, gives the Laytonville area a mixed review.
Mason has worked in the Sheriff’s department for 31 years in different locations and capacities, the last six in his current operation, which he runs out of the Willits office on East Valley Street right off the town’s main drag. He has 12 people working for him, including his sergeants, and the northern territory covers 1,200 square miles, roughly a third of the county that encompasses Willits, Covelo, Laytonville, Piercy, Leggett, Branscomb, and all unincorporated areas in between. Laytonville itself hasn’t grown much population-wise over the years, with 2,347 residents recorded in the 1990 census and 2,556 in 2010.
“I wouldn’t characterize Laytonville as the Wild West,” Mason said, although, “There tend to be more marijuana gardens in the general area, both legal and illegal.” He added that they didn’t get a lot of calls when marijuana was illegal. “Who wants to call in to report on themselves?” he asked, rhetorically.
In fact, with less population, more calls for service come in from Covelo than from Laytonville. Mason picked up a report he’d printed out with stats showing calls for service. He explained that calls for service include every call that comes into the office (excluding 911 calls, which go into a central call dispatch center in Ukiah), including transfers (for example, somebody calling in to report a fire, transferred to the fire department) or someone calling in to report a drunk driver (transferred to the Highway Patrol), as examples. Mason estimates that transfers make up “way less than half” of the incoming calls.
So, from January 2018 to January 2019, the Sheriff’s northern operations office received 3,248 calls for service out of Covelo, compared with 2,447 out of the Laytonville area for the same period. Fifty-one calls were for domestic disturbances and 55 people reported that they had been assaulted. “There’s no more drug usage in Covelo than in Laytonville,” he said. “I just know that traditionally we get more calls and they tend to be more serious in Covelo.”
But statistics alone rarely tell the whole story. Mason said they only know about crimes if they hear about them, a significant caveat in a rural area where, for both better and for worse, “everybody knows everybody else.”
Mason said he does see some worrying trends coming out of the northern area generally. One is firearms, which he said have become deadlier and more numerous over the past 15 or 20 years. “Usually the ones we’re worried about are rifles, especially rifles that are fully automatic or can be simply changed to automatic,” he said. “It’s not uncommon now that many times those in the armed criminal element are just as well if not more armed than we are.”
Another is the sheer geography of the area when officers need back-up. If back-up is requested in Covelo, for example, and an officer needs to drive there from Laytonville, it might show on a map that it’s 39.2 miles, but in reality it takes an hour to get there.
Turnover in the department is another problem, which Mason said plagues other departments as well. “What we’re finding out in the last five years is that people are leaving but still living here. I can drive an hour to Santa Rosa and make $20,000 [more] a year, with better benefits,” he said.
And of course drugs are a growing problem, particularly the so-called “powder” drugs. He said that drugs are typically consumed locally but distributed by dealers outside the county or even outside the state. “I’d estimate that 75 percent of marijuana-related robberies and thefts are not local,” he said.
So, back to the Mendocino County Observer, how do all of these issues – political, economic, and criminal - show up every Thursday in the pages of the paper? “Newspapers should do a couple of things: provide history, report on what the government is doing, and attempt to educate their leaders on what should be done,” Shields said, adding that papers should not hide behind an illusion of objectivity.
Converted from its original form as a sort of community billboard, the Laytonville Ledger, established in 1977, morphed into the Mendocino County Observer when Shields bought it “at the end of ’87, beginning of ’88.” He said he originally had a large paid staff but overexpanded and got into an advertising war with the Ukiah Daily Journal, which was independent at the time, and the Willits News. “It was a mistake,” he said. “We’re still making money but the margins are dropping and are real thin. The loss of advertising is mind-blowing.” He said that at its peak in the late 1990s, the paper’s circulation was about 2,500, and is now about half that.
Shields said he’s resisted going “the way of the digital divide, e-editions and all that stuff, though there is a PDF for subscribers. What I saw with other weeklies is that it destroyed them,” he said. Like every other newspaper person I know, Shields is puzzled that all the communication going on in social media with young people hasn’t boosted social participation. “Quite frankly, with education and the digital divide you’d think people would be smarter,” he said. “People are much more interested [in] taking selfies of themselves, Facebook, sharing personal, intimate information. I mean who does that?”
Shields said local papers in the county support each other, and that he has a semi-regular, long-standing relationship with the AVA. “The real Bruce Anderson is sort of old-worldly, a guy who doesn’t take to changes well but is able to smell a rat real quick,” he laughed. “I’m the AVA’s resident conservative.”