At my house, all talk of Fort Bragg politics is forced to a halt when the noon whistle blows. Out-of-town guests unfamiliar with the ambiance of living in a company mill town have been known to dive for cover under the kitchen table in alarm over the ear-blasting siren. Our mutt-dog adds to the disruption with his responding howls to let the big dog calling out at the mill know his whereabouts.
Immediately thereafter, our guests will be treated to pipe organ renditions of “God Will Take Care of You,” and the always rousing “Stand Up! Stand Up For Jesus” broadcast throughout much of Fort Bragg over the loudspeaker system of the First Baptist Church (repeated again at 5 o'clock quitting time, and the 6 o'clock dinner hour). At night, they will be lullabied by the intermittent mournful wail of Noyo harbor's fog horn.
A week ago Friday, the day after Georgia-Pacific timber corporation permanently closed the town's 100-year lumber mill and laid off the remaining 50 of its once 1800 employees, I waited to hear if the noon whistle would blow. With reason lost, it went off just like it has every mill work day for the 29 years that G-P has owned the 400-acre industrial site, ravaged its timber land, and otherwise broke the backs and consciences of the town's residents.
The noon whistle sounds out for no mill worker, just like the fog horn now blows for no commercial fishing fleet; the river-born salmon catch nearly decimated out of existence by G-P and its head forester Jere Melo. Still employed by G-P, Melo is mayor of Fort Bragg. He is also a honcho of sorts within the town's All Angels Episcopal Church (along with two of this November's five city council candidates, Dave Turner and Scott Dabel).
Melo has led long-time Fort Bragg Councilmember Lindy Peters around by the nose for years. The only council member work Peters does is supplying the verbal vitriol when citizens raise concerns Melo doesn't like. Melo lost control of Fort Bragg for a time when the three city hall reform candidates, Michele White, Vince Benedetti, and Dan Gjerde were elected to office in 1998.
But Melo was back in control in 2001 when Gjerde got a little spooked by the developers and dumped his reform campaign promises to become what amounts to be nothing more than Jere Melo's toady. Gjerde's up for re-election this November. Melo and Peters have another two years before they face voters again.
The mill has actually been more closed than working for several years now with the bulk of the layoffs intentionally spread over a decade. First appointed to the city's Planning Commission in the early 1990s, Jere Melo was G-P's point man for replacing the town's economy — one completely dependent on timber and fishing — with tourism before the mill was officially closed. Elected twice to Fort Bragg's city council since 1996, Melo has been given unlimited time off his G-P work day, at full salary, to attend to this, along with anything else a developer might want from City Hall.
G-P's Atlanta real-estate division had done the math years ago. The value (price and potential buyers) of the easily split (through several certificates of compliance) 400-acre ocean bluff mill site could be exponentially increased based on how the town developed. Mendocino county's undeveloped coastal property now sells for $250,000 to $1 million an acre thanks to the introduction of tourism to our once out-of-the-way, once well-paid working class area.
Tourism wages suck for the worker. Income for the business owner depends on the business. But for the commercial building and land owners, tourism assures the highest real-estate dollar possible. Fort Bragg's City Hall holds the key to unlocking this treasure trove for G-P, commercial building owners, and other developers.
G-P sold its 300,000 acres of abusively cut-over Mendocino County redwood timberlands a couple of years ago to the clueless Oregon based investment consortium, Campbell Group-Hawthorne Timber Company. Through Melo, G-P snookered C-H in the deal. But C-H was also able to count corporate coups on G-P through Melo as well.
C-H was unfamiliar with logging under California’s Forest Practice Act rules and thought it had made a purchase of lands with easy pickings of standing timber. Forester Melo had inflated G-P's inventory count of merchantable timber by including redwoods in the watercourse protection zones that are not supposed to be cut in order to protect salmon spawning habitat. This left C-H no financial choice but to battle with state agencies over cutting the protected trees in hopes that it could harvest at least some in addition to picking through the rest of the wasted timber land. (It was about to financially fail its investors altogether when the arm-chair enviros of Mendocino town bailed C-H out, for a time, with the $27 million dollar public purchase of its 7,000 Big River acres.)
As G-P's log buyer, Melo negotiated the G-P mill price contract for C-H's redwood logs good until last fall. The redwood finished board sales price took a dramatic decline last summer when Canada flooded the market with cheaper white fir boards as it has cyclically done for the past quarter century. When Canada flooded the US market in the old days, G-P would order redwood loggers to quit cutting, and mill workers would be laid off temporarily until the feds stabilized the market price with a tariff on the Canadian wood. Under NAFTA, the feds can no longer place the tariff.
Unaware of the world commerce around him, Melo negotiated a binding raw log purchase price contract with C-H at what turned out to be the top of the market. C-H saw its opportunity to recover some of its money and screw G-P at the same time, so it triple-timed the amount of logs it delivered into the mill. Estimates were that Melo cost G-P a loss of $10 to $20 grand per C-H truckload of logs for two months, totaling upwards into a million dollars. Reneging on claims that it would keep at least one shift working at the mill for years to come, G-P cut its losses by laying off its remaining 150 mill workers last winter. Only a skeleton crew of 50 were back to work this spring.
Zealously dedicated, Melo never met a timber harvest rule or state regulation that he didn't try to get around during the 30+ years he was a working forester for G-P. Even the timber company-friendly Board of Forestry members routinely chastised Melo in the old days for his absurd “unusual circumstances” standard argument that they should cut him a break on following the law in his timber harvest plans.
Loyal to G-P and vice-versa, but dumb as dirt, Melo is a fuck-up that could never quite get away with all his illegal endeavors on behalf of the company. So, he never advanced beyond small potatoes Fort Bragg within the international Fortune 500 corporation. He wore a sign the day the mill closed that named himself “Ben Screwed.” But he doesn't mean by G-P. He means by all those troublesome laws and regulations intended to thwart the very environmental destruction and ensuing job loss he, himself, caused.
While there are countless tales of Melo's bumbling outlaw career, the town might just cast its vote for someone other than Dan Gjerde if it knew Melo recently almost got away with poisoning us all while Gjerde stood by cowering in his shoes.
Two years ago, in addition to buying logs for G-P, Melo became the mill's procurer of building demolition wood waste from the Richmond landfill and other sources to power G-P's boilers in order to sell electricity on the open market. This became especially lucrative during the so-called energy crisis last year.
The boilers, installed to generate electricity to run the mill, were historically fueled by log bark waste augmented by limited amounts of fuel oil. G-P was permitted many years ago to sell its excess electricity to PG&E. Occasionally one would see a black roil of smoke from the stack that lasted a few minutes. This was caused by an application of the fuel oil to give wet bark a burning jump start. Any more than this, and the boiler tender was screwing up.
Previous to 1990, many things besides wood bark and a little fuel oil were occasionally put in the boiler; truckloads of marijuana plants from pot garden raids could sometimes be smelled throughout the town; old tires would stink to high heaven. Aside from these, I was never able to convince G-P's employees (who routinely called me) to testify directly to regulatory officials about the other, incredibly godawful, things that went into the boiler late at night. Houses, cars, and sidewalks around town were always covered with a black, greasy residue from the boiler's smokestack. No one in their right mind in Fort Bragg would ever paint their house white.
It got so bad that resident's complaints forced Air Quality to target the mill for air quality discharge regulatory action. Fort Bragg's soil and rooftop grime tested high (though below EPA safe background levels) for cancer causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which I was told by Environmental Health occur naturally in the ash as a byproduct of burning redwood. Air contaminant measuring devices were installed at the Senior Center and grammar school. High tech scrubbers were finally required for the boiler's smokestacks to reduce particulates released into the air in the early 1990s. The fine dust that pervades the town is now a grayish color and is supposedly soot from woodstoves.
Last year, residents began to notice a periodic horrific chemical smell permeating the town and a roiling black smoke plume billowing for an extended time from the mill boiler smokestacks. City council members and state agencies were called. Melo denied there was a problem. Air Quality denied there was a problem. Gjerde quivered in the knees, pissed down his leg, and shrugged his shoulders. Council member White put me into gear to drive to Ukiah and take a look at G-P's Air Quality permit.
The two-year old permit to burn imported demolition wood waste looked to be on the up-and-up with limits on the amount of hazardous contaminants allowed into the boiler well below the federal EPA's standards. G-P was to purchase only loads that tested low for contaminants at the landfills and re-test the truckloads after they arrived at the mill. After educating new Air Quality staff on the events and lies told by G-P to the town surrounding its 1989 PCB-laden transformer explosion, I suggested that Air Quality staff should conduct random, unannounced spot checks of the demolition waste in the trucks to insure that the loads really did meet permit standards.
Last fall, reform Councilmember White had the new city manager put together a town hall meeting with Air Quality, G-P, and the press, so every one could hear the town's concerns. The meeting was standing room only. People were getting sick from the fumes. They pulled out their calendars with dates and times of smell and black smoke well documented. White took notes. Air Quality listened. G-P's plant manger Ron Holen denied there was a problem. Melo and Gjerde hid.
White insisted that the public must have the ability to participate in a permit that allowed for potential poisoning of the town's air. Since Air Quality's permit did not allow for public participation, White tried for instituting a city permit. Her rationale: A closed mill that was newly importing truck loads of new types of fuel stock for the sole purpose of selling electricity constituted a new business use with new and additional environmental impacts that had not been previously considered under the mill's grandfathered land use permit. This, she reasonably argued, should trigger a requirement for a coastal development permit (which includes mandated public participation). Benedetti's support was assured, but residents could seemingly never get Gjerde's attention, much less a third vote of encouragement for City Hall staff to pursue an investigation into White's concerns.
It appears, however, that Air Quality took my advice, checked G-P's records, and conducted random spot checks of the demolition waste purchased by Melo. On February 20th of this year, G-P's plant manager, Ron Holen, and G-P’s attorney, Ronald Allen, signed a stipulated court judgment and permanent injunction with DA Norm Vroman's office based on the DA’s lawsuit on numerous violations of G-P's two-year old demolition wood waste permit.
G-P can no longer use demolition waste as a fuel source until it conducts a risk evaluation and its permit is opened for public comment. It also must spend $80 grand in improvements to its No. 3 boiler smokestack scrubbers by December 2002. G-P was fined $170 large ones, $100 grand to be split 50/50 with the DA’s office and Air Quality, and $70 grand to a coastal school district for purchase of an alternatively fueled school bus.
The financial damage Melo has caused to city government taxpayers on behalf of G-P, is legendary as well. As a city official for over a decade now, Melo has carried on his single-minded outlaw dedication to scoffing at the state's laws to scoffing at the town's laws — all laws that Melo put his hand over heart and looked at the flag in a so-help-me-God pledge he vowed to uphold when he took office as a city council member.
As chair of Fort Bragg's planning commission, Melo was the ramrod that shoved the building of the now infamously illegal Affinito one-story-too-tall motel down the town's throat. Affinito's too-tall motel had far greater implications, however, than just Melo's villainous dogma of helping a developer bypass city building height restriction codes in order to maximize motel profit.
The motel is located in the coastal zone right next to G-P's coastal bluff mill site. It is the only coastal bluff property not owned by G-P between Noyo River and Fir Street that borders the north end of the mill site — the full length of the center of town. Under state law, a massive three-story, ocean view blocking commercial building establishes the “character of the setting” legal precedent that would forever more bind city government and the California Coastal Commission to allowing three-story view blocking commercial buildings on G-P's ocean view property.
Dan Gjerde made the town's outrage over the too-tall motel pivotal to the 1998 election of three city hall reform candidates White, Benedetti, and Gjerde himself. Gjerde hammered on the too-tall motel issue so much in televised debate forums that Affinito socked him in City Hall just after the reformers were overwhelmingly elected to office. When the reform council members hired new city staff and began to attempt to bring the motel into compliance with the law, Affinito sued the city for millions. Gjerde then capitulated on Hunt’s — also one-story-too tall — motel waiting next in line. It has been downhill for Gjerde since then.
Melo became an expert at bypassing the new, decent staff and their fiscal or law review through orchestrating diabolic schemes behind the scenes, and then looking angelically innocent at city council meetings when the un-reviewed schemes were brought forward at council meetings by the naive and corrupt alike pleading for money, special favors, or a look the other way when confronted with obeying city laws. With kingly beneficence, Melo justified his ensuing outlaw vote or gift of money with his infamous “unusual circumstances” caveat.
But Melo doesn't have to orchestrate much as we near election day. Gjerde does it for him. Gjerde calls his likewise orchestrated un-reviewed schemes and outlaw votes “leadership with a heart” in his upcoming election campaign.
For those who sacrificed many years to exposing and battling not just Jere Melo's formidable twisted obsession with what amounts to shredding the very heart of democracy in Fort Bragg, but all the corruption rampant throughout City Hall, we thought we had found a messiah for small town democracy in Dan Gjerde in 1998. We thought of Gjerde as a bright, eager, young pup who would forthrightly tackle the job of firmly instilling simple democratic principles, like upholding the law, and manifesting ethical council member conduct in the minds of voters. He gave us his promise.
But in Gjerde's third year in office, it became clear to insiders through other innumerable instances (to be further examined one-by-one in this continuing series) that this small town democracy's savior was a nothing more than an incompetent little tyrant, who turned judas because he couldn't advance his nonsense any other way. While it wasn't Melo who turned him, Gjerde has learned much from sitting at the feet of the master of deceit.
The thirty pieces of silver that actually turned Mr. Gjerde into Melo's sycophantic lap dog, however, came from none other than Ted Rabinowitsch and Diana Stuart, downtown commercial property owners, and core members of the original group of city hall reformers who got Dan elected.