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Fort Bragg’s Fog Machine

Have you ever been sorry you asked a question?

At last week’s Supervisors meeting, Supervisor McCowen made the mistake of asking CEO Carmel Angelo what was taking so long to consolidate the half-empty County offices in Fort Bragg, especially the ones the County pays Dominic Affinito $316,000 a year for?

Noting that the CEO’s proposed list of money-saving consolidations did not include Fort Bragg, McCowen asked, “Why are we deleting consideration of District 4 buildings? This thing has been in the works for several months. Some of the greatest cost savings are in District 4 where we have half-empty buildings at a time when we are laying off employees and cutting salaries. I’d rather reduce the amount of empty unused space that the County is paying for. Why is this being delayed? What do we hope to achieve by delay?”

CEO Angelo: “We have three facilities that we have in District 4 that we’re currently looking at. There really does need to be a little more work to be done as far as planning for those facilities if there’s any movement. I assure you there’s enough facilities coming forward on the 26th, and that, um, District 4 will come forward in May. We know that we have a building in District 4 in Fort Bragg that we pay a rent of approximately $316k a year. We know that’s not a general fund cost. And we do have some plans in the works.”

McCowen corrected CEO Angelo: “A portion of it is General Fund cost.”

Angelo conceded: “A portion of it is General Fund cost. I agree. Anyway, at this point in time there’s more work that needs to be done by General Services, by the Executive Office and by the Department head, so we are hoping to bring forward the space report for District 4 in May.”

Supervisor John Pinches agreed with McCowen: “I just want to underline what Supervisor McCowen was saying. We all know there’s one building over there that seems to be the biggest meat in the pie as far as the savings that can be seen and we could move those people into a county-owned property and we could bill a federal agency for their portion too. So that would be a positive for the general fund too. I have the same concerns. Why don’t we go after the biggest savings first rather than go after the peanuts? I don’t understand the delay. This one particular building has been on my radar screen since 1995. We have an opportunity now with the 90-day clause to get out of the lease. I don’t know— I don’t know why the delay.”

Pinches was referring to the time in 1995 early in his first-term when the County first agreed to sign the exorbitant long-term lease with Affinito. Pinches pointed out at the time that the County could combine a decent down payment (the County wasn’t broke in those days) and a mortgage and own the building outright in a few years, especially at the rate of $316k a year.

Pinches was outvoted 4-1, but has been proven right every year since. In the last two years budget cuts in both the County organizations and other non-profits that use the Affinito building have reduced the staffing in Fort Bragg to not much more than half of what it was. Since there are two other underutilized County-owned buildings in Fort Bragg plans have been in the works for several months to move out of Affinito’s rip-off structure and put most of the relocated offices in the other Fort Bragg buildings. Mucho dinero would be saved by dumping Affinito.

Supervisor Dan Hamburg responded.

“The delay has nothing to do with the CEO. The delay has everything to do with the two coastal supervisors and with our request for a little more time to look at the options that exist and trying to make sure those options are the best for our employees and for our programs and for the bottom line of our budget.” Hamburg said he'd explained his reasons to delay consolidation to Pinches.

“I thought it was ready,” Pinches said.

Hamburg went on: “Unfortunately, it’s not ready because the person that we need to deal with is not, has not been in the County [an apparent reference to Affinito], and that has slowed us down a little bit. But we need to look at these three facilities [in Fort Bragg] and figure out the best way to accommodate County staff, County programs and the County budget. And it’s not that we’re trying to just put it off. Both Supervisor Smith and I agree that there are major cost savings to be had on the coast. But on the other hand, making a decision before we have all the facts is— it’s just foolhardy. So we need a little more time. I think that the final result will be a much better one for waiting just a little bit on the Fourth District. And of course the Fourth District services our Fourth and Fifth districts and that’s why those two things come together and why it was Supervisor Smith and I who asked the CEO just to look a little bit harder at the decision we have to make over there.”

Pinches tried a bit of conciliation: “Well, I guess after waiting a dozen years, a couple of months more…”

Hamburg: “I haven’t been waiting dozen years.” (Laughs.)

Board Chair Kendall Smith had yet to weigh in, and when she did the fog, dense amounts of it, came rolling in with her.

“To your point Supervisor Pinches, if it’s been on your radar screen since 1995, a couple more months won’t make much difference. It’s working, taking time to make sure we have employees on board. We need to have our community partners on board, we border our community clinic there, literally, physically, we have a shared boundary line, any number of things, with the state budget continuing to change, what will we be looking at programmatically, um, we’re talking about multiple moves, not just moving one group of people from A to B, that you create, um, eh, an entire sort of chain of events when you have three buildings and people might be moving, um, one group following the other, it’s just very important that we have all the options out on the table, every thing analyzed for the short term benefit and the long term benefit and where we’re, where we’re going to end up and make sure that we haven’t, um, we haven’t let any solution sets fall off the cliff, you know, in a mad rush to move ten people here and ten people there so I think it’s about doing it and doing it right and engaging all the partners so we can have, um, the workforce, um, not feeling alienated about the process, making sure that they’re on board, um, we’ve got to inform our community partners, um, there’s a lot when you talk about that, the number of employees that are involved in this and so I want to make sure that it’s done with, uh, with care and concern and with, um, a thoughtful eye towards, uh, maybe some, uh, options that haven’t, uh, been fully that explored and we just need to find out what all the options are and since this discussion has started a couple others that I hadn’t thought of had just emerged so I think that, um, that’s the process the CEO is talking about in giving it another 30 days or more to, to, to figure out, I think that is, is, is what, um, we’re lookin’ at.”

Supervisor Carre Brown tactfully attempted to cut Smith off: “I think everybody’s given a great explanation. I’d like to see us move on.”

But once the fog is on the move… Smith wasn’t finished; she fished for another provocation from Supervisor McCowen who, unfortunately, took the bait.

Smith: “OK. Supervisor McCowen, did you want to make a comment?”

McCowen: “Well, yeah. Every day of delay costs us money, and that means that the deficit we have to meet, or make up is going to be that much larger. And no one’s rushing forward when we’ve had this under discussion for months; so, also the moves are already taking place in the inland districts; people have already been consolidated; this has actually been going on for a couple of years and a lot of the same considerations could be said to apply, so, I’m really concerned about the delay. I’m really concerned about decisions that likely are board policy decisions getting made outside of the board environment. And at a minimum, I would like to have a report on the 26th and an update on what the issues are in the Fourth District, and what needs to be decided. I think that we should not keep stretching this out. You know, it’s gone from May to 30 days which would be barely in May, but I really want to see this come to the board as quickly as possible because the sooner it gets here the sooner we can save money on building space rather than employees.”

This gave Smith fuel for yet another round of punishing, time-wasting blather: “Supervisor, there’s a lot of information that even today I don’t have. I’m the district supervisor, you know. I don’t think all the information’s out on the table and quite honestly, this is, this is like cutting around the edges. This is the fine tuning to assure it’s going to save money and I think the employees, the ones I’ve spoken to, are extremely concerned about the county budget and will do anything they can to assist with any space allocations to take us in that direction. They can be partners in the process. I think we’re all on board with the, the, the, uh, the end goal is here, but it really is just touching the edges in terms of the savings that are going to be acquired in this multiple move situation, this is the small stuff, the big stuff that hasn’t been done, the action that this board has not taken that this board has not taken the, uh, appropriate, uh, uh, uh, staffing reductions as brought forward by the CEO, those are the big ticket items of why we’re facing this, this budget situation, we haven’t stood by our policies which have allowed us to just kick the can down the road and we’re about to go off the cliff and that’s the real thing, Supervisor, you’re talking about moving a few employees here and a few employees there, that’s the easy stuff and we’re going to get to that, I just want to see that it’s done in a comprehensive fashion.”

Smith then recognized Hamburg again who rambled on defensively, Colfaxily even, about perceived accusations by McCowen.

Hamburg: “You know, I just wanna say the Board, you know, Supervisor McCowen, the Board is the, the policymaker; it’s not Supervisor Smith and I. We’re very well aware that this is something the board is going to have to determine. If there were to be some interim report on the 26th that wouldn’t bother me, I mean, maybe all the information will be here by the 26th and we can make a decision but there’s just pieces of this that we haven’t seen yet, and until we see them I think it would be kinda strange to make this big move in Fort Bragg and have Kendall and I vote against it. That would not sit very well so, on the other hand, I can understand that the rest of the board doesn’t want us to drag our feet and keep asking for more and more and more. We all have our issues about which we’re, um, ready to move, um, you know, make a cut, and we all have our issues about which we say hold it, wait a minute. In spite of the fact that we don’t think exactly alike we still have to work together and this is one of those issues where I think we’ll be ready to move in a very short time, but we’re not ready to move likely on the 26th unless some things come together very quickly.”

Pinches had more to say too:

“Just briefly madam chair; Roughly we have about ten employees for every county building we have and that’s not acceptable. It hasn’t been acceptable for quite some time. We’ve reduced the system by about 380 positions and we still have the same amount of… so the adjustment in facilities just has to happen and, Supervisor McCowen, a 30 day delay is something from us that’s not a big deal, but we have to keep this as a top priority and move forward with some sort of a different adjustment but we need to get away from that ratio. I mean, anybody in business that has a building for every ten employees is probably in bankruptcy right now. It’s not acceptable. It’s not fair to our employees because we keep going after our bargaining groups for more reductions in salaries leaving the buildings and infrastructure just the way it is. We need to move on this. But a 30 day delay is fine, but it can’t go on; it has to be a top priority.”

Last Word McCowen: “I’m going to say I think this is a little more than just chipping around the edges because one of the buildings over there that does represent approximately a $50k a year general fund cost. By shifting those employees into underutilized county space we could be in a position where the state is actually paying us rent, converting a $50,000 cost into some unknown positive benefit. So I’ll look forward to an update on the 25th.”

CEO Angelo tried to wrap up:

“To be very clear; no policies are being defined outside of the full board. On the report you can see we know what the goals are as directed by the full board. There is information that we do need. There are three buildings. We have a good plan and we think for the most part that plan is supported by everybody. But the fact is that there is information that we need that is outside of the county system and that’s why we have to wait. We should have that information hopefully within the next couple weeks and hopefully we’ll be able to move forward.”

Note that nobody actually said what the “important information” was that they need to move forward. We suspect its name is He Who Cannot Be Named: Dominic Affinito.

* * *

Also on last week’s agenda was another seemingly routine update from the Mendocino National Forest management staff about their dope-fighting plans for this summer. Forest Manager Tom Contreras was out of town, so he sent his chief ranger, a jolly fellow named Lee Johnson who looks a lot like Cody Ross, an outfielder with the San Francisco Giants, but in worse shape.

Ranger Johnson began by noting that the Board and Contreras had agreed last December that checkpoints into the Mendocino National Forest would help to reduce pot growing on public land.

Supervisor Pinches corrected Ranger Johnson saying that they have decided that the checkpoints have been re-named and will now be called “welcome centers.”

Everybody giggled, then, continuing to giggle, Johnson added, “It’s on my list of things to do. We’re consulting with our office of general counsel for, you know, how to respond. The gist of where I think the response is going is that we don’t think we have the regulatory authority to do what you’re asking us to do. We’re sort of encouraging you as a county to come up with some ordinances. We would be happy to help you enforce those. But it’s not finalized yet. I think in the end we kinda oughta just get together and just work on and implement together.”

(We understand that a reinforced, multi-agency drug task force led by Deputy Jason Cox will descend upon the vast Mendocino National Force for the first ever coordinated assault on the Forest's outlaw grows. Mean time, growers throughout Northern California, and especially Mendocino and Humboldt counties where pot farms sustain a large part of the population, prices are so low that growers are still sitting on last year's crop. So many people are growing that the market is saturated. Growers seem to be growing themselves out of business.)

Smith: “County Counsel is sort of grimacing as you are going down this path.”

Ranger Johnson laughed.

Pinches wasn’t laughing.

He smelled a rat:

“What you’re saying is the federal government doesn’t have the authority to do that, but if we made an ordinance we’d have the authority?”

Even though the question of who's going to pay for pot enforcement on federal land is crucial to the Mendocino public and the County budget, Board Chair Smith cut Pinches off, saying the Board had other items to get to: “Can we get into this later, Supervisor?”

Pinches reluctantly gave up. (But you know if Smith had a question, the other items on the agenda would just have to wait.)

Johnson then ran through the same tedious presentation his boss gave last year — leadership intent… ecological restoration… budget… forest activities… (Cody Ross is never this boring.)

Johnson concluded by pointing out that last year the Forest Service got $250k to clean up 32 pot grows.

Pinches: “There’s nothing in there about marijuana eradication and how to take out forest back. At our Covelo meeting our policy was that we want to take our forest back. We’ve lost it. Mr. Contreras told me last year that they want to do a lot of programs, but that he couldn’t send his people out there because they’re afraid to go there. We have lost our forest. And now here we are another year later and we’re hearing that we can’t do welcome centers. So this is just more of the same except this year it’s going to be worse. We have a large law enforcement effort in the works (Cox's Commandos), but the Forest Service and the counties are going to sit back and watch. If taking back our forest and reclaiming it for our citizens isn’t a priority then how can any of these programs…? People are afraid to go into the Forest. And the Forest Service Director made the same complaint that he’s too afraid to send his staff into the Forest. The Forest is not safe. Shouldn’t that be a priority? We’ve lost our forest!”

Johnson: “Marijuana is a large concern for us, but our priorities really track our budget, which is what you see there in our activities. But our law enforcement is actually stove-piped in our organization so the piece of the organization that actually handles marijuana eradication efforts is really not a piece of our budget, so that’s, you know, it’s a large concern of ours, but it’s one of the reasons that it doesn’t appear in our priorities. I’ll tell our leadership team that the Mendocino Board of Supervisors thinks marijuana is a priority.”

Johnson went on to say he was “very supportive” of the law enforcement effort planned for this summer.

Pinches: “Well, all I see at the Forest Service parking lot is a sea of green pickups. A checkpoint could be as simple as stationing a Forest Service staffer in a pickup at the main entry points and if they see a lot of plastic pipe being hauled up into the forest to say, Hey guys, this isn’t allowed. People may grow a few marijuana plants by stealing some water or sneaking in a small amount of pipe, but you can’t grow a 20,000-plant garden without miles and miles of plastic pipe. It makes no sense spending $250k a year picking up that plastic pipe and doing nothing to try to curtail it from getting in there in the first place. These ‘Welcome Centers’ could be as simple as that during certain hours in the spring. … As it is, people see evidence of marijuana growing and they leave and they never come back. It’s dangerous and it’s not acceptable. I’m just frustrated about what’s happening and what our Forest has devolved to.”

“We appreciate your concern,” Johnson blandly replied.

Pinches: “It’s frustrating that counties and the Forest Service can’t seem to help law enforcement by doing simple things like this and that maybe now we’re going to get shot down again. Something has to be done.”

But it’s already too late for checkpoints this spring. The plastic pipe has already been shipped in. All systems are GO!

Ranger Johnson was saying that the Forest Service has no intention of spending any of its budget for checkpoints or welcome centers or anything else other than a relatively few bucks for post-grow clean-up. But they can’t say that outright because that would start a fiscal and priorities argument with Pinches and most of his constituents. So instead Johnson says they don’t have the “regulatory authority” to do it.

Because neither Mendo nor the other counties that border the Mendocino National Forest have no money, it looks like criminal activity in the National Forest this year will again be what Pinches described: “More of the same — except worse.”

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