About 60 Fort Bragg voters attended the one-and-only Fort Bragg City Council candidates' forum two weeks ago. A dozen or so attendees exited Town Hall half way through the local League of Women Voters' two hours of semi-censored written questions collected from the audience. A comment from a home viewer of the televised event summed up most of the dispirited voters' reaction to all five candidates competing for the three city council seats: “God help us!”
Four years ago, when the three-out-of-five Fort Bragg City Council seats were previously up for election, the League's crowd numbered nearly 200. There were several candidate forums — even a few vigorous debates were held by various organizations. Dominic Affinito's brazenly illegal one-story-too-tall motel right in the town’s most prized ocean view was a pivotal concern for many voters. With positions and issues thoroughly exposed, Fort Bragg voters rejected the three candidates representing the corrupt developer faction in control of the town by overwhelmingly electing City Hall reform candidates Dan Gjerde, Michele White and Vince Benedetti.
Taking their seats in December 1999, the reform majority started off with numerous too-tall motel hearings followed by defending the City, and themselves personally, from Affinito's too-tall motel lawsuit. Aside from dealing with too-tall, the reformers got straight to work curing more than a decade of other incompetent and flagrantly corrupt planning and financial management by systematically hiring a new city manager, city attorney, city planner and city financial officer.
Two years into the reformers' four-year terms, the Police Chief retired out on disability, and the long- time City Clerk resigned handing in a list of a decade's worth of various council meeting minutes she never bothered to take or complete. With unpersuasive opponent candidates, no candidate debate forums to speak of, and no campaign effort by incumbents Jere Melo and Lindy Peters themselves, uninformed voters re-elected Peters to his third four-year term and Melo to his second.
But for Michele White, the nearly two and half year period of no staff, temporary staff, and interviewing and training the permanent replacements could have made for countless small and large disasters. But nary a one occurred despite the fact that City Hall had almost no lead staff at all for nearly a year in the beginning. Innumerable complex contractual obligations were met, water bills went out on time, meetings were orderly and productive, and planning and building permits were quickly and legally processed with all applicants happy except for a small handful of whining developers who found they couldn't get away with thwarting the city codes any longer.
For two years previous to reluctantly agreeing to run for election, and in addition to managing her downtown WildLife Workshop store and gallery, White had regularly attended city council meetings and planning commission meetings. But far more importantly, she also attended and absorbed the paperwork for almost all of several city council sub-committee and advisory board meetings (finance, administration, public safety, and the downtown community development advisory board). It is in these committees that staff and two council members internally work out all the hows and wherefors to the hundreds of nitty-gritty details to what city staff can manage internally, and what will and won't come before the full city council for decisions. Blessed with a near photographic memory and near perfect spoken-word recall, it was by attending all of these meetings, that White was able to keep city business flowing and functioning smoothly during the staff transition period. No council member has committed such time to understanding, evaluating and improving the operations of the City before and after running for election. A few have no clue what the operations are, much less how to manage them even after they have served for several years. (Lindy Peters being the worst-case example.)
Indeed, White, unanimously selected by her fellow council members as mayor her first year in office, “micro-managed” City Hall until permanent staff took over. But in White's case, this did not mean inserting a self-serving ideological will over details or issues. It meant carefully scrutinizing every report and document, and doing her best to insure that unbiased, accurate, complete and timely information was brought to the public for its input and all council members for their decisions. As those who closely observe or work with local government know, crappy information creates the black hole lined with wasted tax dollars and politically manipulated voters that the public is fooled into believing is a democratically functioning government.
During the City Hall staff transition period, Dan Gjerde, a mostly never-been-employed 28-year-old former perpetual student, was obviously in way over his head. He completely depended on White's business management experience, accuracy and working knowledge of the City's functions to make his decisions. (She even had to remind him to attend city meetings.) Coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum from White and Gjerde, Benedetti found that White's analyses legally and fiscally held up even for the most conservative of Republicans. Three years of city council meetings reflect that even the voguing* nincompoop Peters and the thick-headed, unprincipled Melo found themselves voting with the reform majority far more often than not, so patently obvious were the best decisions for taxpayers after White stated the reasons for her position.
(*Voguing is the term for the ostentatious posing done by fashion models while displaying outfits for potential buyers.)
It was White who ferreted out the facts early on that the City was on the verge of full-blown bankruptcy and near collapse of its water and sewer systems — the legacy of years of fiduciary mismanagement, deferred maintenance, and outright theft of public dollars to line local developers’ pockets. It will take another decade of tight-fisted management to undo all the costly fiscal damage wrought by former city administrator Gary Milliman, financial officer Roy Mitchell, and planner Scott Cochran aided and abetted by Melo and Peters. And it was White who brought all of her fellow council members in line with sound fiscal recovery and infrastructure maintenance policies. That is, until Gjerde ran amok this last year.
It was also White who pursued the countywide multi-jurisdictional MCOG transportation representatives to cut lose with the funds for Fort Bragg street paving and design a program for paving many more in the future. Gjerde claims credit in his current bid for re-election, but it was White who actually wrote the additional successful $1.7 million grant applications for the partial paving of Franklin and Oak streets. Gjerde's contribution was to lurk over her shoulder, and to run personal errands as she typed away, and to eat lunch while she collated and bound the umpteen required copies.
It was not the three-plus years of maliciously twisted council meeting reporting and editorials by Lindy Peters' toady, Neil Boyle of the Fort Bragg Advocate-News that decided White against running for a second term on the city council. Nor was it the Peters-Boyle nasty greek chorus of personal attack letters by a handful of know-nothings printed in the newspaper, degrading bumper stickers, or the defacing of White's store by the Fort Bragg low-lifes that Peters' and Boyle's constant belittling inspired.
Modest and self-effacing, but securely cognizant of her significant abilities and accomplishments, White refused to publically defend herself from the Peters-Boyle depravities for the same reason one doesn't point out to others a particular dinner guest's silent-but-deadly farts during the meal. Many complained to the Advocate's publisher and editor, Kate Lee, but White was further targeted by Boyle for this, so they gave up. Then Gjerde decided to capitalize on the noxious blasts and build his re-election campaign on the only controversy going in Fort Bragg, e.g., the fatuous hot-air whining of Fort Bragg's dimwits and dastardly developers.
Gjerde's new campaign platform started out with manipulating some innocent, some not, but altogether uninformed special interest groups to ask for money and dispensation from abiding by City codes at televised council meetings. He also made sure they would voice contempt for White, Benedetti or staff. Gjerde's painfully obvious desire was to make sure he alone looked like a “good guy” before voters when he voted in favor of the “gimme” groups. Melo and Peters were utterly gleeful that Gjerde had switched sides and joined them by orchestrating the displays.
Exactly what could White's and Benedetti's counter be to Gjerde's repeated attempts to frame himself as “caring,” and they, “stingy,” as he shamelessly recruited the Chamber of Commerce, the Rec District's Aquatic Center supporters, and others with influential voters to appeal to for funds, except to state the truth, “No, the City is working its way out of near bankruptcy and it has years of deferred water and sewer system maintenance to address.” While this response would make sense to most taxpayers, others’ heart strings would be tugged by the pleas for funds. Gjerde used his unlimited free time behind-the-scenes to make sure that those he encouraged to put their hands out didn't believe White and Benedetti. He knew full well no one would ever check the facts.
White said privately, “If the City had extra funds, I'd want to fund the Food Bank or a homeless shelter, not groups that have lucrative revenue sources of their own!”
Jim Hurst's Rec District golf course environmental impact report that ignored impacts on the City's Newman Gulch water supply is another example of Gjerde's vote hunting gone mad. It was clearly the City's responsibility to ensure that one of its primary sources of water was not impacted by the golf course. It was obvious that impacts would occur since the golf course site was immediately on top of the water supply. But residents were forced to sue the Rec District in behalf of the City because, as everyone now knows, Gjerde is in Hurst's hip pocket where he also keeps his golfers and motel owner buddies.
Gjerde's days were often spent trying to get staff members to set aside their work and take up whatever falderol he was interested in at any given moment. One outside independent repair contractor threatened to put Gjerde up against the wall if he didn't stop bugging him. The city manger finally had to set some restrictions on all council members because of Gjerde's innumerably rude drop-in requests (and general lurking about without purpose) so staff members could get their work done.
Miffed, Gjerde insidiously retaliated by recruiting a playground reconstruction group to complain before the televison camera that the City's manager was outrageous for withholding some of the funds designated for the project. The response was that the “playground mommies” needed to straighten out their flubbed expenditure accounting before final funds could be released, but to point this out would publically embarrass them, so the City's manager graciously held her tongue and took Gjerde's maliciously contrived hit. The matter should have been handled in the manager's office if resolution was the mommies' goal.
The final straw for Benedetti was a City motion and vote at the joint rural-city Fire District meeting that the City's manager, Gjerde and Benedetti mutually agreed needed to take place in order to bring the notoriously renegade entity in line with good government standards. Gjerde agreed to second the motion to be made by Benedetti. When the time came however, Gjerde stayed silent and smirked while Benedetti waited for the second. Benedetti was left being hooted at by the firemen. Gjerde was satisfied that he got to embarrass Benedetti and thrilled that he even might have peeled off a few more votes for himself. He could have cared less about honoring his word or his duty to serve the City. Sincere public servants, especially guys like Benedetti, who have raised a family, recently buried a wife, suffered a severe heart attack, worked hard their whole life, and continue to get up and go to work every day don't suffer the likes of Gjerde lightly.
Both White and Benedetti sincerely believed in their campaign commitments of fiscal responsibility and up-hold-the-law-equally-for-everyone when they ran along with Gjerde for election four years ago. It became shockingly clear with Gjerde's recent year of self-promoting and spiteful exploits, that Gjerde held no such beliefs, though he espoused these very beliefs far more skillfully than the other two during their first election campaigns.
Ultimately, White and Benedetti's strength and perfect record of standing by all three's initial campaign commitments and principles was their undoing with Gjerde. Unable to achieve recognition on his own merits within the boundaries of honoring the three's commitments and principles, Gjerde was constrained to looking like a “me, too” as long as voted with White and Benedetti. Gjerde simply had no place to go but in the opposite direction to try to achieve recognition as an important man with power — the holy grail for shallow politicians such as Gjerde.
It was the same self-interest in power manifested by downtown business owners Ted Rabinowitch and Diana Stuart that clinched White's decision not to run. Despite being personally shown vote after vote what Gjerde was doing, and despite acknowledging that they came to White when they wanted something done, not Gjerde whom they agreed was a goof-ball in many ways, Rabinowitch and Stuart refused to withdraw their influential support for Gjerde's re-election.
It became clear to White (in a meeting they had the final days before her withdrawal from the election), that Rabinowitch and Stuart no longer wanted close scrutiny of city finances and development projects. They had ideas of their own for the “future of Fort Bragg.” Building laws needed to be upheld for some but waived for their cronies, and downtown refurbishing bonds needed to be issued. Affinito needed to partly get away with his infamous one-story-too-tall motel, for to compromise on this great and egregious thwarting of the City's codes by a developer meant the up-hold-the-law-equally-for-everyone standards could once again be lowered and decisions subject to the political ambitions of city council members. More importantly, the council members ambitions would once again be subject to the manipulations of Rabinowitsh and Stuart.
Such is the frightfully petty and debased world of politics in little Fort Bragg (and elsewhere). Rather than continue to be used as foils by Gjerde who was fully engaged in feeding and inflaming the wrath of the developer yahoos about City Hall staff, White and Benedetti decided to take the wind out of his campaign sails by removing themselves (and by attrition staff) as targets by withdrawing from the re-election race. They were successful. All Gjerde is talking about now is grants.