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Inviting Trouble

The union rally on the Courthouse lawn last Thursday nearly turned into a brawl. The Service Employees International Union Local 1021, representing Ukiah Courthouse employees, had brought in a circus tent and a DJ and were passing out free lunches. In order to boost attendance union representative John Heise went around the neighborhood passing out flyers and inviting everyone to the rally, stressing the free lunch.

SEIU's magnanimity drew a crowd — but not the crowd the union hoped for. You see, the people who hang around downtown Ukiah, especially since most of the county’s mental health facilities have been subject to severe budget cuts, are well… let’s just say they tend to be indifferent to the issues of the day. Many of these crippled Argonauts of the homeless shelters and charity luncheons would have a hard time empathizing with clerks, stenographers and staff attorneys who work at the Courthouse even if they could separate them, as a social and economic class, from the prosecutors, public defenders and judges who keep the walking wounded in permanent social, legal and psychological limbo. Street people view it all as The System.

As a protest anthem blared out over the loudspeakers and the union employees assembled in their festive purple shirts crowded the lawn and steps of the Courthouse, one invitee straddling his bicycle shouted, “I hate the Courthouse! Why should I come to their party? [Bleep] the [bleeping] Courthouse!”

Nobody answered the man's bellowed rsvp. Everyone was hoping he’d just go away. But he didn’t go away. He'd self-ignited and was going to go all the way off. RSVP was getting angrier and screaming more violently. His language, as we say in Mendocino County, was foully inappropriate. Many of the union members were accompanied by their spouses and children. It had been obscene for some time, but now it was getting ugly. The guy on the bicycle had become absolutely rabid, spitting and profane. There didn’t seem to be any security personnel. We don't think security much in Ukiah where most things awry go quietly awry.

The commotion attracted other nuts. A second foul-mouthed street denizen paused on his aimless stroll up State Street to also swear at the union families assembled on the lawn, and this guy was even worse than RSVP because he had some vague inkling in his sodden brain of current events. He reeked of weed and liquor and knew for an absolute fact that the people in the purple shirts were using SmartMeters to read his thoughts and otherwise invade his privacy. Which was a superfluous precaution on the part of Homeland Security in this particular individual’s case since every thought that entered his empty head immediately came out his mouth.

A third fellow made the reckless decision to straighten the second guy out on a few of the finer points of the SmartMeter controversy, and the two men were on the point of coming to blows as the bigger and brawnier street fellows crowded to the front of the chow line, nearly trampling some children and elbowing aside an elderly woman.

As the crowd tore into their boxed lunches, the guy on the bicycle suddenly rode off, shouting that he’d be back with his friends and that they’d crash the Courthouse party “for once and all, you bleeping bleepers!

The two eejits arguing over the SmartMeters were oblivious to the food, and another frightfully violent discussion had broken out between two newly arrived nuts further down the sidewalk where I couldn’t hear what was being said over the DJ’s music. These dudes had their trousers buckled around their thighs and the extra pants-length bunched over their shoes. When they hooted and screeched, throwing their arms up like baboons, we could all see their purple underwear.

Some of the violent vibes might be attributed to the flyer the union reps had passed out willy-nilly to the street people and barflies who habituate downtown Ukiah. The flyer had a drawing of the County Courthouse as it would look if it were in Tripoli and had been the target of an aerial bombardment. The office of the CEO of the Administration of the Courts was blown completely away and the four stories of glass and parapet looked like it had been riddled with machine gun and artillery fire.

This is what a lot of people might like to see happen to this perceived source of their misery, but the imagery was extreme. Some of the people in attendance had been recruited from the Forest Club, a strategy which produced less-than-hoped-for results.

One woman who had been drinking since the bar opened at 10am absolutely loathed the union. Through some circumstance or other, probably alcoholism, she’d lost her job. But whatever the reason, she’d been told she was being let go because there was no money. She came out of the barroom and started screaming that if they had enough money to buy everybody lunch, then by God, they could afford to give her her job back!

Another drunk came out of the bar and asked what was going on.

A bystander informed him that it was a Jenny Craig Weight Watchers rally.

As the two drunks retreated to the Forest Club, union rep Heise came over and introduced me to the SEIU local 1021 press officer, Nquyen Weeks, who gave me a folder of relevant materials, including a financial overview of the Mendocino County Superior Court. The press release states that the Mendocino County Courts are in dire need of checks and balances. They charge that a million-plus dollars in previous employee concessions have been misallocated, and that the lack of oversight and transparency threatens the court's mission to provide “quality equal justice for all,” as if equal justice had somehow been the norm.

The packet charges that close to $1 million in funds were not used as stated and that two separate cash advances of nearly half a million were made in 2009 and 2010. Then they obtained funding based on reports that didn’t reflect the concessions levied on the employees. They are astounded that the abrupt departure of the former CEO did not raise sufficient red flags to call for an immediate audit. Clearly, they suspect this individual of fiscal sleight of hand and that some of those who are still in the administration were in cahoots.

I asked Mr. Heise and Ms. Weeks what the court administration was saying to these charges, but Heise and Weeks said they weren’t at liberty to say. I asked the Court Administrator but her secretary told me last Friday that CEO Caryn Downing was “unavailable.”

The SEIU also says that a reasonable ratio of Chiefs to Indians is one manager for every six staff, but Mendo has a manager for every 2.3 staff members, and that 20 managers account for 45% of all court admin salary and benefit costs. The union concludes that taxpayer funds are being used to maintain redundant, unnecessary management positions such as the recently filled position of Assistant CEO to the Court's chief to the tune of over $139K per year.

They’re saying, in short, that Court mismanagement has cost taxpayers more than a million dollars more than it should, that line workers wouldn't be pressured for more givebacks if funding were properly allocated, and the union was demanding an immediate audit.

DJ Ken Steele announced that the speakers were about to speak.

First up was Bonnie Miller, Madame Clerk of Department B. Ms. Miller is a no-nonsense professional with the equivalent rank — if she were in the military — of a staff sergeant. Department B is Judge Brown’s old courtroom, and since the Brown has retired due to terminal cancer, Ms. Miller has pretty much kept the department functioning in spite of an endless parade of visiting retired judges who have no idea what’s going on.

Ms. Miller said, “When people come to the Courthouse they expect that they will be able to access justice here from their public funds” and she called for an audit “so we don’t continue down the road we are on now, an independent audit to correct imbalances and provide the accountability the public deserves.”

Julie Lyly came to the mike next and repeated Miller’s call for a full and complete audit, saying it was “vital” and that Mendocino County Courts were “transparent.”

Next, was Susan Woods, a court reporter, who said that the CEO of the Mendo Courts makes over $177K, which was on a par with the Sonoma County Courts. Then she pointed out that the Sonoma Courts handle four times as many cases as the Mendo Courts. “Plus,” she said the Assistant CEO in Mendo, at over $139k, makes more than the Sonoma Assistant CEO.

The crowd howled in outrage and the DJ rumbled his war drum sound effects.

Ms. Woods said, “This amounts to more pay for less responsibility. The Mendo Courts are top-heavy and it is time for the Administration of the Courts to make adjustments. These people are clearly overpaid!”

The crowd roared its approval.

The next speaker was the court clerk who everybody at the Courthouse knows simply as James. He’s the clerk most people who go to the windows to pay fines and to take care of other routine legal business see. James wanted the crowd to imagine that the Courthouse was like a Broadway musical. “And what if they went to the production people and said, We have to cut costs?” Well, the producers wouldn’t allow that, so they went to the stars, but the stars wouldn’t hear it! So they went to the make-up artists and the set designers and cut their costs. As a result, the star of the show had to make do with a cardboard sword and the leading lady’s false eyelashes fell off!"

It wasn’t hard to see what he was getting at: It is the staff — the clerks and court reporters, and other staffers — who make their Honors the judges look reasonably efficient and generally on task. And by implication it may be inferred that the judges may not look so very professional if the clerks and court reporters continue to take pay and benefit cuts while the judges enjoy working conditions rivaling those of Louis The Sun King and, even as the economic lights go out for hundreds, if not thousands of Mendo people, are agitating for even more lavish quarters for themselves.

The protest drums began again and the crowd started chanting: “What do we want? Accountability! When do we want it? NOW! What do we want? Transparency! When do we want it? NOW!”

Back at the bar the chant was drowned out by a contingent of Captain Fathom’s followers who were singing, “O Henderson’s the finest judge on this we all agree, he always wears a smile and he wouldn’t hurt a flea!”

Henderson had once let Captain F. out of jail on a motion from Public Defender Linda Thompson. In gratitude Fathom had panhandled enough money to have a trophy engraved with the inscription "Best Judge" for Henderson. He asked me to deliver it to the judge; Fathom has an active restraining order preventing him from the judge's proximity. Fathom and his lunatic admirers are convinced that Judge Henderson is their guy and that Public Defender Linda Thompson is the best lawyer in the state, two beliefs that alone establish their separation from known reality.

When I mentioned to these guys that Judge H. was pitted against the union in this case, they pretty nearly lynched me on the spot, screaming, “How can that be? Everybody knows the Cap is a big union man! What are you talking about? You better shut up, man! We love the union, and [bleep] you and those purple-shirted [bleepers]!”

Another guy, a big delusional, said, “Yeah, man. If it wasn’t for Capt. Fathom, there wouldn’t even be a union!”

I was about to argue this point, having heard from the Captain himself that he’d never really had a job of any kind, let alone a union job, and pointed out that Henderson had just been elected Presiding Judge by his peers, and repeated that Peterson represents the very people the union was up against. But when the strapping young stoner stood up and clinched his fists, I abandoned that project.

The chant from the Courthouse echoed off the bail-bondsman’s shop across the street and the drinkers at the bar took up the chant, stamping their feet to the beat: “O Henderson’s the Greatest Judge, on this we all agree, ‘cause he always wears a smile, and wouldn’t hurt a flea! Yeah!”

The woman who said she'd been wronged by the County and the union returned from the rally where she said she’d been “exercising” her voice. Her hair was unruly, her makeup messy, and her clothes represented a variety of ethnic influences. She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had a certain chic and everyone seemed to like and respect her. She told Bubba to sit down and shut the [bleep] up.

“Are you from around here,” I asked.

“Hell, no,” she said. “I’m from back East; I’m from Philly!”

“Philadelphia, you must mean — so, what’s your name?

“Democracy,” she said. “But most people just call me Trouble.”

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