Museum Follies (April 3, 2002)

Last week, we discussed the Supes aversion to priorities. I cited three examples (Board approval of thousands of dollars of retroactive pay raises for four county officials, $117 million worth of damaged, neglected roads, and their failure to utilize revenues to fund child care) demonstrating the Supes failure to grasp basic planning principles. Now we’ll take a look at how the BOS has mishandled something as simple as filling a job vacancy at the Mendocino County Museum.

Before getting to the nitty-gritty, let me say a couple of things. When planning, formulating and executing public policy, the ability to evaluate and rank in order of importance different, and oftentimes, conflicting objectives is the most crucial attribute an elected official can possess. Unfortunately, that species of politician is on the endangered list at all levels of government. 

Here in Mendocino County, because we have a local governing process devoid of priorities, problems, by definition, are never solved, they’re merely deferred until erupting into a full-blown crisis. If you don’t believe that premise, then you’re not familiar with a host of county dilemmas including roads, water, affordable housing, mental health, homelessness, and an economy still in search of an identity. 

Now, can all of these problems be solved at once? You know the answer to that question, but county officials don’t. And therein lies the problem. The Supes try to be all things to all people. They don’t want to be perceived by voting blocs as being in opposition or indifferent to each group’s sacred cow. Depending upon the issue and that interest group’s relative power, they throw varying sums of money at the problem, whether it be roads, libraries, youth projects, homelessness, public transit, and literally hundreds of other programs and services. But since resources, i.e., tax dollars, are always in short supply, there’s never enough money to solve any of the problems. In a decision-making process where there are no priorities, problems never get solved, they just get bigger.

On an individual basis, there are supervisors who on specific issues demonstrate that they understand that the current system is upside-down. Mike Delbar and Tom Lucier voted against this year’s budget because insufficient funding was allocated for road infrastructure. Last August, Delbar was right as rain when he told three other Supes to stop patting themselves on the back for allegedly passing a balanced budget.

“This budget is swimming in red ink,” Delbar said, taking note of the fact that the county needs $115 million to fix the crumbling road system. He argued that the repair bill is, in fact, a $115 million deficit. Pun intended: he’s right on the money. 

David Colfax has been the sole voice of reason and dissent when it comes to the redevelopment boondoggle. Colfax has also denounced the infamous “Slavin Study,” something which I’ve characterized as a taxpayer rip-off and insider deal that will long taint county government. Great minds think alike.

Just this past Tuesday, Lucier was the lone vote against sending the County Administrator and two Supes on a tax-paid, cross-country excursion and schmooze-fest with the county’s recently hired Washington DC lobbyists. Lucier said the trip was nothing but a “junket” with no “real benefit” to county residents. The man told it like it is. At this same meeting, Colfax and Lucier were on the losing, i.e., right side, of a vote reconsidering the aforementioned retroactive salary boosts.

So you see, the Supes individually and occasionally do the right thing when it comes to understanding priorities. The problem is they can’t sustain that process collectively over the long haul. 

Now, let’s turn to this impending museum fiasco, because it illustrates once again how the Supes’ priorities are out of kilter. 

As reported previously, for several months the Supes have been attempting to fill a vacancy for the county’s museum director. Since last summer, Rebecca Snetselaar, a long-time museum employee with all of the professional bona fides, has filled the slot on an interim basis. Notwithstanding the fact that at every meeting where the museum vacancy has been discussed, the public, including museum advocacy groups along with a special museum advisory committee, has strongly urged the Supes to hire Snetselaar as the permanent museum director, the Supes have refused to do so.

Instead, the BOS decided at its March 26 meeting to forge ahead with a plan to conduct another nation-wide search to find a new director. Just last month, the county attempted to hire a dot.com wine promoter to the museum directorship. The dot.com marketing whiz, as coincidence would have it, is married to a county Social Services manager. When supporters of Snetselaar got wind of the move, they descended en masse at the Supes’s chambers and forced the Board to backtrack on the planned hiring.

At Tuesday’s session, though, the Board decided they were going to look outside the county once again to land a new museum director. It’s now clear to everybody, that a majority of the Supes don’t want Snetselaar in the director’s post. It’s obvious a majority of the Board envisions hiring somebody whose main skills are promotion and fund-raising. Evidently, the Supes desire to operate our small, rural museum along the same lines of metropolitan museums, which employ directors whose principal attributes are raising money. Now, perhaps, the Supes have other reasons for passing over Snetselaar, but so far they’ve kept it to themselves. If they do have a problem with Snetselaar, then they owe an explanation to the public, because so far nobody from the public has said anything other than that Snetselaar should be the permanent director.

Tuesday, Don Nelson, of Fort Bragg, who is a member and officer of numerous county historical and museum boards, told the BOS something we all think.

Nelson said that Snetselaar is held in high regard by every museum and history organization in the county. He reminded the BOS that she has the support of these groups and the public at-large because of her professional experience and dedication to the county’s museum system. 

“We think she has all the necessary attributes to be museum director of the Mendocino County Museum,” Nelson stated. “She knows everything there is to know about the museum and county history.” Nelson then spoke the plain truth. He told the Supes that they were “mealy-mouthing” the issue. And, indeed, that’s exactly what the Board has done and continues to do.

But mealy-mouthing is the only option available to the Board since they don’t have a good reason for not doing the right thing and hiring Snetselaar as Museum Director. Mealy-mouthing is also your only defense when the public’s wishes aren’t a priority.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.