With the nation's major cities rocked by nearly a week of fiery protest over racism and police violence, and Sonoma County embroiled in a full-on confrontation between Sheriff Mark Essick and just about the entire political leadership of the region over COVID-19 enforcement, Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall sounded pretty calm Monday morning.
"It's been a heck of a month," he said. “I hope June is better."
As the COVID-19 lockdown moved from its initial phase - a kind of a state of shock — into the complicated negotiation between public and economic health, the experiences of North Coast counties has varied pretty widely.
Humboldt County had the state's first reported case and was up to 98 cases by this week. Humboldt County Sheriff William Honsal about a month ago outright defied state Shelter in Place orders, but has since taken a quieter and more accommodating stance as case numbers in his county have continued to rise.
Lake County had 23 cases by this weekend and typically flies under the radar on just about everything unless the county is on fire.
In Sonoma County, Sheriff Mark Essick is all over the front page every day as he flip-flops his way to what on Monday stood as his total defiance of the county's Public Health Officer. Sonoma County has 564 cases.
Kendall has taken a middle route, issuing statements periodically trying to clarify what he sees as the Sheriff's Office's role and the public's rights in an unprecedented situation.
"I've spoken with the Sonoma County Sheriff," Kendall said Monday. "He has exactly the opposite set of problems that I do."
Mendocino County has 14 cases, and almost no chaos coming from or between public officials. Kendall credited solid one-on-one relationships among Mendocino County's political leaders, and the ability of the public to still make itself heard face to face, whether to him or other officials.
He said he is not thrilled with how state government itself has interacted with Mendocino County over COVID-19 issues. But he praised county Public Health Officer Noemi Doohan to the skies, comparing her — in her professional capacity — to a fire station luckily built next door right before the house caught on fire. Doohan was hired two months before the pandemic hit.
Kendall said he and Doohan have a good understanding: "Doctors are doctors. They are accustomed to issuing orders," he said. "But a peace officer has to enforce the law."
The differences and sometimes strains between those two tasks are getting worked out here, and fought over to the south, he said, largely because of the ability — or not — to have frank, face to face discussions.
On COVID-19 enforcement overall, Kendall said he is being guided by "the 85% rule," which boils down to 85 percent of people self-regulate just fine on just about everything.
For the small minority who don't, Kendall said he is also guided by District Attorney David Eyster's edict that any criminal COVID-19 complaint that come to him "had better be egregious."
Kendall said that also applies to the quandary of how to deal with out-of-town Shelter in Place violators, of which there are clearly many on the Mendocino Coast.
To actually make a stop, Kendall emphasized, deputies still need probable cause, and that takes more than a clean car and a Burlingame license plate holder (not his example).
Kendall said what attention is being paid to out-of-towners is done on a warning basis, which he said seems to be effective when applied. There have been no follow-up citations at least.
Hanging over the COVID-19 scenario now is the unrest gripping America's major cities, and the demonstrations of support in communities nationwide.
Kendall said he has heard from many constituents asking for his department's policy on 'use of force'.
On Monday he issued a statement (below). Specific to the death of George Floyd, he said, "If one of my deputies had his knee on someone's neck like that, I would want the other deputies to pull him off."
Following the recent issues which have occurred in our nation, we have received several calls regarding the stance of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office regarding use of force. We first would like to thank all of the people who have reached out to us during these times. We truly appreciate these calls and conversations.
Currently the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office is working hard on training in various fields including use of force. Sheriff Allman was able to procure a use of force simulator prior to his retirement. This tool will be employed for in depth training of our personnel as well as deputy sheriffs and police officers from other agencies. We are working to partner with other law enforcement chiefs to ensure all peace officers within the county receive the training which is needed to deliver the best work product we possibly can.
Senate Bill 978 requires law enforcement agencies to post on their website “all current standards, policies, practices, operating procedures, and education and training materials that would otherwise be available to the public” if a request was made pursuant to the California Public Records Act, located in Government Code §§ 6250 et seq.
To comply with this law, the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has made available the documents at the below provided link, unless the material falls within an applicable exemption under the Public Records Act.
Mendocino County Sheriff's Office SB 978 materials: https://www.mendocinosheriff.com/publications/sb-978-materials/
I have received several calls and emails regarding my position on the death of George Floyd. First, I offer my condolences to, and truly feel for the family of George Floyd. I have seen the video of this incident. I would ask, we all take an honest look at what we saw. Look as human beings, not as a conservative, liberal, red state or blue, and honestly ask ourselves if we agreed with what we saw. Based on what I saw I believe it violated the ethics of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office as well as my personal ethics. The video actually caused me to feel ill. I would never want to be thrust into a similar situation, or cause anyone in our communities to be. I am a father, son, brother and husband. Many of us are parents or someday will be. I always think of how I would want to see my child, siblings, parents or friends treated. I believe most American’s are viewing this situation from a similar point of view. Prior to making this statement, I wanted to address personnel at the Sheriff’s Office. I was able to do this and let them know the directions we would be moving from here. I encouraged all of my deputies to look at this from a human perspective.I believe it is important to reassure the public. I also believe I would much rather speak about what we are doing than to speak empty words. Speaking and doing are two different things. That is why it was important I speak with my deputies and command staff first. I can easily condemn actions and make statements, however I best serve by working to ensure human rights are protected. Our response will be to provide our employees with updated and ongoing training focusing on such areas as use of force, de-escalation of force and racial relations. This will better prepare our employees in interacting with the public as time goes on and will give them additional tools to keep them serving the public with a high level of professionalism.Normally I am not a person who would jump to conclusions regarding guilt or innocence. This is because I believe in our system and truly believe justice must be served in the courtroom, not on social media or the nightly news. Our system is not perfect, however I think with enough work it could be. We all have to work together on this to make it happen. With the Police and the District Attorney we have public safety, however without our judges and defense, we will never have justice.
Sheriff Matt Kendall
Fort Bragg Police Update
No government agency is going through COVID-19 without some strain and the Fort Bragg Police Department is no different.
Even so, Chief John Naulty gave a confident assessment of the state of the department and the community in general last week.
The department lost longtime staff member Debbie Desmond to a budget-cut-motivated retirement, as well as the department's cleaning staff. The department will be down one Community Service Officer when an other officer heads to the police academy next month, but otherwise staffing remains steady, he said.
The Harry Mila Stabbing
The shocking stabbing death of Harry Mila on May 17, was a stark exception to a generally lower level of calls for service except Shelter In Place issues of course — which have become a major draw on officers' patrol time.
Mila died, according to witnesses, as a result of a knife fight between at least three men on the front porch of a house on North Harbor Drive, just outside Fort Bragg city limits. Therefore, the Sheriff's Office is investigating the incident.
Mila was a felon and known gang member who had been under the eye of local law enforcement ever since he returned to Fort Bragg three years ago. He was named as a kind of puppetmaster in a series of shooting incidents in and around Fort Bragg in 2019 in which mostly drivers in vehicles fired shots at houses and other cars.
Sheriff Matt Kendall said Monday that Mila's killing as well as two incidents in Fort Bragg in the days following which may or may not have been related are being looked at.
Mila's funeral and wake on May 28 passed without incident. Kendall said investigators are trying to determine the motivations leading up to the incidents.
“Harry Mila was murdered, is the fact of the matter,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, he is a victim.”
At the same time, Kendall said, there is the overarching issue of gang activity in Fort Bragg, which does concern him.
“When something like that happens, I tell my guys that I want the person responsible to disappear like it was an IRA kidnapping, and the next time people see him is on the rap sheet.”
Kendall said the investigation into Mila's death is ongoing.
Otherwise, Naulty said, calls for service remain significantly down because of shelter in place rules, although he said mental health-related calls — basically people reaching their limit from isolation and anxiety — are up.
Enforcement of Shelter in Place rules is front and center, certainly in the public's eye, and Memorial Day weekend was a major test.
There was a hail of complaints from local people, both on social media and to the police department and City Hall, about the clear increase in the number of tourists and in at least a couple suspiciously full motel parking lots.
Naulty said he spent Monday dropping by local motels and reviewing their procedures for screening all but essential travelers, as is required by state law.
What he found, he said, was that different innkeepers had different ideas about what an essential traveler is and how to verify one. Naulty said he is confident Fort Bragg lodging establishments are now on the same page regarding the rules.
One motel with a very full parking lot these last few weeks, Motel 6, has become the one establishment willing to house homeless people who are in touch with county services. May 31 was the last day of funding for their stays, and Naulty said he hoped the group of agencies trying to keep the area’s homeless people housed and healthy during COVID-19 would be able to find another interim shelter. Without it, the officers of the Fort Bragg Police Department will once again revert to becoming their chief caregivers.
A Short One At Fort Bragg City Hall
But they got a lot done.
Local businesses wanting to change their configuration to keep operating under COVID-19 precautions can get fast-tracked approval by Fort Bragg City Hall after the city council voted unanimously last Tuesday to give City Manager Tabatha Miller authority to approve use changes without fees or hearings.
The council also OKd using $500,000 in federal grant money initially meant to rehab older houses, to reimburse landlords whose residential and commerical tenants are using the city's eviction moratorium. That moratorium will likely be extended past its June 1 end date, as the council approved having a special meeting this Thursday to consider the extension.
- City Manager Miller said Police Chief John Naulty met with several motel owners Tuesday to get everyone on the same page as to what an "essential traveler" is and who motels can legally let stay. There were numerous calls over the holiday weekend, Miller said, about the clear increase in motel use. She said Naulty found that different motels had different definitions of who qualified and how they determined that. She said everyone should be working off the same set of rules now.
- The skate park and dog park at the C.V. Starr Center are now open, with social distancing and masking requirements in effect.
- City Hall will reopen June 1, Monday through Thursday, regular hours. Miller said there will be some changes and limits to use. Only the downstairs will be open to the public, but people will be able to do most regular City Hall business.
- Two more gang related incidents happened in the city after the stabbing murder of Harry Mila in Noyo Harbor last week. Miller said one person was arrested in one of the later incidents and is still in custody.
- Mayor Will Lee reported that there have been slightly more than 600 COVID-19 tests done in the Fort Bragg area. Aside from the one positive three weeks ago (a nurse at the hospital who contracted it elsewhere), there have been no positive tests out of the 600, Lee said.
- The parade for Fort Bragg High School's Class of 2020 is scheduled for June 5 at 5 p.m. The route is along North Main Street, then east along Oak Street. Businesses and residents along Oak Street are encouraged to show support for the 2020 grads however they can, Lee said.
Evictions Postponed, Re-Opening Planned
The Fort Bragg City Council voted 4-1 Thursday night to extend by one month the city's moratorium on commercial and residential evictions, whether or not Gov. Gavin Newsom extends a statewide eviction ban scheduled to expire June 1.
Council members debated the issue intently, with a clear majority at the start favoring ending the moratorium. City Manager Tabatha Miller recommended against extending the ban because, she said, going ahead without state backing could place liability for uncollected rents on the city's shoulders.
The strongest argument for ending the ban, she said, is a judicial order accompanying the statewide Declaration of Emergency over COVID-19, that prohibits eviction proceedings in state courts while the emergency lasts.
That order, she said, protects both businesses and residents from being thrown out probably into 2021. Therefore the city didn't really need to assume the added liability to see local residents and businesses protected, she said.
Later on, Miller stressed that if the judicial order did not prevent evictions during the emergency, she would not recommend ending the local ban.
Those arguments initially convinced, or aligned with, council members Bernie Norvell and Lindy Peters, and Mayor Will Lee, to end the eviction ban.
But council member Jessica Moresell-Haye, later joined by Tess Albin-Smith, argued forcefully against ending the ban.
Moresell-Haye, who seemed to have talked to the more constituents than her colleagues, and who is part owner of the Golden West Saloon downtown, said some business owners are weighing whether they can continue. Ending the eviction ban, she said, could lead some of them to conclude they can't wait things out.
One notable part of the discussion was that there was absolutely no public comment on the matter, either for or against extending the ban. Moresell-Haye said that she has heard a lot from scared tenants, and nothing from landlords in distress. Partly because of that, she said, she would like the city to "take the calculated risk" — which Miller assessed as “slight” — of extending the ban for one month.
One effect of ending the city ban would be to start a 180-day "timeclock" for tenants to get current on rent. Moresell-Haye said that provision in particular could cause some commercial tenants to decide to quit.
Albin-Smith seconded those arguments and stated firmly that extending the ban "is what we need to do."
Discussion ensued and, in the end, Peters and Lee voted with Moresell-Haye and Albin-Smith to extend the ban. Norvell, who rents a small number of residential units himself, stuck to his original position, saying he worries for both tenants and landlords if rental debt piles up.
Miller said she has been watching for signs of whether Gov. Newsom will extend the state's eviction ban and has seen no indication, with the expiration three days away.
She also noted, answering a question from Albin-Smith, that there is no way to tell how many tenants are using the waivers needed to qualify under the moratorium, but that rough national estimates are that 30% of tenants in the United States did not pay their rent in April.
Opening meetings, opening City Hall again…
The council also talked over guidelines for reopening their meetings and City Hall to the public.
A target date of June 22 has been set for the first in-person city council meeting. City Manager Miller said staff has been working through many aspects of the reopened meetings, which will have to comply with COVID-19 guidelines as well as accommodate people with special needs and higher sensitivies to infection.
One idea that came out of the discussion was a “hybrid” meeting: some people — both council members and members of the public — attending in person and some participating via Zoom video conferencing software. All the council members said they sense intense interest among people in re-opening council meeting.
Norvell said he thinks the meetings provide a forum for people to "say their piece… that's a lot of what we do."
Council members also approved closing City Hall to the public on Wednesdays as well as Fridays. They did so based on City Manager Miller's suggestion, especially because Wednesdays are Farmers Market days, which happen literally on City Hall's doorstep, and typically result in very high traffic for the public bathroom in the lobby, as well as the lobby itself.
Under COVID-19 precautions, she said, that would mean a lot of work monitoring and santizing the facilities.
Also, she said, the Friday closure is how city workers' hours have been cut, and Wednesdays could provide “in-service days” for uninterrupted work. The public would still be able to reach City Hall staff by phone or email on Wednesdays, she said.
Council members agreed to the change, noting that protecting City Hall staff from COVID-19 exposure is the primary concern.