Humboldt County Supervisor Roger Rodoni leases a three-bedroom, 1800-square foot house and over 9,000 acres of land from the Scotia Pacific Holding Company — a sister company to Pacific Lumber — for just $350 a month, the AVA has learned.
The remote property, known as the “Rainbow Ranch,” is located near the southern Humboldt town of Honeydew and borders Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Rodoni, who has leased the ranch since 1969, uses it primarily for raising cattle, but also for hunting, horseback riding and, as he put it last week, as “a place to think.” Before becoming supervisor it was his primary residence for several years.
The fact that Rodoni leases land from PL has long been common knowledge, but the terms of the lease have never been revealed.
Public interest in Rodoni’s lease of the Rainbow Ranch has grown since March, when the supervisor voted against District Attorney Paul Gallegos’ request for the county to hire outside legal help in the DA’s fraud suit against Pacific Lumber. Some, including Arcata Mayor Bob Ornelas, have charged that Rodoni has a conflict of interest and should abstain from voting on issues relating to PL, while a Eureka resident has asked the Board of Supervisors to investigate Rodoni’s business relationship with the company.
Any determination about whether the seemingly low price Rodoni pays for the lease of the Rainbow Ranch constitutes a legal conflict of interest would be made by the Fair Political Practices Commission, a state agency charged with overseeing the state’s conflict-of-interest laws.
Rodoni said that he has been in correspondence with the FPPC since the March vote, and is taking every step to verify that he did not act improperly when he voted on the DA’s request, or on any of the many other PL-related items that have come before the board since 1996, when Rodoni was elected.
On March 10, FPPC general counsel Luisa Menchaca wrote Rodoni an advice letter saying that from the information she was provided, Rodoni did not have a conflict of interest in voting on PL issues unless his vote could be expected to have a “material effect” on his lease.
In a footnote, however, she wrote that “We assume you pay full and adequate consideration for the lease of the property. Otherwise the lessor might be considered a source of income or a gift to you. If this is the case, you should contact us for further advice.”
In a follow-up letter dated May 27, Menchaca wrote that the FPPC could not provide advice about what the fair market value of his lease would be, but noted that “the same or very similar issues” are currently the subject of an investigation by the agency’s Enforcement Division. Citing agency policy, FPPC Media Director Sigrid Bathen said last week that she could not discuss whether or not Rodoni was under investigation.
Both Rodoni and Pacific Lumber spokesman Jim Branham insist that the terms of the lease represent Rainbow Ranch’s fair market value.
“There’s a whole variety of factors that go into the determination of the value of a property,” said Branham, citing, among other variables, the quality of the range land and how many cattle it can support. “People are obviously free to make assumptions about whether they would agree with that or not, but we feel comfortable in saying that we are receiving the fair value. That’s our business objective and we believe we are following it on all our leases.”
Rodoni noted that the property has no electricity or hot water, can become inaccessible in the winter and, though he estimates that it includes up to 3,000 acres of grassland, cannot support as many cattle as smaller properties in more fertile areas, such as the Arcata Bottom.
In addition, the lease specifies that Rodoni is responsible for the upkeep of the buildings on the property, including a barn.
Nevertheless, the arrangement strikes some as unusually favorable.
“You can’t get a stump with a tarp over it around here for $350 a month,” said David Kirby, an agent for Madrone Realty in Garberville. “You might be able to get a room in a house, with kitchen privileges, but that’s about it.”
Kirby — who managed Roy Heider’s successful campaign against Rodoni in 1992 — said that country property rarely comes up for rent in southern Humboldt, but that one-bedroom apartments in Garberville start at around $500 a month. A three-bedroom home, he said, usually goes for between $1000 and $1200.
Kathryn Ziemer of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau said that the average rental rate for “poor quality” grazing land in Humboldt County is around 50 cents per cow per day — which, if applied to the 60 head of cattle Rodoni says he has at Rainbow Ranch, would equal around $912 per month.
The FPPC’s Enforcement Division will investigate a public servant’s potential conflict of interest if it receives a complaint from a citizen, and if it judges that the complaint warrants a full investigation.
Robert Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies and a former FPPC general counsel, said that determination of a property’s fair market value can be difficult.
“It would be very hard to show that he is receiving a gift unless the terms of the lease are just blatant,” he said. “It’s very squishy. It’s hard to quantify these things.”
Stern said that were the FPPC’s Enforcement Division to take up an investigation, they would look at the rental value of other properties in the area to determine if Rodoni’s lease were wildly out of line with others. They might consider the fact that Rodoni leased the property for 34 years a mitigating factor, he said.
Bathen said that proven violations of the conflict of interest laws are usually settled out of court, with the offending party agreeing to pay a $5,000 fine. In rare cases, she said, the FPPC may bring a civil suit against the official.
The details of Rodoni’s lease have become public due to a lawsuit filed against Rodoni and PL by Robert and Janet Busch, whose property borders Rainbow Ranch. The Busches charge that Rodoni’s cattle frequently trespass on their land, and that Rodoni has not taken sufficient measures to prevent the trespass. In the course of the lawsuit, attorneys for PL were required to provide copies of the lease to the Busches’ attorney, Stephen Davies.
Though the lease that PL provided to Davies covered a 24-month period between 1994 and 1996 — immediately before Rodoni took office — Rodoni later confirmed that the price he paid on the ranch remained the same: $4,200 a year.
Last week, Rodoni said his political opponents have attempted to misrepresent his relationship with PL since his first campaign for office, and that they have never yet been successful.
“These kind of issues — people like to make hay out of them,” he said. “It attracts all kinds of interests.”
In addition to Rainbow Ranch, Rodoni also leases a smaller parcel near Fortuna from Scotia Pacific.