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Windfalls, Waste & Capitulation

Outgoing Supervisor John McCowen has been effectively neutered by CEO Carmel Angelo. She continues to keep the Board, especially McCowen, at arm’s length since Supervisors Haschak, Brown and Gjerde are firmly in her corner, deferring to the CEO in every question that arises where the CEO weighs in. 

Supervisor Ted Williams agrees with McCowen from time to time, but Williams hasn’t been snubbed by his colleagues as much as McCowen has, probably because Williams is going to be around for a while. 

McCowen, whose last meeting will be next month, may have been dealt a final blow Tuesday when he tried again, and again unsuccessfully, to get his colleagues to support a letter to the state asking about the science and data around the state’s dubious “one size fits all” covid tier system, which imposes blanket restrictions on entire counties when in many cases, including Mendo, covid cases are predominantly concentrated in one area. 

At present the large majority of Mendo’s cases are Mexicans (“Latinx” in PC talk) in Ukiah. The rest of the County isn’t experiencing anywhere near the numbers of Mexican-Americans in Ukiah, yet the newly re-imposed “purple tier” restrictions apply to the entire county, leaving small businesses, which themselves are not high on the list of covid causes, struggling if not already closed because of the new tighter restrictions which have just this week been ratcheted up again as covid numbers increase around the state. 

When McCowen asked his colleagues to support his volunteering to draft a letter to the state suggesting more autonomy be given to counties in applying covid restrictions and asking about the rationale behind the tier system, McCowen was first told by the CEO that she had recently asked the state health officer, Dr. Ghaly, how they arrived at their thresholds and was told that Dr. Ghaly was “surprised” by the question and said he’d “consider it.” 

Supervisor Williams thought it would be good to at least ask about the tier system rationale simply so Mendo could make better decisions about how to get back to fewer restrictions. 

But Angelo, Health Officer Andy Coren, and Supervisors Haschak, Gjerde and Brown all thought not, saying that the state is working very hard and doing their best and that such a letter would be pointless. Gjerde even went so far as to say that such a letter would “make Mendocino County look silly.” (As “silly” as Governor Newsom who blithely imposes state wide-scale lockdowns while dining with a large group of friends at the French Laundry?

McCowen has tried hard for twelve years to take County matters seriously, often too seriously, but now suffers the final insult from an ordinarily silent colleague. 

McCowen made a last ditch attempt to justify the importance of writing the letter but was unceremoniously cut off by Chair Haschak who simply and firmly declared, “We’re moving on,” not even calling for a motion, let alone the formality of a vote. 

Tier Assignments

California is also strengthening its face covering guidance to require people to wear a mask whenever outside their home, with limited exceptions.

Newsom cited the surge in coronavirus cases when rolling out the beefed-up restrictions. The state's positivity rate is 4.6%, up from 3% on Oct. 29. Newsom said Californians should not be “misled” by having a lower testing positivity rate than the national rate of 9.8%, saying “we don't compare ourselves” to the national numbers.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly also spoke during Newsom's briefing and warned people in purple or red-tier counties not to gather indoors with other households.

“The data we are seeing is very concerning. We are in the midst of a surge, and time is of the essence. Every day matters and every decision matters,” Ghaly said in a statement. “Personal decisions are critical, and I am I imploring every Californian to stay home if they can, wear a mask whenever they leave their homes, limit mixing, practice physical distancing and wash their hands.”

* * *

At last Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, it was disclosed that Mendo, like the state apparently, is awash in cash, and that whatever budget deficits may have been caused by covid-revenue shortfalls, or healthcare and departmental overruns, or long-delayed road maintenance, or the hiring of additional law enforcement officers is chump change compared to the big bucks that have just rolled in to the County of Mendocino.

First, and by far the largest, there’s the unexpected and unbudgeted PG&E settlement money that the County is poised to get via their mostly passive participation in a multi-county lawsuit stemming from fire damage caused by PG&E’s equipment in 2017. On Tuesday, we were told that Mendo stands to get almost $23 million from that settlement, most of which seems to be unrestricted, although there’s some sentiment in favor of using it for things directly related to disaster recovery, like road repairs, and disaster prep/planning.

Additionally, there’s now an estimated General Fund reserve of $12.2 million and a carry over from last year of over $6 million, a total of over $40 million that is not yet spoken for.

So, unless some other shoe falls in the next few months, all us budget worryworts can now shift our worries from budget shortfalls to wasteful and overpriced projects which are sure to arise when irresponsible people have this much money at their disposal. 

Perhaps as an omen of how wasteful Mendo is capable of being with their newfound millions, two perfect prototypes of Mendo-style waste were approved on Tuesday.

In addition to the $40 mil or so mentioned above, Mendo stands to get $2 or $3 million from the state’s “Cannabis Equity Grant” program which aims to “help” potential pot cultivation permit applicants get through the system. But, like most state grants, the applicants/clients don’t get the money, the “helpers” do.

On Tuesday, Supervisor Haschack pulled the Equity Grant item from the consent calendar which proposed to hire an outside consultant at $160 an hour to “help” the pot permit applicants with their applications.

Commenting on the item, Supervisor Williams said, “The cannabis equity program is about assisting cultivators to engage in the legal market. It provides assistance to help our cultivators get through the county's permitting process. But here's a question for Planning Director Brent Schultz: In other counties I see that the county permit provides documentation that allows a cultivator to get a state license. In our county a cultivator going through our whole permitting process is not any closer to a state license than before they started our process. It looks to me like we are using the cannabis equity funds on a dead-end path. It's hard to talk about this item without talking about the big picture of how we are spending the money. Given that you oversee our cannabis program, do you have anyone on your staff who believes that our county permitting process will get cultivators a state annual license by the deadline a year from now?”

Planning and Building Services Director Schultz: “You are asking, Does our ministerial permit process, if they meet every condition in that ministerial ordinance, all the measures in our mitigated negative declaration in our ordinance, if they get all that and provide everything to us, will they get an annual license from the state just off our ministerial license? Is that your question?”

Williams: “Using these equity dollars to get the cultivator through our county permit process, will they be any closer to a state license?”

“No. They will not,” replied Schultz, before veering off into a jargon laced hedge: “However, it is written broadly so that if there are those who go through our discretionary ordinance, we can help them with their discretionary ordinance and charges and costs. There are many other things. It's written very broadly. I believe it's important to get Megan [Dukett, CEO Carmel Angelo’s hand-picked interim Cannabis Permit Program Manager, who everyone cozily refers to by her first name] the staff she needs to be ready to go because there is a time limit on this money and we have to get it spent. We are working on the new cannabis ordnance. When that goes in place -- or our coastal cannabis ordnance, that one is a discretionary use permit based ordnance — when that goes in place people that qualify for this grant, we can help them get through the process with a discretionary ordinance because we can get them their site specific CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] analysis and their notice of termination or redemption and the California Department of Food and Agriculture could give them an annual license — if they qualify with state licensing requirements also.”

Haschak: “Maybe we should just keep this to the state equity grant topic.”

Williams: “I support this item. Megan deserves an award for persevering through this whole process. And this is just one more aspect of that. I support the item because we need to move forward and spend the dollars. But I have a concern that we are throwing good money after bad money. We are spending down a path that is a dead end.”

Haschak: “My concern is not that we don't need this, or that it could be problematic, but that -- I understand through legal counsel that the program manager (consultant) is paid at $160 an hour. It seems like a straight $160 per hour for this across-the-board for all these expenses and tasks. It’s maybe a little overinflated. But with that said, I will leave it.”

Supervisor John McCowen: “I agree we need to move forward with this. You raise valid points. Supervisor Williams has a valid concern. But I don't see anything to be gained by further delay in implementing the equity program grant. Originally we were hopeful we might be pushing this money out as early as July. I totally agree that we don't want to push it out to people who are destined to fail. It just underlines the need to have a functional path forward which we don't currently have. I think Director Schultz alluded to a discretionary ordinance as being a workable vehicle. But all the concerns are valid and we still need to move forward.”

Forward without delay to the dead end, that is.

Next up on the spend-first/ask-questions-later agenda was the Board’s rubberstamping of a $3.5 million construction contract to Cupples Construction of Ukiah for the “Crisis Residential Treatment” four-bedroom house on Orchard Street inevitably placed next to Camille Schraeder’s Ukiah mental health admin headquarters. The $3.5 million is part of a $5 million-plus total outlay for a simple four-plex facility which apparently requires a couple more million for design, planning, admin, the County’s newly hired “construction manager,” and every possible bell and whistle that the expensive Sacto architects could throw in.

Supervisor Williams, normally persistent about wanting planning and reporting and proper budgeting, said even he has given up trying to get decent financial or planning information from the Measure B committee or staff after years of being stonewalled: “One of the areas where I've struggled a bit with Supervisor Haschak on the Measure B ad hoc committee is I really wanted to have a business plan showing what we plan to do and what the various projects will cost. I assume it won't be perfect but a good starting point. And I don't know that we are any closer to that now. We are continuing to spend money. It makes me nervous. I guess I am at the point of capitulation. I don't think we are going to have a solid business plan. I think the only way these facilities get built is to spend money.”

Haschak agreed, although he has never expected much from staff in the first place and “capitulated” soon after being elected: “I think we are at the same spot. I agree with what you're saying. We have asked for a business plan. We presented some questions to the Measure B project manager at the last meeting. And we have not received any kind of response yet. I worry that we are going down these roads without clear financial information or a picture of how it's going to all fit together. I agree that at some point we need to decide that we need the financial plan or if we are just going to decide we are going forward with projects like this or a couple others that could be complementary or could stand on their own with or without a PHF [Psychiatric Health Facility]. It's not a good track to be on, not having a roadmap for the money. These are taxpayer dollars and we are responsible for them.”

Outgoing Supervisor John McCowen capitulated too: “I agree with your comments but due to the previous actions of the board the die has been cast for this action before us. The board has directed that this, along with the training center and a psychiatric health facility are the priorities for use of the Measure B funds. I think in the future the board will need to focus on the very questions that have been raised with regard to a psychiatric health facility. We want the most solid information we can about the sustainability of that type of facility. We have preliminary opinions from our mental health staff that such a facility can operate on a break even basis. If it doesn't we do have ongoing revenue from Measure B that to a degree could subsidize an operation going forward. All these are appropriate questions. Hopefully prior to the board making any commitment to a psychiatric health facility you will have answers to the questions that have been repeatedly asked. But construction of that psychiatric health facility is by Board action a very high priority. Essentially we have decided at our last meeting we should keep faith with the voters because that's what they expected to see when they voted for Measure B. Comments to that action on social media are overwhelmingly in support of a psychiatric health facility being constructed. We need to get the information, we need to make sound, prudent decisions. But that has to be a priority, keeping faith with the voters.”

The voters indeed expected a psychiatric health facility when they voted for Measure B. But they also expected that the Board and the highly touted “oversight” committee would not waste their “taxpayer dollars” in the process.

(Note: As of Friday evening, the video of Wednesday’s Measure B oversight committee meeting had still not been posted. Maybe the video crew forgot to record it again, despite the project manager’s assurance last month that such mistakes would not happen again.)

* * *

Moving over to Mendo’s current covid case spike and related problems, Supervisor Williams asked County health officer Dr. Andy Coren: “I see that Ukiah is leading the way disproportionately representing far more cases than we see around the rest of the county. When I look at the coast I see businesses closing and never reopening. I see children impacted. It's because the state is treating us as one unit and Ukiah is putting us into a more restrictive tier. What can Ukiah learn from the rest of the county? What can we do to change the course? Why can't Ukiah be on the same trajectory as the rest of the county?”

Dr. Coren intentionally missed Williams’s point that the Ukiah area, according to Dr. Coren’s own statistics, represents less than a quarter of the County's population but has more than three-quarters of the cases: “I think it has more to do with population concentration that we have here than we have in the smaller towns around and certainly on the coast. We also see lower raw numbers in, for example, Willits. This is passed from person to person and we have more concentrated people in Ukiah and higher numbers of people in Ukiah so we are going to see more of an increase in those areas. What can we learn? I don't know. It's a good question. We will try to look at it.”

The good “doctor” not only seems statistically challenged, he has no idea what to do about Ukiah’s abnormally high and rising case rates. At this rate Ukiah is poised to drag the whole county into another lockdown.

Chair Haschak then abruptly pulled the doctor’s chestnuts out of the fire, interrupting Williams and calling for a recess, and that was the end of the conversation about Ukiah’s disproportionate covid caseload.

When they returned, Supervisor Williams managed to add: “I see the increasing cases. It's a serious problem. I don't see the state data that indicates that the restrictions being imposed will remedy the problem. My biggest worry is we have this increase that we haven't been able to control and we are applying the wrong restrictions. And next week it will only be worse. We are relying on the state for the decisions we make. It would be great if they could show us their work. If Supervisor McCowen’s letter could provide us with the data and backup for these restrictions, I think it would be valuable.”

But that too went nowhere as McCowen’s reasonable request to ask the state for their restriction rationale(s) was dismissed by the CEO and her captive staff as pointless and, in Supervisor Dan Gjerde’s uncalled-for phrasing, “would make Mendocino County look silly. (Hardly the first time for that dubious distinction, but certainly not in this case.)

2 Comments

  1. Kat November 26, 2020

    160 dollars for a consultant to help you with paperwork!
    And then, after the citizen pays all the money and jumps thru all the hoops-absolutely no guarantee that you will get the permit. This is insane.
    You could find 4 people that would be thrilled to split that money and get paid 40 dollars an hour to do the same job.
    Outrageous.

  2. Ann Jennings November 25, 2020

    Wow…this (RE: the Measure B) is why I always vote no to measures….my tax dollars get wasted, the mentally ill get no help and private contractors walk off with millions. Sickening.

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