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The Salt, The Sea, The Smell, The Software

The Fort Bragg City Council held its third face-to-face meeting with the public Monday night, after more than a year of lockdown Zoom democracy. 

There were a couple of major items on the agenda, though the biggest one, approval of the coming year's budget, was largely a formality after about a month of public budget workshops spent going over the City’s dollars and cents, department by department. In four separate votes, the council unanimously approved the year's spending plan, balanced with a small surplus, but still heavily dependent on emergency federal funding.

Water was on the agenda as well, with a decision to approve a $500,000 "amendment" - i.e. unexpected expense - to the current year's budget to buy a relatively small desalination unit in time for the intensifying drought conditions expected later this summer and fall. 

The unit, according to Public Works Director John Smith, will be able to generate 200 gallons per minute of fresh water, or about 280,000 gallons a day. That's about ten backyard swimming pools' worth - a lot of water but nothing compared with the overall needs of Fort Bragg. 

What the unit will be used for, Smith said, is to pump fresh water into the treatment plant if or when seawater makes it up the Noyo River to the city's intake pipes, as it does during high tides in very dry years like this one. If seawater gets into the system, the plant has to be shut down and flushed out. The desalination unit, Smith said, will be able to fill in during especially dry times to keep that from happening. 

Because the unit is relatively small, its energy requirements and waste products (salt) are not stumbling blocks, as they are for nearly every community that considers large scale desal, except oil rich sheikhdoms like Dubai and Saudi Arabia, where desalination plants supply water to millions at an astronomical, oil-subsidized price, in places where environmental regulations exist at the whim of kings. 

In fact, Smith said, the salt pulled out by Fort Bragg's desalination unit can be diluted enough in the city's existing wastewater to meet EPA requirements for being discharged back into the sea, and will not have to be carted hundreds of miles to a hazardous waste disposal facility at city (i.e., water rate payers') expense. 

Smith assured some who worried about environmental risks that Fort Bragg's city government is working with about a dozen state and federal agencies on the desal unit, and every environmental issue is being looked at. He assured fiscal doubters that there is a very good chance Fort Bragg will be reimbursed the half million dollars by a state government that is flush with a record budget surplus and focused on drought and climate change. 

But desal is not John Smith's brainchild. Fort Bragg City councilman Lindy Peters has spent a good part of the past 30 years urging local government to pursue the idea. 

Peters was mercifully brief Monday in acknowledging his role in promoting - often in the face of skepticism and indifference - an idea whose time in Fort Bragg has undeniably come. In a recent interview, City Manager Tabatha Miller acknowledged that, even though the city's new form of desal is small and its use limited, it's very likely desalination will play a growing part in Fort Bragg's water future. 

The Smell 

The water discussion, although being kind of historic for the town, was relatively low key. The wastewater discussion, regarding “The Smell,” was not. 

Fort Bragg is blessed and cursed with a sewer plant that overlooks the ocean. Blessed because the ocean is actually a pretty good place to discharge your treated wastewater, compared to, say, the Russian or Sacramento rivers or San Francisco Bay. The abalone off Soldier Point. where Fort Bragg has sent its treated sewage for generations, were rumored to be massive. That is, before they all starved to death over the last few years after the kelp forest along the entire North Coast vanished. But it wasn't the sewer plant that killed the kelp.

The curse is that the sewer plant is right next to Fort Bragg's tourism jewel, the Coastal Trail, and within smelling distance of a good part of town when the wind blows just wrong. It always has been.

What apparently has changed is that city government spent the past several years and tens of millions of dollars of federal money building a new sewer plant. By all accounts the new plant works very well, treating more sewage better while using a lot less energy. 

But there's something about the "biosolids" left over after the new and improved treatment of Fort Bragg's merde that makes it smell, seemingly a lot more than it used to. 

There are explanations for it that take a degree or at least an interest in chemistry to understand and this reporter has neither. Neither do the dozens of people who have complained to City Hall over the past month about the rising stench in their streets and yards. Some said they thought the smell was from their neighbors', or even their own, lack of hygiene, until they saw the general outcry on social media over The Smell and finally knew it wasn't them. 

Except it kind of is them, and all of us who use the john in Fort Bragg now and again. That is a point city officials did not make to the irate citizens Monday night, but it is worth bearing in mind. 

The update given by officials was brief: what's being done to alleviate the smell isn't working well enough; what they hope will work won't be here for a couple months. Looks like The Smell is with us for the summer at least. 

Public Participation 

The return of in-person council meetings has definitely injected some energy into the proceedings - and made for longer sessions. Monday's opened with various presentations and recognitions, and a spirited debate via the public comments period over whether the city should divert some of its continuing stream of emergency federal money into responses to climate change. 

Several speakers for the Grassroots Institute, a Caspar-based advocacy group that in 2019 held a widely promoted but for unexplained reasons invitation-only confab to discuss the future of Fort Bragg's millsite, encouraged the council to use some of the federal money to build EV charging stations at city facilities, apparently in addition to the charging stations across Laurel Street from City Hall that sit unused most of the time. 

In response to this, and to an earlier discussion about spending asset forfeiture money to build a music studio for local youth, developer Paul Clark accused the city council of fostering a favorable attitude toward "handouts." Clark, point man on many a major development proposal in Fort Bragg in recent decades, proclaimed that he has never asked for a thing from city government, and that he is seriously considering moving into town and running for a council seat, to change the council's current attitude. Clark even seemed to suggest that city government has avoided annexing his property, as he has desired, simply to keep him from living in Fort Bragg. 

Exchanges like these are what make Fort Bragg City Council meetings some of the liveliest public discussions in Mendocino County. In fact, public participation was a recurring subject Monday night. The council was, as usual, accused of suppressing debate (on the budget, after a month of thinly attended public budget workshops), and of orchestrating a coverup (over The Smell - a seemingly impossible task). 

There was also an agenda item about "voluminous public comments" - some running in the hundreds of pages - that get sent to City Hall, often right before a crucial meeting. City Clerk June Lemos explained that such large and complicated files can and do crash the city's online agenda and meeting software. Lemos said the use of last minute, phonebook-sized comments (not her description) is increasing. 

A recent example came at the Fort Bragg Planning Commission's meeting ten days ago where commissioners approved Grocery Outlet's proposal to build a store on South Franklin St., a much debated proposal. 

Two hours before that meeting, Jacob Patterson, son of Planning Commissioner Michelle Roberts, sent in a 900-plus page "comment" that crashed City Hall's computer system. Once the meeting started, Patterson, who has been advised repeatedly that sending big files at the last minute causes such problems, castigated City Hall staff during the public comments session, questioning their general competence on such an important decision for the town, when it seemed they couldn't even keep their own software running. 

At Monday's meeting, Lemos explained to the council that the city's computer system is no match for massive, dissertation-sized files like the one Patterson submits on a regular basis, (very little of them actually written by the commenter) that often contain linked spreadsheets and other untranslatable code, copied off of websites.

Such files are almost guaranteed to interfere with the city's online platform for public participation, especially when they are sent immediately before a meeting. Lemos again implored the public to send public comments of reasonable size, and in a form that can conceivably be understood by councilmembers, planning commissioners and the public, as opposed to sending thousands of pages at the last minute that no one can possibly read in time to make a difference. 

The proposed ordinance change would give city staff the ability to hold off publishing comments that are hundreds of pages long until the day after a meeting, to avoid the computer system crashes and the resulting lack of transparency just as the public is paying attention. 

The idea got pushback from Patterson himself, who was the subject of a public employees union complaint in April for ongoing "harassment" of City Hall's almost entirely female staff, to the point that many of them have said they fear for their privacy and even safety, after Patterson appeared (to them at least) to be stalking some of them. Patterson denies any such activity, though he did allow in a recent interview that he has taken photos of a City Hall staffer's home - all in the course of official business, he says - and may have by chance observed the city manager on a weekend and commented to her about it. 

On Monday, Patterson accused city staff of surreptitiously duplicating documents in his Grocery Outlet comment to make it longer than it originally was. He did not dispute that it was huge and last-minute. 

Former city council candidate and frequent public commenter Mary Rose Kaczorowski also poo-poo'd the idea that huge last minute comments are a problem and suggested that the public's voice, and her own, is being suppressed by City Hall staff. Kaczorowski announced that she had a solution: simply make PDF files. 

Lemos assured Kaczyroski and council members she "knows very well how to make PDFs," and that it is unfortunately no solution because of the many hours it takes to turn several hundred pages of emailed documents into readable files. 

Council members voted unanimously to let city staff be the judge about what constitutes "voluminous" comments, and publish them the day after a meeting. Mayor Bernie Norvell said he trusts Lemos and the staff to do their job of facilitating public discussions. Lemos said "voluminous" essentially means anything big enough to crash City Hall's system, and assured the council once again she has no interest in picking and choosing who gets to comment on public proceedings.

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