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Moving Forward By Standing Still

Described by at least one County insider as “a looming trainwreck,” the trainwreck himself loomed up Tuesday before the Supervisors. He's newly hired Retirement Board Administrator and former Orange County Sheriff’s Sergeant Richard White, informally known in the County’s Low Gap Road headquarters as Rich White, which he surely is. Rich, that is, paid better than a hundred g's by the County's mathematically broke Retirement system on top of a presumably lush retirement payout as a retired Orange County cop.

Sarge White made another attempt to convince the Board of Supervisors to allow him to hire a full time financial officer for the County’s retirement system, the “Mendocino County Employees Retirement Association,” or MCERA, to help Sarge do the job he was hired to do by himself.

Two weeks earlier White’s request was denied 3-2. Supervisors Dan Hamburg and Kendall Smith voted to approve the additional $100k position to be funded out of retirement system earnings, what little there is of it these days.

But Supervisors John McCowen, Carre Brown and John Pinches had argued that the money would eventually come out of the County coffers as part of the County’s contribution to the pension system. They also argued that expensive administrative hires would send a message that the County was returning to its spendthrift ways.

“I would like to take this opportunity to pass along some additional information regarding the action taken by the Board of Supervisors at your meeting of August 14, 2012,” White began robotically, “when the board voted down the request of the Mendocino County Employees Retirement System Association to add a full time financial investment officer position to the master position allocation table. The Board of Retirement is the governing board of the retirement system and at their regularly scheduled August meeting they directed their administrator to try and resolve the issue or to come up with options that can be taken back to them. I'm here today to deliver a letter from myself to ask the Board of Supervisors to reconsider this decision which I hope you will. Although some may view MCERA as a small system, it has $343 million in assets under its control, responsibility of providing services and paying benefits to our members are equal in importance to those of any large public pension system…”

White's pitch for an accountant assistant rumbled on as he argued that such a position was necessary to the effective administration of what seems to be a mortally wounded pension fund which, like many pension funds in an imploding economy, pays out more money to County retirees than it takes in to fund the golden years of the next round of retirees. White also claimed, without evidence, that his Board fully supported his request.

Sgt. White’s second request was ignored by the three Supervisors who turned down the request the last time, as Supervisor McCowen courteously thank him for his remarks. And White’s second shot wasn’t even commented on by the two Supervisors who voted to approve it. So some County officials are worried that White and his board might try to retaliate in some expensive way like hiring another expensive consultant for White not getting the authorization.

Thus the potential “trainwreck.”

Supervisor Smith read off a windy proclamation congratulating outgoing retirement administrator Jim Andersen on his second departure from Mendocino County (Andersen quit as Mendo’s Chief Administrative Officer in the early 2000s to take a much higher paying job as Assistant CAO for Sonoma County. Then he came back with another pay hike to become Mendo’s retirement administrator.)

Andersen took the podium to a smattering of applause. “I want to thank you for this recognition for this last three and a half years,” said Andersen, “Coming back from Sonoma County I didn't realize I would be walking into this position right at the abyss of the world economic crisis which happened at that time.”

“Great timing,” said Chair McCowen.

“Great timing,” agreed Andersen. “I think the first full month here the Retirement Association portfolio lost $120 million,” Andersen chuckled at what amounts to looming catastrophe. “So it was an omen of what was to come for a number of months.”

“It has been an excellent opportunity,” Andersen continued. “I want to thank the retirement board for the leadership they provided and the excellent staff there as well. I wish Rich White the best as he goes forward. I also would like to thank this board and your predecessors for the opportunity to serve Mendocino County as your County Administrator and Assistant County Administrator. It was an excellent 25 years. There were many times when folks came to me and said, ‘I wouldn't do your job for $1 million,’ and I said ‘I wouldn't have any other job.’ There was something about the variety, the challenge, the opportunity to serve the community, especially one that I grew up in, that I just found absolutely irreplaceable.”

We note here the usual Mendo reference to highly paid labor of dubious merit as an opportunity for personal growth, as the job bolsters the job holder's psychic delight with himself.

Looked at objectively, Andersen was well paid during a fat time, eagerly sowing the seeds of the County's huge debt burden by mismanaging the Teeter Plan (borrowing against projected delinquent property tax returns) as Pension debt ballooned out of control, leaving the current board to somehow pick up the pieces.

“Like everything, there is a season for everything,” Andersen repeated, “and I'm looking forward to the next one in my life. I would like to thank you and your predecessors and your future or past CEOs that have been mentors and an excellent group of department heads and employees in the past 25 years in Mendocino County.”

Based on the present realities, the County's CEO and most department heads are fortunate indeed to have employment.

McCowen praised Andersen for doing his job: “I would truly like to thank you for playing a leadership role in professionalizing MCERA and really creating a transparent environment where an abundance of information is readily available for those who wish to seek it. They can go to the website, there's tons of information available, more than most people would want. You did provide the leadership to establish MCERA as an independent professional organization. You provided the leadership to institute numerous significant reforms and I think really the community owes you a debt of gratitude for all of your efforts in that regard.”

Pinches seconded McCowen. “I'm not going to hold it against you for going to Sonoma County for too many more years. Jim is probably the only guy I know who I don't think — and I've had a lot of dealings with him over the years, we go way back — I've never seen you really get upset or raise his voice or anything. He's the only guy I know who can call you up and tell you your house is on fire without raising his voice. He's been an extremely efficient and very respected public servant. I know you are not going to go home and sit and watch TV. I'm curious as to what you have planned next. But whatever it is I wish you well.”

Andersen replied with an ominous warning: “I don't have anything right now that I am stepping into. I think the best of advice I got was to take some time off and come out of one career. The easiest thing in the world is to kind of have your blinders on and presume you're going to do something there again and it very well may be that you’ll see me pop up in local government again. But I'm going to take a little time off and see what comes.”

Andersen might be considering applying for the next opening on the Retirement Board, at the least, to make sure his own generous pension is delivered in full.

* * *

Supervisor Hamburg wanted to know what was going to happen with the Mendocino Town Plan (which is almost 20 years overdue for an update) with the sudden resignation of chief planner Roger Mobley.

“What is being done with respect to the completion of the Mendocino Town Plan?” Hamburg asked CEO Carmel Angelo.

Angelo: “I have talked with Mr. Mobley about that. He is giving me a list of projects, the Town Plan being one and who that plan will be turned over to. I think I can probably say this, We have been in discussion with Mr. Mobley about staying on as a consultant to work with the plan. He started the Town Plan [No he didn’t; he started this latest round of the update of the Town Plan which is eternally evolving, eternally under discussion]. He's done a great job working with the Mendocino Town Plan and it is a loss to have him leave at this point in time in the middle of the project. So I can certainly have more information for you at the next board meeting. I don't have a definite response from Mr. Mobley at this time.”

Look for a nice “consultant” contract for Mobley.

Hamburg: “I think Roger, working along with Abby Stockwell from the Fort Bragg office, inspired a lot of confidence in the Town with the residents in the Town and they moved forward with the Plan and they've held three public meetings. I don't know how many smaller meetings with the community they’ve had, and I do think it would be difficult to stay on schedule if we took Roger completely out of the picture at this point. Just because they're — and I think we heard when we had our May meeting in Mendocino that people who are usually on diametrically different sides of issues were both praising Mr. Mobley’s work on the plan.”

The best way to ensure that nothing ever gets done in Hamburg's 5th District, where every person is an expert, is to call public meetings where all the experts get their “input.”

McCowen: “It sounds like the CEO is right in line with your thinking on that.”

Hamburg: “Any board members who really want to come up, I know Roger would really welcome the opportunity to sit down with each of us and talk about this list that the CEO referred to of projects that are in the balance at the Planning and Building Services Department.”

CEO Angelo suggested that a presentation could be made later this month on the subject of open planning projects.

Hamburg: “There are some really important things that we need to be moving forward on. One for me particularly is this idea of putting together a new vineyard and winery ordinance to put us more in line with what is happening in Napa and Sonoma County. I’d hate to lose all the momentum on that project and there are probably six or seven others that the board would probably do well to hear about.”

A vineyard and winery ordinance? This is the first we’ve heard of anything like that. What kind of ordinance? Water? A limit on tasting rooms? Grading ordinance?

Supervisor Brown hadn’t heard of it either: “Thank you for mentioning the vineyard and winery proposal. I wasn't aware that that was going on.”

Since Supervisor Hamburg said he’d “hate to lose all the momentum on that project,” we assumed there had been quite a bit of progress, maybe even “momentum,” and emailed him to find out what’s been done.

No momentum, actually, as Supervisor Hamburg replied: “Really not much happening yet. But I do think there’s good reason to look into revisions. We haven’t moved much beyond the stage of compiling what other counties are doing.”

McCowen didn’t want to go anywhere near a vineyard and winery ordinance. “Let's not turn this into a discussion on that,” said McCowen. “I think we will look forward to the executive office bringing this item forward.”

Any crackdown on the sacrosanct wine and grape industry in this county is unlikely to happen. Ever. While the liberals never had any problem vilifying “loggers,” code for “rednecks,” the wine people are more like themselves — semi-educated, semi-sophisticated, white wine and cheese oriented. It's a class thing, really.

But, unlikely as it is, anything like what our neighboring wine-soaked counties have would be a step up. Mendo has absolutely no rules at all.

* * *

Hamburg may not be interested in moving “much beyond the stage of compiling what other counties are doing” when it comes to vineyards and wineries, but he’s keen on getting going on alternative energy financing.

The board spent more than an hour hashing over a complicated lending arrangement where the County might administer loans for solar and energy efficiency projects mostly for commercial buildings via creative property tax assessments.

Supervisor Hamburg was for the financing both because it saves energy and might help local green energy outfits get some much needed work.

But CEO Carmel Angelo told the Board, “We have been in such financial disarray for the last couple years. Granted we are moving in the right direction at this point in time. But I think that it stops us from taking on any new projects. No matter what those projects are because we just don't have the capacity....”

Supervisor John Pinches was reluctant to get going too: “I want to know what we are getting into, we the county. I want to know both for the short-term and for the long-term. I think this has a real strong economic element to it. I think it's a good program for the people. Whether it applies to business or anything. I'm not against it. I just want to see — it's real easy to say just direct staff and we think it's all over. But to direct staff, especially in these times when we are short resources, short staffing, that can mean a considerable commitment and I want to know what that is because it really comes down to a priority thing. Twenty months ago we were talking about hiring a private consultant to move a needed project, the Mendocino Town Plan, forward. So where will this fit in the scheme of things? That's all I want to know.”

McCowen was similarly restrained. “…Mendocino County has been in the forefront of a lot of these energy efficiency issues. I think that's where we want to be. We have proclaimed that we are the greenest wine region [ha!] and in other areas we always tout our green credentials and sustainability. This is completely in line with that. I do not want to see it derailed. I want to see us find a way to move forward and get the additional information that would give us comfort to go forward with this.”

Much back and forth ensued characterized by much confusion.

“I really don't want to crowd you,” insisted an exasperated Hamburg to the reluctant CEO. “And I really don't want to crowd the County departments. On the other hand I have to say I see us sometimes being penny-wise and pound-foolish and I do see this as a revenue producer for the county if it works. And I just don't see a great deal of downside. I don't see how we lose a lot if it doesn't really work. We will lose some staff time which is precious. But when I hear that our contractors are going to Sonoma County to work because Sonoma County has this program and we don't — that really makes me cringe!”

Brown: “Well, they are bringing money home.”

Hamburg: “That's crazy! I know they are bringing money home! But the taxes are going down there, the workers are going down there, they're buying lunches down there, etc. So I don't want to stall this off too long but I also don't — I respect our CEO and I don't want to go faster than she is comfortable going. If we want to take the initial step today and bring it back in a short period of time — I don't want to leave today and then three months go by before we find out what it's going to cost to put out an RFP (request for proposals). I wouldn't be comfortable with that. But if it's two weeks or so to get that estimate and then we can make a decision, I can live with that.”

McCowen threw more cold water: “I don't think we can put two weeks on them because I think we are all aware that staff capacity is stretched pretty thin in the offices that support us and every other county office.”

Hamburg, even more frustrated, “I'm just talking two weeks to develop the RFP! Two weeks! Do you understand?

McCowen: “I understand. I understand.”

Hamburg: “Just to put together an RFP!”

Pinches said it he was sure that Deputy CEO Steve Dunnicliff was a “get-er-done” kind of guy who could somehow fit it into his very tight schedule. But he added, “I don't want to put them on a time schedule on this,” said Pinches. “But I want to move this project forward.”

Finally Hamburg backed off and made a motion to “direct staff to determine the cost of developing and issuing a request for proposals to procure a PACE program operator and to bring that cost estimate back to the Board at the earliest date feasible.”

The non-committal version was unanimously approved.

* * *

Supervisor Hamburg reminded everyone to put September 16 on their calendars. “The County Fair! The Boonville Fair and Apple Show! I would really appreciate it if as many board members as possible could be there. I know Kendall [Smith] is not going to be able to be there and Carre [Brown]. So it could just be us guys and that would really allow them to throw tomatoes at us since there are no women who might get hit by the flying vegetables. [Organic, GMO-free only, please.] If you come at 10am you can be part of the decorating of the flatbed. If you get there at 11 you can still be part of the festivities. But I'm going to be there early. I anticipate that even if Supervisor Brown does show up she will come with all the decorations that she did last year, but I know she has other obligations at the Fair on Saturday. So I will take it upon myself to be there with red, white and blue balloons and all kinds of stuff. If anyone else wants to show up. We have plenty of room for grandkids. It will just be hay bales on the back of a flatbed. You can bring a stepping stool if you need one. It will be a lot of fun!”

McCowen: “Can you get a flatbed with a liftgate?

Hamburg: “I will do my best.”

Pinches: “My grandkids live in Supervisor Brown's district so they can be her representative.”

Hamburg: “Maybe Dan Gjerde can put a Supervisor-elect sign up. So we will do that and I hope you accompany me. Don't let me be all alone.”

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