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Mendo Veterans At War

Stacey Cryer was wearing her psychic flak jacket as the Supervisors met to discuss the use of the County’s veterans facilities on November 6. Ms. Cryer, the amenable director of Mendocino County's Health and Human Services Director, had been tasked to work out an agreement between two warring groups of local veterans. On one side are the traditional Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion composed entirely of retired members of the various military services; the other, Veterans for Peace, is composed of several bona fide veterans and a small number of local peace activists.

The VFW/American Legion doesn't want to share the Ukiah Vet's hall with Veterans for Peace. The inland chapter of the VFW regards Veterans for Peace as a gang of subversives, while Veterans for Peace regards the VFW as, well, pick your pejorative beginning with warmongers, work through White House dupes and on down to Fox News Zombies.

Ms. Cryer was charged with working out a cease fire but, essentially, had been shot down.

She said she had not brought back a recommended policy as she was directed to do in back February of 2011 because, basically, there exists a state of intransigence on both sides of the dispute. Veterans for Peace say that they have a right to use the VFW's facilities at a reasonable rent, the VFW says No, they don't because Veterans for Peace isn't a veteran's organization in the congressionally recognized sense the VFW is.

The embattled Ms. Cryer suggested an ad hoc committee of the Board be formed to try to resolve the impasse between the two groups. She brandished a thick binder of background material which she said could be used as negotiation starters by an ad hoc committee of Supervisors.

Board Chair John McCowen said that before she resigned, former Assistant Health and Human Services Director Karen Wandrei had tried to assemble a draft policy. “Unfortunately there wasn’t agreement among the different parties who would like to use the building,” said McCowen. “But most of the basic outline was worked out.”

Cryer: “We worked out a lot of what needed to be done. Some of the bigger questions were, who will be sure the room was clean and ready for the next user? General Services doesn’t have the staffing. Who could actually facilitate some of the processes? That’s still open. And the big issue is who gets to use the building? There’s been lots of conversation about whether the Veterans For Peace should be allowed to use it. There’s some discretionary users — can the Boy Scouts use it? Can they not use it? Those kinds of questions — but it’s still not resolved between the veterans and the other organizations.”

Carl Stenberg, former County Veterans Service Officer,  said he was proud of all veterans no matter what their affiliation and that they should all try to get along and respect one another and the country they served. Stenberg told the Board that he had prepared a revised and updated policy before he retired in August of 2011. “It’s now a year and a half later and nothing’s been done,” he complained. “We hashed out the rules piece by piece, word by word. But it didn’t get to the Board. Lots of time and money was spent on them, but in the end there was not much original thought.”

Stenberg agreed that maybe an ad hoc committee of Supervisors John McCowen and John Pinches would help, adding that they could probably arrange for a hired company to do the cleaning if the fees were set properly.

Then several older veterans came forward, most of whom complained about the Veterans For Peace (VFP) organization with varying degrees of outrage.

Robert Ireland, Vice Commander of the American Legion Post in Willits said VFP was “a fraud seeking unfair advantage.” “They don’t have congressional recognition [as a veterans organization] and they are attempting to gain through fraud what they can’t get legally. … They just added the word ‘veterans’ to their corporate title. They demand status as a veterans organization but their own documents state they are other than a veterans organization. They are trying to obtain personal gain that they are not entitled to. Veterans For Peace is an educational organization, not a veterans organization, and they will be opposed. It’s simple. It’s not about use; it’s just that they should pay the same price as any non-veterans organization. No backdoors. No cheating. Do it the right way.”

Several less hyperbolic vets said they just wanted to get the rules resolved one way or the other and encouraged the board to move on them as soon as possible.

Veterans For Peace member Jamie Connerton pointed out that he understands the group is not congressionally recognized as a veterans organization, “but I’m not fond of being called a fraud or a cheater.” He agreed an ad hoc committee was a good idea and he thought common ground was possible.

Disabled vet Sanderson Hill was wearing a VFP shirt, but said he was a lifetime member of Disabled American Veterans (DAV) and had been wounded in Laos during the Vietnam War. “We have money for bullets and bombs, but not for those who suffer from injuries,” said Hill. “To be denied veterans status is unfortunate. Some of the things that were said here are petulant and irresponsible, divisive and derisive. I don’t like it. It shouldn’t happen. I respect these vets for their service.”

Hill concluded by saying that it was “vital and crucial” that they put the facilities dispute behind them and show respect for each other.

Robert Parker, a senior staffer in the County’s Transportation Department, said he was a member of the Redwood Valley Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) and the Ukiah American Legion chapter. “We participated in many different meetings to hash out the proposed changes to the rules and regs,” barked Parker, waving what he said were “copies of what we recommend as changes,” adding that “some are controversial. But it’s up to the Board to decide, to say which they disagree with and then hash it out. As far as not inviting the VFP to participate, there’s a lot of people we didn’t invite to participate. We didn’t invite the usual users of the building, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts. We didn’t invite the Black Panthers. We didn’t invite the Klu Klux Klan. Okay?”

Someone in the audience objected: “Excuse me, that’s a…”

Parker waved off the objection, and moved into even higher dudgeon. “No! Nevermind! I tell you what! We don’t need to be enlightened by the VFP on how to march in the parade with the flag upside-down; or how to try to impeach the president. Etc. Awright? If you board members think that we’re going reach out in brotherhood—”

Chair McCowen: “Speak to the item please.”

Parker: “I am, sir.”

Chair McCowen: “Well, the item is if we’re going to form an ad hoc or not.”

Parker: “I’m trying to convey the attitude, the stance, of the veterans organizations, the recognized veterans organizations. Not the ones that claim to be an educational organization. Or in actuality, a political organization. You have our recommendations. There’s no need to pursue an ad hoc committee. You can say yes or no or change some modifications.”

Parker's argument seemed to be that he didn't care who used the facility so long as they paid full price.

Lame duck Supervisor Kendall Smith, on task for once, summarized what the real issues were that the ad hoc committee should deal with as suggested by Ms. Wandrei: the fee schedule, the underutilization of the building, collection and accounting for fees, and cleaning and maintenance responsibilities and costs. “The big one is the conflict with VFP,” added Smith. “The VFP does not meet the legal definition of a veteran's group. But they have the right to use the facility. There’s just the question of whether they should use it for free, at discounted or at regular rates. These can be decided here. Staff can just bring forward options.”

Mr. Stenberg returned to the podium to point out that his revisions and updates suggested that the VFP would pay the regular rate, $500 per day which, he said, is normal for large halls. Plus a $500 cleaning deposit, up from its present $100. Perhaps signaling what a compromise would entail, Stenberg added that the VFP could be charged at the non-profit rate but there would still be the question of who gets to decide who gets priority when schedule conflicts arise. Stenberg said the recognized vets organizations should receive preference most of the time.

After some confused back and forth about which regs were the current regs and which were the proposed modifications, Supervisor Pinches observed, “I came into this thinking I wouldn’t support an ad hoc committee, but now I support it and they can come back with recommendations. In the 60s I hated Jane Fonda. Now I’m in my 60s I think she’s one of my favorite actresses. So I don’t know, people change. Let’s give this a try. Even non-vets have families that have been in the service. Without vets we wouldn’t even have a country. This has dragged on too long.”

(The two veterans at this newspaper regarded Jane Fonda as a frivolous dingbat in 1967 and regard her as even more of a frivolous dingbat in 2012.)

Supervisor Smith moved to appoint Pinches and McCowen to an ad hoc committee.

Pinches: “I have a conflict. I’m a veteran.”

Supervisor Dan Hamburg quipped: “Some of my best friends are veterans.”

Pinches' “conflict” disappeared. He and McCowen will be the ad hoc mediators.

The vote to name the pair as an ad hoc committee was unanimous. McCowen said he planned to begin the peace process by hold meetings of veterans both inland and on the coast.

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