A READER WRITES: “Bruce McEwen's account of DA Eyster's prosecution of Ms. LaValle was a good read, as always, but the conclusion that ‘bringing a pot case into court is a waste of time and money,’ needs some clarification. Before Eyster took office there was no consistency in how pot cases were charged or prosecuted. The only thing that was consistent was that they all dragged on forever and were eventually dismissed or pled down to nothing. Eyster, who handles all the pot cases himself, is not afraid to take a case to trial. He only charges what he knows he can prove. Ms. LaValle, with eight pounds of pot, could have paid the standard restitution fee of $500 a pound ($50 a plant for cultivation cases) and pled to a misdemeanor. For just $4,000 (far less than it costs to pay your average pot lawyer to take a case to trial), Ms. LaValle could have walked. The real take away from this case is that if Eyster charges you in a pot case, you better take the plea deal and pay the restitution, because if you take it to trial it will be a waste of your time and money.”
THE UKIAH TEACHERS ASSOCIATION (UTA) has overwhelmingly approved a new contract which gives teachers a 9% raise over the next three years. How are such raises possible for a poor school district like Ukiah still struggling with the fallout of the economic collapse? Very simply, the three new UTA backed board members advocated paying for the raises by dipping into the district's reserve funds, which may be a great short term option for the teachers, but not sustainable for the long haul. And what impact, if any, will the federal sequester cuts have on local school funding?
SONOMA COUNTY SEIU members voted to approve a new contract with the county. Or did they? The vote was 52% to approve, but there are six bargaining units within Service Employees International Union 1021 in Sonoma County and four of the six units did not vote in favor of a new contract. Current union bylaws say the majority rules, but past practice within SEIU 707, which was eliminated in a 2007 corporate style northcoast merger, required every bargaining unit to vote approval. Following current bylaws ought to be simple enough, but Lathe Gill, lead negotiator for SEIU, says union officials will be reviewing the issue with attorneys. If the SoCo union invalidates the vote it could provoke a claim from the county. And either way it is likely to face an internal challenge and re-kindle the feud between those who supported the 2007 merger and those who did not. Opponents of the merger argued it would result in a loss of local control, with decisions being made at SEIU's corporate headquarters (Weep, Harry Bridges, weep at what unions have become), instead of by the local bargaining groups who can't even choose their own business agents.
SEIU OVERWHELMINGLY REJECTED a tentative contract with Sonoma County last December that called for a 3% cut in wages and benefits. SEIU correctly surmised that Susan Gorin, who took office as a Supervisor in January, would swing the balance of power on the Sonoma County Board of Supes in their favor. SEIU poured money and volunteers into Gorin's campaign and it paid off in a proposed contract that granted SEIU a 3% raise, one time payments up to $2,700 and a boost in the county contribution to healthcare which will go up to as much as $965 a month. Most workers would be happy to get a 3% raise, a $2,700 bonus and nearly a $1,000 a month for healthcare. Especially from a county that has a $353 million dollar (and growing) unfunded liability for retirement costs. But most employees have not been sheltered from economic reality in the same way as public employees who have come to expect that wages and benefits will always follow an upward trajectory.
FOLLOWING REJECTION of the previous agreement, SEIU fired its Sonoma County contract negotiator and went back to the bargaining table demanding up to a 17% cost of living increase over three years. The demands at the bargaining table were matched by militant calls to action to the rank and file, calling them to the barricades and threatening a strike. The leadership also pumped up the membership by railing against the exorbitant pay for the county supervisors and administrators. The Sonoma Supes have pledged to take a whopping 3% pay cut, but only after all rank and file employees have reached agreement. SEIU called off a strike originally set for February 28, based on the tentative agreement with the County. If SEIU decides that majority approval of the contract isn't good enough, it will mean both parties will go back to the table, but with increasingly less likelihood that agreement can be reached.
SEIU REPRESENTS 1,700 Sonoma County workers, but only about 1,200 were eligible to vote and only about three-quarters bothered to do so. SEIU, which demands transparency from the County, ought to disclose just how many of the 1,700 hundred county employees it represents are members of SEIU and how many are forced to pay dues because Sonoma County, like most public employers, is a closed shop. The fact that only 1,200 out of 1,700 represented employees were eligible to vote may be a pretty good indication that only 70% of the employees think SEIU is worth the price of membership. The remaining 500 are forced to pay for “representation” but are exempt from paying for political activities. SEIU always calls for transparency but is less than open about disclosing how much money it makes in union dues and how the money is spent.
A BAY AREA member of SEIU 1000, which represents state workers, formed “Occupy SEIU” and sued in an effort to force SEIU to disclose how it spends its members money. SEIU fought the case all the way to the State Supreme Court which ruled last year that Mariam Noujaim could review two years of financial documents but only within a four-hour window. Noujaim was allowed to take notes, but not make copies. SEIU, to better control access to the information, selected the documents to be reviewed and rented a Holiday Inn conference room for the examination. Noujaim was not allowed to bring her attorney or an accountant and does not believe that SEIU furnished all the documents requested. Nevertheless, Noujaim was able to document lots of travel and restaurant expenses by the SEIU leadership. But because she did not understand the codes on the computer printouts, she was unable to document whether or not the SEIU honchos took pay cuts or furloughs during the state budget crisis. She was also unable to document any steps SEIU may have taken to reduce union expenses at a time when state programs were being cut. SEIU dismisses Noujaim as a Meg Whitman supporter, which she was, but why is SEIU so invested in shielding its members from an accounting of how the union spends their money?
MENDOCINO COUNTY SEIU also seems to be gearing up for a fight. As reported earlier, SEIU is suing in an effort to block the county from “privatizing,” or contracting out, mental health treatment services for adults. The county would keep control of contract administration, training and quality assurance, just as it does now for children's mental health services. We understand that SEIU does not want to lose any dues paying members. But no one can plausibly claim that the county is doing a good job providing adult mental health services now or at any time in the last 20-plus years. Local members of NAMI, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, support contracting out locally as the only viable alternative to the current failed system.
SEIU AND THE COUNTY agreed to form a “Labor Management Committee” (LMC) as a condition of the last contract in an effort to improve communication and build an improved working relationship. The LMC includes top county management and the contract negotiating team for SEIU. The previous contract negotiations broke down around a lack of communication and an absence of trust and mutual respect. According to SEIU newsletters, topics of conversation at the LMC have been the county communications policy (which cost the county a measly $8,000 for which the county got nothing in return), and how to improve employee morale. Lots of talk, but, as usual, so far no real action by either party. SEIU did acknowledge that the county was sharing more information upfront. For example, including them in discussions about plans for phase two of the Fort Bragg remodel of county offices that is part of the ongoing consolidation of the county workforce. And how has SEIU repaid the favor? The last LMC meeting was held right after SEIU filed its lawsuit, but before the county received notice of the suit. At the LMC meeting SEIU pumped the county for more information about the RFP, but never mentioned the lawsuit. After the meeting, at least one of the SEIU negotiators was openly crowing about the county not knowing they were about to get hit with a lawsuit.
THE LABOR MANAGEMENT COMMITTEE might also have been a great forum for SEIU to ask questions about the budget. During the past couple of years SEIU has either been missing in action when the Board of Supes discusses the budget, or they show up and say they don't understand the budget. Or they make comments that prove they don't understand the budget. But the so-called SEIU leadership seems to have very little interest in using the LMC to truly understand the County budget, improve employee morale, or improve the working relationship with the county. Instead, what SEIU seems to be interested in is a replay of the last round of bitterly contested negotiations which ended with a 10% pay cut after the county temporarily imposed a 12.5% pay cut because SEIU would not initially agree to 10%. (At least this time, with Kendall Smith gone, the union won’t be able to point at her petty greed as a negative negotiating point.)
SEIU IS ONE OF EIGHT BARGAINING UNITS in Mendocino County and all are coming up for contract negotiations this year. According to reliable sources within the other units, SEIU is already spreading the word that they intend to strike and is encouraging the other bargaining units to take a hard line. The SEIU leadership wanted to strike last year, but were forced to reach agreement when the membership demanded they accept the 10% cut instead of being stuck at 12%. Now the leadership is encouraging its members to think that they are going to restore the 10% cut which is just setting the stage for another slo-mo train wreck.
AFTER THREE YEARS of making tough, but mostly smart and disciplined budget decisions, it is not likely that the Board majority of Pinches, Brown and McCowen is going to suddenly reverse course and grant wage increases without knowing where the money is coming from to pay for it. Early indications, based on his public comments so far, are that new Supervisor Dan Gjerde will also be a reliable vote for fiscal responsibility, a quality that was woefully lacking in past Boards that went on spending binges to build buildings that weren't needed (Willits Justice Center and Service Center), pay inflated pensions (Pension Obligation Bonds), mismanage the Teeter Plan (doubling the debt), and pay inflated salaries that were unsustainable (Slavin Study).
THE COUNTY'S FINANCIAL CONDITION, although still precarious, is much improved over the last couple of years, largely because of the 10% staff pay cut. Supervisor Pinches is exactly right when he says, “We have more government than we can afford.” Sonoma County may be in a better position to offer some increased benefits because Sonoma County actually has a local economy where Mendocino County does not, at least not that is above board and taxable. Fishing is a shadow of what it used to be. The industrial timber giants cut inventory down to nothing, trashed the land and moved on. Most of the logging supply companies and the mills are all shut down with only one mill in Philo (off and on), one in Willits and two near Ukiah still operating. The manufacturing base of the county has been reduced to almost nothing. Tourism manages to keep a few people employed waiting on tables and pouring wine, but not everyone wants to make a living sucking up to yuppie travelers. The underground economy keeps a lot of money in circulation but usually not in ways that benefit local government.
FITCH RATINGS, as reported here earlier, has issued a report upgrading the outlook for Mendocino County from “stable to positive,” citing a recent history of balanced budgets and rebuilding reserves. The county issued a tepid press release touting the improved outlook, but also listed the areas of concern cited by Fitch which included the continuing long-term economic decline, high unemployment, stagnant population growth, wealth and income levels below state and national averages, long-term debt obligations, and a struggling local housing market. The press release quotes Assistant CEO Kyle Knopp (who seems to have been designated the official Mendocino County voice of budget doom and gloom) as saying “Fitch's revision to the County's outlook should not negate the fact that Fitch has real concerns about the overall economic picture in Mendocino County. A poor economic outlook directly translates to the long-term revenue outlook of the County.” The press releases concludes “Current projections show local discretionary revenue growth of less than 1% per year on average over the next five years. The poor revenue growth picture is complicated by cost increases associated with retirement, healthcare and other County obligations” (known to insiders as the County’s “structural deficit”).
THE PRESS RELEASE seems like an obvious message to the employee bargaining units: “With increased retirement and healthcare costs that won't quit and a lousy 1% revenue growth projected for the next five years, don't even dream that the 10% wage cut is going to be restored anytime soon.” But the SEIU leadership seems caught between economic reality (there is no spare money) and the need to show the employees that there is a reason to keep paying their membership dues. And hope seems to spring eternal that if only the SEIU can bring enough pressure to bear on the Supes, and make their lives miserable enough, they might capitulate. Except SEIU tried that tactic last time around and all it did was destroy employee morale and result in a 12.5% pay cut when the county only wanted 10%.
THE POINT ARENA SCHOOL BOARD chose Robert Shimon to fill a vacancy on the Board created when Susan Sandoval resigned. The vote, taken last month, was by secret ballot. Local government in general, and school boards in particular, are much more comfortable making decisions in private. Shimon cited his 40 years as an educator in local schools and his involvement in coaching and committee work as his qualifications. But one of his primary qualifications, at least for the school board, was probably that he was not Lauren Sinnott, the other applicant for the vacant post. Sinnott has now achieved the dubious trifecta of being recalled as Point Arena mayor, losing the race for City Treasurer to a write in candidate, and now being overlooked for appointment to the school board. The memory and reach of the re-callers, who have developed what seems like a pathological dislike for Ms. Sinnott, shows no signs of abating.
CLAUDIA HILARY, former Point Arena City Clerk, whose termination sparked the recall campaign against the then incumbent City Councilmembers, has settled her wrongful termination lawsuit which was filed against the re-called City Councilmembers. The lawsuit was decided recently by Hilary's friends on the City Council who took office following the successful recall. The settlement provides that Hilary will be paid $90,000 but only $5,000 will be paid by the City of Point Arena. The rest will be paid by city insurance. Local residents who were waiting outside the meeting hall when the closed session to decide the issue took place, reported hearing applause and loud shouts of approval, presumably when the vote to approve the settlement took place. Which may be the only time that members of a City Council have cheered the prospect of paying out $90,000 in public funds to a disgruntled former employee.
THE PA CITY COUNCIL also got an update last month on the on-going saga of the Sea Shell Inn, which is apparently even more dilapidated than it appears from the street. The Sea Shell had become a refuge for ne'er do wells and rumored illicit activity including commercial sales of drugs and sex, with the owner, Ken LaBoube, failing to maintain the property or even attempting to weed (sic) out his unmanageable tenants. Ben McGrew, the court-appointed receiver to oversee the property, reported that a potential buyer had backed out after a thorough review of the options. According to McGrew, the options include demolition of all the buildings and sale of the property; demolition of the buildings on the west side of Main St. and renovation of the rest; demolition of the western buildings and a portion of the eastern buildings, with renovation of what is left; or dividing the various parcels and selling them off individually. The properties currently have a lien against them of approximately $600,000 which may exceed the value of the property under any of the scenarios that were suggested. Further complicating matters, the creek that borders the south side of the property has been designated as an Endangered Species Habitat Area for the Point Arena mountain beaver, thereby requiring a 100-foot setback for any new construction. The property has been listed for sale with Certified Commercial Investment Members which specializes in commercial real estate. Point Arena is hoping for a deep pockets investor with a love of salt air.
CONTRACTING SHOULD GO FORWARD. We understand why the SEIU (the union representing county employees) wants to stop Mendocino County from contracting out mental health services. The union's mission is to preserve as many county jobs as possible. We get that. But by suing the county now to stop the contract process, the union's timing is way off and appears to miss two important points. First, the county has been moving forward with contracting out mental health services for at least a year. Where was the union at the beginning of this process? Second, the union cannot with a straight face argue that the county is now providing good, or even adequate, or even barely adequate, mental health services. To try to argue in court that a change would somehow damage a healthy system of care is ludicrous. This county has a long record of failure in delivering mental health services. The time when anyone could legitimately claim that it's all because the state mental hospital in Ukiah was closed and all these crazy people were left wandering around here is long, long past. When the county closed its mental health lock-up — known as the “puff” for Psychiatric Health Facility — it lost the lion's share of its capability to even try to help the many seriously mentally ill people living here. The county blamed its budget, but we still believe the county simply let it happen because it didn't know how to go about reforming its mental health staffing. Mental health care has suffered ever since. It's time to let someone else try. All the union is doing now — and family members of mentally ill people here are telling us this — is prolonging the period of time their loved ones will continue to go without mental health care. (K.C. Meadows. Courtesy, the Ukiah Daily Journal)