Mendocino Talking: Mark Scaramella

(Mark Scaramella is the Managing Editor of the Anderson Valley Advertiser. Mark’s personal history is already available at the website Lives and Times of Anderson Valley Folks (https://avalleylife.wordpress.com/category/list-of-interviews/mark-scaramella/). I was interested in how the weekly AVA was put together, but more importantly, Mark’s take on Mendocino County politics and government… — DS)

Putting together the AVA every week is comparable to painting bridges. As soon as you’re done with one week, you’re starting on the next one. Most of it is collecting electronic data — the main typing task nowadays is entering prisoner letters because they’re still using pen and paper to communicate. There is a lot to go through. We have regular contributors who, most of them, submit on a timely basis. We get a head start on some of it that we publish daily on our internet site. It’s mostly collection and assembly, then we move towards organization of the paper when Sunday and Monday come along. Everything has to be here and ready by 5pm on Sunday (with occasional exceptions, of course). Then Monday night it goes to the layout person, and on Tuesday it takes 4 to 6 hours to do the layout. The quotes come from 4 or 5 readers who send suggestions periodically and we contribute some of our own. We jam as much into the paper as possible. It is roughly equivalent to one standard paperback novel every two weeks. We don’t copy edit very much because people who write for us know they are able to say what they want — although we will if asked.

Politically, I think we have a Board of Supervisors that is somewhat better than, say, the Boards in the 80s and 90s. But there are serious long-standing management problems. I consider myself an old school, good government liberal and we don’t have good government here in any conventional sense of that word. It’s very ad hoc… If somebody asks a question it’s generally off the top of their head. There’s no systematic, organized way of dealing with the organization and its core functions. There are no standard reports, no tracking, no useful historical record for departmental reporting…

Why don’t we have ordinary reports on cost drivers by department? How many arrests per day are we running? What is the jail population? What road crew jobs are being done, how many miles of repair? How much pavement is being installed? How many clients per day in Social Services? Monthly tracking reports on these things can be compared to the budget over the past x-months to see what’s trending and see how departments operate. Nothing! I’ve mentioned it to a few former and present supervisors but they just brush it off.

If the county had useful management systems and historical reports in place, then people could argue their positions based on objective facts that are on hand, not this opinion versus that opinion, which never resolves much other than a vote is taken. 

MarkScaramellaUSAFI took the full range of management training classes in the Air Force — management by objectives, zero-based budgeting, cost and schedule control systems. I’ve held a number of management and staff jobs there and at several large corporations afterward. These are standard management methods. But you never hear anything like that around Mendocino County. I’ve talked to them about it, and they say, yeah, it would be nice if we did that, but there really is not the slightest interest. It’s not rocket science. You really just need three charts: budget status against cost drivers, staffing levels by specialty and sub-department, and current project status tailored for each department. There’s more of course, but that’s the minimum. It’s basic business common sense. But Mendocino County has nothing like that. These kinds of reports would also provide much better transparency to County operations so the public could participate more actively.

My late brother, who worked for the county for 15 years, never saw any supervisors come through, and seldom saw any department managers. It was extraordinary the complete lack of interest in what he, for just one example, did as an employee. He was a senior analyst in Social Services doing appeals on MediCal and food stamps cases, eligibility, training, policy development, Obamacare implementation… No senior management people ever walked through, asked questions, asked what was going on… Nobody cared.

I don’t think you can name one elected official, other than Johnny Pinches, who had specific objectives when elected. Pinches wanted to get the transportation budget straightened out in his first term and he basically did that after he was elected. He had two or three primary issues he emphasized when he campaigned — water and balancing the budget — and he pounded on those once he was seated. The only reason most people seem to run for election locally is that they’re a good person, they care, they’ll do a good job, just vote for them because… But why run for office if you don’t have something specific you want to do? Many candidates don’t even follow the activities of the organization they’re running for beforehand. So, predictably, when elected, they simply become extensions of the staff, dependent on what they’re given by staff. And if they don’t have that basic management reporting to stay on top of things, how can elected officials make any decision other than taking what staff says as gospel?

One of the most galling examples of that lately was when the County Board of Supervisors actually went on record taking umbrage at the Grand Jury for pointing out a obvious conflict of interest in the mental health privatization. There was no disputing that a former employee participated in giving the job to his former employer. That is a blatant conflict of interest. That contract should have been re-bid without Mr. Pinizzotto in the loop. And now, to make it even worse, Pinizzotto is reporting on the progress of that contract again with an obvious bias in favor of his former employer. I think they’ve even had some contract add-ons which don’t even require competitive bids which Mr. Pinizzotto is participating in definining and pricing. Yet the Supervisors got annoyed at simply being informed of this obvious problem and defended the bad actions of their staff. They actually wrote a letter to the Grand Jury saying “what do you think you’re doing complaining about something that isn’t wrong?”

When my uncle, Joe Scaramella, ran for Supervisor in the fifties, he was called a troublemaker. He and some others came in with specific issues that needed attention. Uncle Joe wanted the budget to be done in the open. He wanted a Civil Service Commission and procedures, and Board rules. And he didn’t like it when Supervisors went over to the Palace Hotel during lunch, drank a lot with  their local pals, then came back for their afternoon business. Those are just a few examples of why he ran and by and large those things got done — although I assume the prior Supervisors his reform slate replaced continued their drinking once out of office. You don’t see that kind of reformist energy nowadays. It’s all palsy-walsy.

My uncle was the sole vote against giving 80% of Lake Mendocino’s water to Sonoma County. The other four Supervisors went ahead with it because they said they didn’t see a need for the water at the time and didn’t want to spend the money. He was also instrumental on the Board to help Round Valley landowners prevent the huge Dos Rios dam project which would have flooded thousands of tax-paying, prime ag parcels. Those other Supes in those days were very short-sighted.

Another major gripe of mine is that the county doesn’t give enough priority to local purchasing — they get only a 5% credit when we know local dollars circulate more than dollars going to out of county firms. All county contracts over a certain amount, say $5,000, should be on the Board of Supervisors agenda approval so that the public and local businesses can know what is being bid out. Or they should at least be on the Board’s consent calendar.

Mendocino County residents seem uniquely disconnected from local public affairs as far as I can tell — at all levels. You look at Humboldt County, Sonoma County, you look at the websites and blogs, the local papers, you look at the interest paid to public affairs in our neighboring areas, the local commentary — it’s substantially lower here in Mendo. For a prime example, how could Supervisor Kendall Smith get reelected — twice! — having chiseled $3,000 of travel expenses according to three Grand Jury reports? Very few people bothered to follow that very obvious malfeasance in office.

It’s not all bad, of course. We get replies to questions from most County officials, staff and supervisors most of the time. Supervisor Hamburg seems more interested in putting silly opinions out over the Coast listserve than in answering constituent questions. But John McCowen did a good thing when he focused on the Brooktrails unbuildable parcel problem and the Teeter program. He was on the minority side of that one at first, but he eventually got some attention paid to it. 

When I was a young Squadron Commander in the Air Force and various other management jobs, I used to have a stack of quarters on my desk. It was a little standing joke I had with my management team. I would occasionally bet my own staff on issues that would come up. They would tell me something and I would bet them a quarter if they made dubious statements or claims. I lost 80 or 90 percent of those bets, of course, but they knew that I could bet them and then we would go check. We would look in the file cabinets, find the documents, and frequently it would be fine — there was no problem. I lost and they proved that they were right. But when I won a quarter I put it on the stack that was right there for everyone to see and everybody knew I was ready to bet again at any time.

Here in Anderson Valley it looks like we will have go to court over the loud vineyard frost fans. We’ve written a lawyer letter to the County saying they have to enforce their own noise ordinance. But, not surprisingly, they’ve done nothing, no response. So they are forcing our hand. The county has to do something about it and we’re ready to go to court to try to force them to. In the old days, if a grape grower had frost damage (and they didn’t plant in low, frost prone areas then), they pruned them and took their partial losses, it’s part of agriculture. But these days, grapes are so artificially valuable, that the growers don’t care if most of the Valley loses our sleep just so they can avoid losing a fraction their precious grapes. There were eight straight awful, horrible nights last April, and twelve more nights after that… six to eight hours a night. It sounded like assault helicopters were landing on our house. (We’ll have a press release out on this subject soon.)

If I was a Supervisor — Ha! Highly unlikely, wouldn’t you say? — I would use half that (overly large) salary to retain a lawyer and an accountant that I could go to and get independent opinions periodically in the same way I used those quarter bets. I wouldn’t simply take the word of staff on important subjects just because they say it’s a certain way. I might want to see an independent review of case law on a subject… I might want someone to do an independent audit to see if the staff numbers are substantiated and add up. If you do a few of those, you get much better info because staff would know they might get checked. That’s what supervision and management is about.

But not in Mendocino County.

(Coming Up: Terry d'Selkie — Teacher, Mendocino School Gardens, Mendocino Food Action Plan, Ocean Harvest Sea Vegetables; Steve Baird — Musician, Will Siegel and Friends Band, Oco Time Restaurant; Mike Zarkowski — Musician, Luthier, Hobo Guitars.)

3 Responses to "Mendocino Talking: Mark Scaramella"

  1. Jim Updegraff   January 12, 2015 at 2:09 pm

    In re to the board of stupidvisors it is a common problem with many of the smaller counties to have a board of know nothings. We have 58 counties of which many have a population of less than 100,000. We are not functioning in the 19th century. These small counties should be consolidated reduced in number – say 25 – 30 counties – with a board of supervisors numbering at least 9 persons you should be able to have some supervisors that have an understanding od their responsibilities. Will not happen – unfortunately – the small minds will oppose any such proposal.

    Jim Updegraff

    Reply
  2. John Sakowicz   January 12, 2015 at 11:06 pm

    Earning the title of “”public citizen” at the national level generally means defending democracy and resisting corporate power…things like that. “Public citizens” at the national level advocate for a healthier and more equitable world by making government work for the people and by defending democracy from corporate greed.

    People like Ralph Nader are “public citizens”, as are Jim Hightower, Paul Harvey, Bill Moyers, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Norman Solomon, Helen Caldicott, Andrew Friedman, William Kunstler, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ann Brown, Jim Bildner, Mark A. Chavez, Naomi Kline, Howard Metzenbaum, Daniel Ellsberg, and Lori Wallach. All come immediately to mind. They are my heros.

    Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn immediately comes to mind at the international level. And many others, of course.

    But who are our local “public citizens” here in Mendocino County? Who advocates for a healthier and more equitable county by making government work for the people and by defending our way of life from waste, fraud, and corruption? From mismanagement? From inefficiency and ineffectiveness? From indifference? From outright sloth? From stupidity?

    Who?

    Mark Scaramella immediately comes to mind. And Els Cooperrider, Bruce Anderson, Finley Williams, and Sister Jane Kelly. And Dennis O’Brien. That’s who.

    Reply
  3. Nate Collins   January 23, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Onward Major! Good info on a heavy lifter at Americas last newspaper.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.