For the first time in its long and storied history the little town of Fort Bragg is recalling a major public official. Our Mayor Dave Turner who squeaked to victory on a fraction of a percentage point is the object of a recall campaign, and is going to face the voters again.
I am not a member of the group that has initiated the recall, but I have been outspoken in my support of it and understand the reasons for it. It must be remembered that the proponents of recall are just citizens. They are independent people from a variety of backgrounds holding a diversity of views. They do not really speak with one voice. What unites them is a strong conviction that the city is in trouble and that the management of the city has fallen into untrustworthy and deceptive hands.
The opposition to the recall is led by the loyal family of the mayor. Their first stratagem for opposing the recall was love. Love for the city, implicit love for the mayor and I guess love as a general guiding political principle. Now they have entered into a new phase of their campaign putting it in their material and posters and on the net that the people who thought they were embracing a procedure of our democratic republic are " undermining democracy." The irony escapes them.
Civic love and the concept that voting, discussion, elections themselves and debate are all somehow antithetical to democracy are not new ideas in our little town. For years the city council and the city management have made it the chief boast of their policy that no debate and no discussion was needed in our unique city government. After all people get to line up and talk (for three minuets each) at the city council meetings, one might ask how much democracy do you need? The city council is of course not allowed to respond and contents themselves with trying not to roll their eyes. The mayor's children are outspoken that the very idea of something as radical as an election is at the very best an advanced case of bad manners and is in every way irresponsible.
But I think that they are too late. The era of unanimous harmony already ended for good at the last election with the victory of at least two councilmen who claim to be and I think are representative of a loyal opposition. Quite a new thing. And indeed even before that the cat was effectively out of the bag.
It is being said that the recall is about a single issue. It is true that the arrangements that the city management made for the proposed use of the Old Coast Hotel was the specific event that precipitated the recall, but the unease and dissatisfaction with the city go far deeper than that.
Our city council has been given an impossible job. They take the blame for everything but don't and can't really do anything. City management, that is to say Linda Ruffing, the city manager, and Marie Jones the development director, are "tasked" as they call it with doing the thinking, planning, grant getting and money raising, the management of city money, the hiring and firing, and the process of planning for the city. The city council is there to provide them with guidance. The city management is in daily and instant communication with each other and they have offices to work from. They are paid extravagant salaries. The city council members get three hundred bucks a month and meet every two weeks. They are not allowed by law to meet otherwise except in pairs. In theory, their job is to adopt or reject the proposals and policies of the city management but in practice they never quibble or complain. They are not a check on the city management they are its compliant tools.
When a developer comes to town, or can be found (and this very much includes not for profit developers like Hospitality House) to get things done, by law, and to cut through the red tape they must form an alliance with city management. They must hire these managers to package their proposal and then to sell it to the people of the city. The city management prepares extensive documentation and packages the proposal officially, which of course costs a great deal of money — money which the city needs very much. Once the city has been paid by the developer, the city management takes the project that they have worked so hard on and advocates for it at the city council meetings, not infrequently against the judgment and best interests of the people of the city. The unconsulted and unrepresented people then find themselves first surprised and then in a fight with their own city. This is standard operating practice.
The city council is supposedly a kind of referee in all of this. They are nice folks in their helpless way. The mayor especially is a calm and gentle man. But as a matter of established practice the needs and wishes and desires of the people of the city carry no weight at all with them, certainly not compared to the immutable convention of accommodating the professionals that have brought in the money. To resist the determinations of the development director, one must be prepared to resist money. Not an option. Not for this Mayor. Ever. The issue never arises.
The ever so kind supporters of the current system, and there are many, point out that it brings in money. If people would just shut up and let them alone it could all be done without dissension or bad feelings. True, but it also disenfranchises the people and nullifies their best interests.
Sometimes the money is absolutely for good things. There is a park, and the coastal trail comes to mind. Sometimes it is for unmitigated disasters. Be it good or bad, the decision is not with the people or their representatives. Discussion is irrelevant. Decisions are reached far in advance of any meeting. Our elected representatives have been co-opted. The city manager is simply making money and does not by the nature of her job description care how. City council supports that.
To a lot of people the Old Coast Hotel is the symbol for this system. But the merge project and the proposed shopping center across from Harvest are also examples. Marie has warned us a raft of incoming projects are on the board. If the recall is not successful there will be no effective opposition to any of them. I believe that if we lose on this one they will effectively own our town.
We do not really care about the mayor, who is strictly a rubber stamp. What we want is a voting majority with which to defend the people’s interest. Far from undermining democracy as they say we are doing, our objective is to re-establish representative democracy. To get our town back
The city management does not mind a fight. They like it when the people act up. It gives them a product. If they can point out to developers that the opposition of the people, however many, is an inconsequence, then they can charge what they like. Business will come pouring in. If we fight and they win, then they really will have a product. The recall is the best thing that ever happened to Marie Jones if they win, and they may well win. Although we are fighting the good fight for the very existence of a local democracy we will not surely prevail. The power of an entrenched incumbency is very very great. It is sad but true that in America an entrenched political machine is rarely defeated. This is not a battle against the mayor, it is a battle with an entire group of powerful people united in their objectives and having each other’s backs. They control our city in opposition to the people and are not about to give it back.
Even our new councilmen are afraid to cast in their lot with the people, preferring to remain "neutral". Great heroes.
Were it not for a few brave citizens who put not only enormous quantities of time but a lot of money also into opposing the city, the city political machine would have easily run right over us. But I must say I think that we surprised them.
These good people are now taking the heat. They are suffering defamation at the hands of the mayor's ever so loyal children and all of their willing followers. But that's how it is. To defeat a powerful entrenched incumbency in America requires heroes. These people standing up for the rest of us are the finest kind of patriot and therefore must be and are willing to absorb the slander which an entrenched political machine is heaping upon them.
In the future I would also like to write about the Old Coast Hotel and the total unfitness of the building to address the real needs of the homeless. The jolly complicity of the city is in what could reasonably be construed as tax fraud, the callous and egregious misuse of public monies, the illegal secrecy with which the deal was arranged, very much behind the backs of the people. All of these matters are part of the political discourse and have been deliberately obscured and hidden and should be addressed if only because so many citizens believe them to be true. But they are not the reason for the recall.
(Rex Gressett can be reached at email@example.com.)